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Art Basel | OVR:20c

October 28 – 31, 2020

Henry Darger (1892-1973)
Henry Darger (1892-1973)

“The Double-Sided Dominions of Henry Darger” features six double-sided watercolor drawings, twelve compositions in all, by the infamously enigmatic outsider artist. While working as a janitor in a Chicago hospital, Henry Darger (1892-1973) wrote a 15,000-page fantasy-adventure novel about a world torn apart by war entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, which is often shortened to Realms of the Unreal. Over the next couple decades, Darger created a number of watercolor, graphite and carbon-traced drawings to accompany the fantastical saga.

These narrative scenes depicted his novel’s heroines, the seven plucky Vivian sisters, and their prepubescent comrades embroiled in numerous exploits battling sadistic, child-enslaving villains known as the Glandelinians. Traumatized at a young age by parental abandonment and institutional abuse, Darger was an arrested child himself in many respects. The fictitious world he created seems skewed as he was an adult living out childhood fantasies imbued with childish and adult overtones. Consequently, his Realms of the Unreal characters mirror this fascinating and disturbing paradox.

Completely independent of the academic artworld, Darger pioneered a unique method of appropriating images from other sources and seamlessly tracing them into his artwork. Drawing from coloring book illustrations, magazines and cartoons, Darger was able to photographically resize the source material to his liking through his local drug store. The repetition of certain figure’s positioning reveals this technique as seen in “Violet and her sisters are captured denucted…”. In the case of “Untitled (At Jennie Richee…)”, Darger created the figure of a Blengin with braided brown hair blowing up a balloon by tracing the little girl from the July 1947 cover of The American Magazine.

The albums containing these massive illustrations and the manuscripts for Realms of the Unreal were discovered toward the very end of his life, after Darger had moved into a nursing home; within a few months, he passed away. Before adequate documentation of the pictorial albums could be made in the years following Darger’s death, his landlord Nathan Lerner, disassembled them into individual works of art and disseminated them through gallery consignments and museum gifts. While there does not seem to be any chronological sequencing from artwork to artwork, or “page” to “page,” in these albums, it seems clear that Darger wished to present even his more monumental work as increments within the oversized picture books, and not as conventional two-dimensional works of art to be hung on the wall. The two earliest works in this presentation, likely made in the early 1930s, are two fragments of one complete piece. During their initial discovery, they had separated and were treated as two distinct artworks. Here the works are displayed side-by-side as they were meant to be seen.

Today, Darger is considered to be arguably the greatest outsider artist America has ever produced. As Darger’s work has become better-known to both outsider-art and contemporary-art audiences in the U.S. and in Europe, it has received wide acclaim from critics, artists, art historians, curators and collectors who have recognized the withdrawn art-maker and storyteller as one of the most original talents—and as a true visionary—of his time.

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