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MoMA makes historic acquisition of thirteen drawings by Henry Darger from the estate of the artist
Henry Darger. Untitled (Spangled Blengins). Watercolor and pencil on paper. Gift of the estate in honor of Klaus Biesenbach. © 2011 Kiyoko Lerner / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

NEW YORK, NY.- The Museum of Modern Art has acquired a major group of drawings by Henry Darger (1892-1973), perhaps the best-known American self-taught artist of the 20th century. The thirteen double-sided drawings represent a wide range of Darger’s practices, and have been carefully selected from the remaining body of exceptionally important work still held by his estate. Although Darger was unrecognized as an artist during his lifetime, the impressive body of watercolors and writings he created are acclaimed by admirers and scholars of both mainstream and outsider art, and has been a source of inspiration for several generations of contemporary artists. The drawings are a gift of the estate of the artist in honor of Klaus Biesenbach, Director of MoMA PS1 and Chief Curator at Large at MoMA, who has organized exhibitions and produced publications of Darger’s work. The gift represents the largest acquisition by MoMA of work by a self-taught artist.

Darger’s all-encompassing project began with his epic tale 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. His wandering narrative, in which a band of seven heroic girls, the Vivian Girls, battle to save children who are enslaved and mercilessly abused by the adult Glandelinians, is illustrated by hundreds of beautifully rendered watercolors, many large in size and double-sided. Depicting both specific scenes from his story—massive battles at exacting locations within an imagined geography, close escapes by his heroines from their captors—and seemingly decorative backdrops that depict fields of flowers and plants, detailed weather patterns, and a cast of magical creatures sometimes called Blengins, each Darger work is complex in detail and execution.

Although self-taught, Darger’s working methods were deliberate, and sometimes the result of relatively sophisticated methods of appropriation. The artist attached sheet after sheet of paper to expand his compositions, and he often had popular images from comics, magazines and other source material photographically manipulated at his local drugstore, transferring his specified results to his drawings. While personally reclusive, Darger’s work reflects not only an engagement with American history (specifically that of the American Civil War), but an awareness and interest in contemporary culture that links his very personal body of work to that of other artists working during his lifetime.

The group primarily comprises examples of his large-scale watercolors, although it also includes a unique smaller collage depicting a fantastical winged-creature that illustrates his practice of clipping images from popular sources.

“This group of drawings, together with two major works already in MoMA’s collection, will allow a full reading of Darger’s major themes and influences, as well as his working techniques,” said Connie Butler, The Robert Lehman Foundation Chief Curator of Drawings at MoMA. “Given the relationship of his work to that of many younger artists represented in the drawings collection, and MoMA’s history of selectively collecting works by self-taught artists, this trove of Darger drawings is a historic addition. I would like to express my profound gratitude to Kiyoko Lerner and the Darger estate, and to acknowledge the key role that Klaus Biesenbach played in this important acquisition.”

In 2000, Biesenbach organized the exhibition Disasters of War: Francisco de Goya, Henry Darger, Jake and Dinos Chapman at MoMA PS1, which included selections from Darger’s series of watercolors The Realms of the Unreal, many of which had never been exhibited. He is also the author, with Kiyoko Lerner, of Henry Darger: Disasters of War (K-W Institute for Contemporary Art, 2004), and is the author of the publication Henry Darger (Prestel, 2009), which examines the radical originality of Darger's art, including his use of collage, incorporation of religious themes and iconography, and frequent juxtaposition of innocence with violence.

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