Encountering Henry Darger

Carl Watson
April 2017

At Jennie Richee Break Jail Killing And Wounding Guard, image courtesy WikiArt.org

Sometime in late 70s, early 80s, I was living in Chicago, in Wicker Park. One day, I was looking through the Reader (a weekly Chicago paper) and noticed a short review of an art show (at Phyllis Kind or Carl Hammer, I don’t remember). The work reviewed was “controversial” in that it depicted a great amount of sadistic violence enacted on vast watercolor landscapes with armies of strange hermaphroditic children in war against sadistic adults. Having an interest in this sort of thing, I decided to check out the show, which turned out to be one of the early public exhibitions of Henry Darger, an artist/writer/hoarder, who had been discovered a few years earlier, albeit sadly, only after he died in 1973. At this point, he was still not widely known beyond Chicago’s  “outsider” network.

Of course, Darger’s story certainly is well known now: the strange reclusive man who lived on Webster Ave., worked as a janitor, and who, in his spare time, created an entire (some would say Blakean) universe which was depicted in hundreds of bizarre paintings and several long fictional works. The most famous of his writings is the 15,000+ page mega-fiction: 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. He also wrote two other major works: Crazy House: Further Adventures in Chicago, and The History of My Life, an “autobiography”.

While his writings remain mostly unavailable to the public, his imagery has become a kind of cultish wallpaper. You may not think you know it, but a simple Google search will reveal its familiarity. In perspective-defying panoramas, Darger renders scenes of giant flowers, explosions of earth and ordinance, raving mad soldiers, heroic children, fields of corpses, crucifixions, juggernauts, ominous skies, storms, floods and fires, all of it either drawn freehand or traced and colored in long double-sided paintings on paper, and all of it connected to the central tale of Darger’s mythological universe in which child slaves from a far-away planet rebel against a sexually aggressive adult world that seeks to destroy innocence itself. It is a world at war with its best instincts, much like our own, which has always made Darger’s work seem prophetic.

While it’s true that Henry Darger was unknown in life, his posthumous fortunes have been great. He is now often considered the archetypal “outsider,” with a global reputation and an influence that spans the arts: from painting and photography, to pop music, theater, fashion, and poetry (John Ashbury’s Girls on the Run). Indeed, Darger’s Vivian Girls, the heroes of his epic world, enjoy popular symbolic value as agents of feminist rebellion. While Darger lived and died quite poor, his current handlers demand high prices for his work, which is coveted by both museums and collectors. He is also the subject of vigorous debate on what exactly is meant by Outsider Art, as well as conflicting theories as to his psychological well being, his sexuality, his criminality, his normalcy, his larger artistic intentions, and what really happened in some of the dark corners of his personal life. I won’t get into these debates here. I will only address some aspects of my personal experience working with one of his manuscripts.

Now, back to that early show: I remember being struck by the oddness of the work, but was not otherwise over-impressed. It was interesting, but it also seemed amateurish and lacking some of the vibrating anxiety that I had come to expect from “art brut.” I didn’t really think much more about Darger until or twelve or fifteen years later and he had a major show in New York at the American Folk Art Museum in 1997. He was still gaining his fame, and attracting controversy due to the violence and pedophilia of his subject matter. Again, I was not particularly blown away by the quality of the art, but I had come to be impressed by the massive and mythic project he seemed to be engaged in. I also began to like the paintings more: the over-filled chaotic canvases, the religious imagery, the obsessive repetition, the threatening yet delicately rendered skies and seas. And, like most people, I was increasingly fascinated by the story and the man, the prophet/naïf, the romantic recluse with a mission to save the world in his own private way. Still, I had other things to do with my life and Darger remained at the fringes of my attention, an obscure reference to be brought up in conversations about other subjects.

Fast forward another seven years or so: It was the mid-oughts and I was in graduate school in New York, studying the Romantics and planning on writing a dissertation on peripatetic literary creation that would focus on people like Wordsworth (Dorothy and Bill), Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Benjamin, Breton, Man Ray and other Surrealists. A large part of this exploration would have to do with the Romantic sublime and its relationship to physical movement, especially the random movement (errance) of the poet through an unpredictable world in search of Wordsworthian Spots of Time, or Bretonian Convulsive Beauty, etc. Somehow, I was going to tie all this together using non-linear sciences as a form of critical theory, and so I had been reading a lot about chaos and emergence, redundancy and feedback and how self-organizing systems generate order out of turbulence.

One day, I was walking down Houston, lost in fractal, self-similar thought patterns, when I ran into my friend, the filmmaker Cassandra Stark (aka Roseanne Melo), and she mentioned the fact that a new documentary on Darger was playing at the Film Forum. Unbeknownst to me, a seed had been planted. (Note: I am almost sure I would never have gone to see this film if I had not run into Cassandra. This is an example of how chaos theory, especially the concept of sensitivity to initial conditions, influenced this whole history of my Darger adventure. Obviously something was organizing itself despite me, even as it included me.) I went to see the film a week later. The documentary was directed by Jessica Yu and presented a somewhat sanitized and highly romanticized version of Darger as an aw-shucks reclusive genius. And yet as I sat through the film with its interviews and animated paintings, an idea began to form that would eventually become my new dissertation project. Perhaps midway through, I learned that Darger had written an autobiography, The History of My Life, which was a “manageable” 5,000 pages, and that this narrative was, in fact, less about his own actual life, and more about a monstrous and terrifying tornado that had the ripe symbolic shape of a young girl being strangled in the sky by hands of clouds. This tornado created catastrophic damage, leaving horrific if sublime landscapes of destruction behind through which various avatars of Darger himself would wander, mutate and ponder.

At Jullo Callio. And Again Escape And Being Persued, image courtesy WikiArt.org

Now, back to the relationship of turbulence and order: One of the organizational forms that emerge from chaotic systems is the vortex: i.e. water draining out of a bathtub, galaxies spinning in the vacuum of space, hurricanes, tornadoes, and, I thought to myself, perhaps the generation of text, inasmuch as text might represent the mind’s motion in its fluidity? It was a stretch, but I had seen the image and heard the story and was now caught in the whirlpool of Darger’s output, as if he were a kind of mental weather hovering over the neighborhood of my philosophical inclinations. In some sense, he was actually forcing me to repeat his obsessions. One of those cartoon light bulbs (or should I say vortexes) appeared above my head. In chaos theory there is the concept of self-similarity across scale; because of this I felt that the “shape” of Darger’s autobiographical text must somehow have to mirror the structure of the tornado that he was obsessed with. It’s possible I felt this would be true because I wanted it to be true; desire, after all, often dictates reality—something we can see too clearly in today’s political world. In any case, caught up as I was in this whirlpool, I was spun down a wild path of research, a spiraling vector that would swallow up the next ten or twelve years of my life, tying together all sorts of ideas and themes: violence, sacrifice, apocalypse, redundancy, turbulence, death and sexuality, and how chaotic pattern generation works in the construction of the “self”.

But back to the film: Brooke Davis Andersen, who was at that time a curator at the American Folk Art Museum, was in the theater that day to answer questions about the film and the AFAM Darger collection. I asked if the manuscript of The History of My Life was available to the public, and she assured me that it was there and could be read if I had proper credentials and noble purpose. My dissertation deadline was looming and I wanted to start reading the autobiographical text right away, to see if my intuition was accurate. It would be a daunting project that would involve going to the Folk Art Museum on a regular basis, printing each of the 5000+ pages from the micro-film, bringing them home and typing them up until the whole thing was transcribed in digital form. (It had to be in digital form in order to search it for repetition, or simply to find passages or thematic content easily.) I began by paying people to do the typing, but the money ran out and the exhaustive parade of typists, both friends and strangers, finally wore me down. In the end I typed the last third on my own, (with the help, of course, of my digital friend, Mavis Beacon).

There were other issues. At first the museum wanted to charge me ten cents a page, which would have ended the project, but I offered to supply the paper and the toner and promised to give them a copy of the finished transcription, and so I was able to proceed. At the time, the entire library staff was very gracious and supportive, but, as the weeks passed, the suits above them had other ideas. After a month or so, they shut me down completely, having decided that I was trying to “get away with something.” This seemed odd since I never tried to hide my project and had sought proper permissions whenever I could. But I marshaled my advisors and others to my cause, renewed the museum’s trust and was able to continue. And I did finally finish the transcription—many, many, many, many months later. I remember, after typing the final sentence, collapsing at my desk for a time, and then opening a bottle of something stronger than Merlot or Malbec to ease my carpal tunnel distress.

There would be other problems along the way that would come up in the guise of proprietary and copyright issues of which I was always on the wrong (right) side. Several times I was asked to sign paperwork limiting the rights to my work. I was happy to do so, but the papers never materialized. And there were changes in the museum staff over the years that complicated things, as the transmission of institutional memory was shown to be flawed or incomplete. Initial promises and agreements had to be revisited. At one point, a new curator asked me to return all relevant materials, especially the printouts from the microfilm. But the printouts were a huge mess, with pizza grease and beer stains, and the quality was so bad that the museum, if they could see them, would not have wanted them. Besides, I had written notes all over them and I was reluctant to give up my profound insights. In addition, the whole thing was packed in boxes, sitting in an industrial building in Brooklyn, now a barn in upstate NY. Again, chaos was on my side, as even this demand slipped away into bureaucratic turbulence.

But to backtrack a bit: I had, at one point, gone to Chicago to interview Kyoko Lerner, (courtesy of an introduction by Maki Nishino) owner of the building in which Darger lived and worked. I wanted her blessing and she was very supportive of the project. A year or so later, I was called by a representative of Ms. Lerner to solicit my involvement in the publication of a monograph of Darger, simply titled Henry Darger, edited by Klaus Beisenbach (of MOMA) and published by Prestel Press. What they actually wanted was my transcription of the autobiographical portion, which I was happy to provide. However, I leveraged this favor to my advantage and was able to write a short introduction to the manuscript which was my first real publication concerning The History of My Life. The book turned out nicely with excellent reproductions and articles. Other opportunities came and went. There was a CUNY graduate fellowship and a College Art Association presentation. On another occasion, I received an out-of-the-blue email from a French curator, Choghakate Kazarian, which led to a fortuitous catalogue publication at the Musee de l’art moderne in Paris. There was even discussion, albeit with eventual disinterest, from British curators and publishers. None of this had any financial effect on my future existence, but for a while, at least, life was exciting and moderately international.

This is much less true today. And so, as my memory fades, I sometimes imagine I was once a character in a high-tech heist film, one moment lifting champaign flutes with European intellectuals, and the next, rappelling down through a museum skylight, complete with balaclava and black turtleneck, acrobatically dodging laser-beam security in order to copy a strange manuscript that may hold the secret to the salvation of the world. Now, I mostly sit in my room and watch the state of the world decline into chaos and wondering if anyone ever learns anything.

To Escape Forest Fires They Enter A Volcanic Cavern, image courtesy of WikiArt.org


On page 3802, there is a section describing the tornado’s destruction by workers at the telephone exchange building in LaSalle Illinois. I noticed that one of the people quoted was a Mrs. Watson (no first name).

“Well, my dear girls, you were no more than anyone else, for everyone in the endangered part of La Salle bolted at the approach of the twister,” said the head telephone woman exchange girl. “The way the streets were cleared was something marvelous.”

“Yes, Mrs Watson, but we were in the LaSalle telephone exchange building, not the streets  It was lucky for us our building was not in the path of the main force of the storm  We might have all been killed.”

When I read this, another light bulb went off above my head. You see, I had relatives on my father’s side that came from the LaSalle area and I could not help but speculate that some distant member of my own family had somehow made it into Darger’s book. One of these days I am going to go down to LaSalle and go through their phone company records to see if that Mrs. Watson was indeed a great aunt of mine. Maybe Ancestry.com can help me with that.


2 responses to “Encountering Henry Darger”

  1. Ronald Morosan says:

    Nice narrative of your encounter with cultural bureaucracy. That is your cultural tornado: its part spin and part hype, now super-charged art romance, that has made Darger and any brand artist into the monetize currency we now call the art world.

  2. Thomas Isenberg says:

    Brilliant story from a brilliant, if chaotic, mind. Thank you Carl Watson.