Shortly before Henry Darger died in 1973, his landlord, Nathan Lerner, discovered the reclusive Chicago custodian's life works piled inside his rented room.
Those works included more than 30,000 pages of manuscripts. For 40 years, telling no one, Darger had written a vast fantasy; his autobiography; novels; even a 10-year weather journal. With his books came hundreds of vivid and highly detailed illustrations.
In his epic fantasy for which he is now best known, In the Realms of the Unreal, Darger plotted an alien world populated by children fighting for their freedom against an army of invaders wishing to enslave them. With the help of supernatural beings, and in a series of Gettysburg-esque battles, the children vanquish their tormentors. The battle illustrations fill both sides of scrolls up to four feet long.
Lerner, himself a celebrated photographer, began to show the works in galleries after Darger died. In a matter of a decade, Darger's posthumous popularity exploded. He is known today as one of the most prominent figures in American "outsider" art.
Outsider art is also known as primitive or folk art. Each term becomes slippery due not only to political correctness, but also because the genre defies straightforward definitions, says I.D.E.A. Space curator Jessica Hunter Larsen. Hunter Larsen employs the "less loaded" term "self-taught," and gathers the loose ends of this messy grouping with a practical explanation: They're "international artists that highlight storytelling in their work from a variety of different perspectives. And the impetus behind the work in all cases is to communicate a particular narrative in the most direct way possible."
It's not a perfect label, she concedes; Darger's psychedelic landscapes, bedecked with hordes of children, hardly seem direct or straightforward. But he was looking to tell a story first.
As was Mose Tolliver — but with airless, unadorned paintings that simply documented the world in front of him. Employing smooth shapes in rich colors, Tolliver painted abstract people, animals and stories from his neighborhood in the Deep South.
As different as Darger and Tolliver are, their works share an insularity, a freedom from outside influences.
Colorado Springs resident Mary Allen-Meilinger confesses that when she first saw Mose Tolliver's artwork in an Alabama antique mall in 1991 — her first encounter with self-taught art — she assumed it had been done by a child. Yet it drew her in. She sought Tolliver out six months later, and the two grew into "the best of friends"; Tolliver called her his white child. His art shaped the course of Allen's life.
"It was the simplicity of it all, and you realize that what he's putting there is his soul," Allen says of Tolliver's friendship and artwork (documented in depth in "The Outsiders," cover story, June 19, 2008). Allen began collecting Tolliver's work, and now owns what she believes to be the fifth-largest Tolliver collection in the world.
Allen started contacting local galleries in 2008 to show her collection. She found a match with Hunter Larsen, who had an opening nearly two years in the future. Using 22 of Tolliver's works as a jumping-off point, Hunter Larsen has put together a larger study of self-taught art, which includes seven paintings and drawings by Darger, 16 Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime paintings, 40 reproductions of Native American ledger book drawings and 21 prints by Namibian artist John Muafangejo.
Hunter Larsen titled the show Seeing Stories, reflective of the artists' desire to tell a story rather than create a work rooted in aesthetic or a manipulation of one.
Much of the mystique behind self-taught art lies in the backstories, the stories of the artists with their friends, confidants and patrons.
The Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime paintings provide a good example. Many of the works we see today were done in the 1970s with the encouragement of Geoff Bardon, an Australian art teacher who sought to rescue the fading heritage and poor morale of the Aboriginal peoples living in Papunya, the Australian equivalent of a reservation located in the remote western desert.
Papunya was a devastated community when Bardon arrived in 1971, but during the 18 months he spent there he started a painting movement chronicling Aboriginal life, stories and Dreamings. What began as a way to revive the people both economically and socially and renew ancient tribal history grew into a new era of Aboriginal painting, picking up where sand paintings left off long ago.
The Dreamings, according to Hunter Larsen, are "lovely and complex" tales that relate man to totemic ancestors through "songlines" — sung oral histories that are thought to be embedded in the Earth by primordial beings called totemic ancestors, which can be anything from humans to honey ants to wallabies. Each person descends from a specific totemic ancestor identified while still in the womb.
Difficult as it can be to understand, painted Dreamings were once forthright in this symbolism, especially when Bardon lived in Papunya. In time, however, as the paintings became popular among buyers outside the immediate Aboriginal community, tribal elders felt their secrets were too public, and the artists started to cover their works with dots. Already familiar elements in the paintings, the dots began to dominate all other imagery.
"So what we think of now as dot paintings from Australia," says Hunter Larsen, "that really is an obscuring technique."
A belief in communication
Though many self-taught artists do their work in a sort of exile (whether chosen or imposed), they often do feel an urge for simple communication with the larger world.
Darger's life is extraordinary in its juxtaposed extremes. His inner life teemed with wildly dynamic characters and environments, while his outer life was tethered to routine, devoid of family or close friends. In fact, says Brooke Davis Anderson, curator of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City (where most of Darger's work is housed), Darger's hermetic existence could have — and probably should have — assured that his work would never have been appreciated.
"Thank God [Lerner] was the person who found the work, because otherwise it probably would have all been thrown away," Davis Anderson says. "[Lerner's] sensitivity to the arts preserved the entire works by Henry Darger."
And yet Davis Anderson believes Darger actually had an audience in mind. No record exists of Darger pitching his book to a publisher or sharing it with someone else, but she points to Realms, in which Darger addresses the reader directly in passages and incorporates captions inside his illustrations that direct eyes to various points in his landscape.
Hunter Larsen agrees that Darger had some hope of communicating to the world through his work.
"He's wrestling with these grand themes, and in some sense that's very didactic, you get a sense that there's an implied audience," she says. "I think in all cases, there's this real necessity of the information to be conveyed, whether it be a sense of spiritual motivation or simply that autobiographical desire to convey one's life history to someone else."