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Untitled (Idyllic landscape with children) (detail) Henry Darger (1892-1973). Chicago, Illinois; mid-20th century, Watercolor, pencil, carbon tracing, and collage on pieced paper. Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York. © Kiyoko Lerner.

Henry Darger, c. 1970. Photo: David Berglund. Photo courtesy Carl Hammer Gallery, Chicago



Grayson Perry: The Artist and His Muse
A social misfit himself, artist Grayson Perry draws inspiration for his pottery from the unconventional art work of outsider artist Henry Darger.

In 2003, when artist Grayson Perry dressed in drag, smiled, and posed for photographers in the galleries of the Tate Britain in London, he said momentously, “It’s about time a transvestite potter won the Turner Prize.” (Britain’s premier art prize.) Perry, who when dressed in drag answers to the name Claire, was inspired to begin exposing his life as a transvestite after seeing Henry Darger’s drawings in a 1979 exhibition of outsider art in London. It was then that Darger became, and remains, Perry’s favorite artist.

A native of Chicago, Darger’s hometown, The Warhol’s John Smith, assistant director for exhibitions, was familiar with Darger’s work for many years before it burst on to a wider stage, and he believed Perry’s interest in the old man was worth exploring. The end result is the exhibition Grayson Perry, which is showing at The Warhol through April 30 concurrent with Henry Darger: Highlights from the American Folk Art Museum. While Perry’s work is well known throughout Europe, this is his first museum appearance in North America.

Since Darger lived such a hidden life, ignored and uncelebrated, Perry’s interest in him may seem a little surprising. Yet, according to Smith, Perry isn’t the only contemporary artist to ever find inspiration in Darger’s work.

“ Perry stands for a number of contemporary artists who have found Darger to be a rich source of inspiration,” Smith says. “In fact, it was Darger’s illustrations that inspired Paul Chan’s video Happiness [(finally) after 35,000 Years of Civilization-after Henry Darger and Charles Fourier, 2003-2004], which appeared in the most recent Carnegie International at Carnegie Museum of Art.”

Initially, Perry may have been motivated by a neurotic fear of a fate similar to Darger’s, but that is certainly not the destiny he has been dealt. Recognized as an artist for the past 20 years, Perry’s work has been celebrated since winning the 2003 Turner Prize. Unlike Darger, his life has been one of openness and revelation, even unto self-promotion. He has
said that he became a potter for economic reasons: he was broke, without a studio, and pottery classes were cheap. He makes his own pots (they are coiled, rather than thrown), and each is a technical tour de force.

Perry’s pots are decorated with drawings that can easily evoke Darger on occasion. Images are superimposed, collage-like, on a bleak landscape, very often reminiscent of the childhood landscape of his native Essex (an archetypical run-down suburbia).

Unlike Darger, the perversion in Perry’s work is more explicit and undoubtedly shocking. His first ceramic bore the words KINKY SEX, and since then he has not held back. On successive vessels the perversions and fetishes of
suburban life, mixed with the intuitions of psychoanalysis, mean that the viewer should approach Perry’s pots with caution. They are like grenades projected into the art world and into the galleries of wealthy private collectors: ironical improvised explosive devices (IEDs) tailored for sophisticated urban life.

A clay pot does not have the aura of fine art. It is a social misfit, an outsider. So, also, is the transvestite.

In Grayson Perry’s work, the political agenda of the artist takes a clear, witty, and ironical shape. Henry Darger might well be surprised at the ball he set rolling.



The Secret World of an Outsider Artist:

An exhibition currently on view at The Andy Warhol Museum reveals the prolific and eccentric work of Henry Darger, an artist unknown to the world until his death in 1973.

Outsider artists commonly live the creative part of their lives hidden from the world, only to be discovered and celebrated in old age or after their deaths. Darger is considered an outsider artist, which means his work falls outside the traditions of art making. Often, the mad or the dysfunctional, or the untrained, primitive artist finds a home in this genre. Outsider art catches us off-guard with its raw, sometimes strange, and often unrefined insights.

Darger is best known for his hundreds of odd watercolor drawings of young girls, soldiers, and dragons set in picturesque landscapes, which are often threatened by tornadoes, or disrupted by warfare or other acts of unexpected violence. Simply and colorfully illustrated, the illustrations, which can be up to nine feet long, double-sided, and stiff with adhering collage, were once bound up together accompanied by 30,000 pages of text, including the masterpiece he titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. If not for the scale of the work, the strangeness of the accompanying story’s content, and the enormity and consistency of the vision, Darger’s drawings would be nothing special.

The Lonely Misfit
Darger experienced what can only be described as a horrible life. His mother died in childbirth when he was 4. His only sister was adopted and totally lost to him. His father placed him in an orphanage at the age of 8, and he spent his adolescence in an asylum, declared weak-minded. As a child, he witnessed a traumatic tornado in his hometown just outside Chicago, which was to haunt his memoirs and his art. As an adult in Chicago, he barely scraped by on his janitorial pay.

Right: Study Of Vivian Girl With Doll,
Watercolor, carbon tracing, and pencil on paper. Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York. © Kiyoko Lerner.

Descriptions of Darger indicate a cantankerous misfit, scavenging from dumpsters, disconcertingly dressed. However, he appears to have been a devout Catholic and a regular at mass.

When he became too frail to navigate the stairs to his apartment, Darger handed over its entire contents to his landlord and submitted himself to the care of the Little Sisters of the Poor to await death.

And yet, from that single-room apartment emerged one of the world’s most distinctive artists. We know what Darger wrote and how he wrote it. His autobiography, which is 5,000 pages long, and other matter found in his apartment—all equally as obsessive — constitutes a formidable archive, much of which is housed in the Henry Darger Collection at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. Andy Warhol, at one stage of his career, sat on the board of the Folk Art Museum, and his own collection of folk art was once exhibited there.

We also know how Darger constructed his remarkable pictures. In fact, his methods of working are the principal reason why he attracted the interest of The Andy Warhol Museum. John Smith, The Warhol’s assistant director for collections and research, aware of the connections between Darger and Warhol and recognizing other interesting technical parallels in their work jumped at the opportunity to bring Darger’s work to Pittsburgh.

“ Warhol himself had a very distinctive method, which has a great deal in common with Darger’s,” says Smith. “Both appropriated the work of others, particularly illustrations and advertising material, which was not necessarily regarded as art. And, like Warhol, Darger was a pack rat, exhibiting unusual collecting obsessions beyond the material that fueled his art. For Warhol, it was cookie jars; for Darger, empty Pepto-Bismol bottles.”

A curator once warned Warhol of the risks of duplication; for Darger, duplication was his lifeblood. Although Warhol was a highly accomplished artist, he devised simple methods of copying images such as tracing, reversing images, and photographic enlargement. Darger, claiming no graphic skills, reproduced his images by similar methods.

Both reproduction and enlargement dilute the affective quality of the original image. But Darger’s little girls, whether traced or collaged onto his drawing paper, make a virtue of their monotonous duplication. Armies of clones are the unexpected result. The formula is unceasing, the repetitive pattern and succession of bright, flat coloring—which imitates lithographic reproductive methods—echo Warhol’s own banal use of color and design.

Simple Methods, Complex Art
While much of Darger’s work, at first glance, appears to have much in common with a child’s coloring book (Warhol also produced such things), it has no such recipient in mind, and beware the parent that introduces such work to his or her child.

Left: At 5 Norma Catherine. but are retaken, Henry Darger (1892-1973), Chicago, Illinois; mid-twentieth century, Watercolor, pencil and carbon tracing on pieced paper. Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York. © Kiyoko Lerner.

There is an obvious theme to Darger’s drawings that is violent and perversely sexual. The sequences of little girls that he illustrates with such obvious relish are often naked and equipped with penises. This has given rise to complex psychosexual theories about Darger’s private life.

Scenes of violence, young girls brandishing guns, and soldiers throttling girls against a background of threatening skies (that tornado again) contrast with sylvan landscapes, brilliant skies, banks of flowers, and the innocent play of children. It is as if a hellish Apocalypse has come to visit a rural kindergarten.

Theories abound that attempt to explain Darger. It has been suggested that he was a child murderer because newspaper clippings of a particular incident were found among his papers, but there’s no evidence of that. In fact, his life offers no evidence of perversion of any kind. Yet his drawings seem to demand an explanation.

Students of the art of the insane, a very distinct sub-category of outsider art, often see work of this kind. But for art like this to have been created outside of the walls of an asylum and within the secret places of our contemporary cities may make us all catch our breath.

Smith takes a broad view of the artist: “The beauty of Darger’s work is that it lends itself to so many interpretations. In the absence of any statements from Darger himself that might offer interpretative clues or signposts, we are all—curators, art-historians, dealers, critics, psycho-historians, and the public—completely free to read Darger’s work according to our own intuitions and self-interests.”

One thing is surely certain: had Andy Warhol lived to continue his own obsessive habits, at least one watercolor by Henry Darger would have entered his collection. Smith also speculates that had Warhol never gone to Carnegie Tech or to New York, his impulse to create might well have resulted in work not unlike that of Darger.

The ‘definitive’ exhibition of Darger’s work is on view at The Warhol until April 30, although Smith stresses: “Consider the fact that Darger’s work has only recently been accessible. It’s clear that there remains a tremendous amount of research still to do.”

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