The Outsiders

••• John MacGregor Unlocks Henry Darger's Unreal Realms

That same year, Time's Robert Hughes attacked a statement by MacGregor ("psychologically, Darger was undoubtedly a serial killer"), calling it "a wildly irresponsible judgment, since practically nothing is known about [Darger's] character, and in any case, he never harmed a fly." It is Hughes's verdict that is wildly irresponsible—first for not pausing to consider the meaning of "psychologically," and second, for assuming intimate knowledge of a life he in fact knows little about. (As a boy, Darger did, in fact, exhibit a marked aggression toward younger children, and once slashed a teacher seriously enough that his father had to foot a hospital bill.)

I think something curious and heretofore unacknowledged has been taking place, an unconscious disavowal on the part of some viewers and critics—a phenomenon that could make for a chapter in The Discovery of the Art of the Insane. Through misquoting, mishearing, and misreading, people have turned this careful scholar into a veritable Kinbote, a moral scapegoat to whom can be assigned all the darkest theories—as if he were the one who had applied the delicate wash of watercolor blood at the base of a severed head, or imagined the force-feeding of body parts to children. What do we want from John MacGregor? Perhaps this: to saddle him with all our deepest anxieties about the possible actions of Henry Darger, so that the madman-scholar can be rejected with a show of presumptuous indignation. It is the secret expiation required to enjoy Darger without tears.

Anyone who has read MacGregor's Discovery is aware of his sensitivity and impeccable scholarship—then again, as he points out, the book was reviewed mainly in psychiatric rather than art publications. His shorter pieces exhibit an immense sympathy with the mentally handicapped. He says that studying Darger has made him "a slightly more accepting person—accepting of myself, accepting of others, accepting of Henry." Rather than judge Darger on moral grounds, MacGregor seeks to understand the whole person—the art and the life, the consumable colors as well as the anguished cogitations of the most desperate loneliness.

John MacGregor has been on every page of Henry Darger's novel. There are 15,145 of them.
photo: John MacGregor
John MacGregor has been on every page of Henry Darger's novel. There are 15,145 of them.

What he does find morally objectionable is the traffic in outsider art, including Darger's. "I have nothing to do with dealers, and all that kind of business," he says. "This art was not created for the purpose of being sold or bought—it was not created to be art at all. The wishes of the artist should be respected."

When one curator I speak with suggests that MacGregor has toned down his previous indiscretions for his Darger tome because "he has a book to sell," I'm reminded that he only grudgingly agreed, at the behest of his lawyer and publisher, to take any royalties on Henry Darger. (The book, completed in November 1997, has had a tortuous road to print: legal wrangling with Kiyoko Lerner, and the dismay of publishers who would not consider bringing it out unless he drastically cut his thousand manuscript pages. "I was clearly hopeless about it," he says.) In the past, he's given his royalties on books to Creative Growth, an Oakland program that teaches art-making to disabled adults. This is a frugal man, who at times seems to have an almost holy regard for art's existence outside of commerce. It's no coincidence that the copyright page bears Henry's incantation:

All the Gold in the Gold Mines

All the Silver in the world

Nay, all the world,

Cannot buy these pictures from me.

Vengeance, thee terrible vengeance

On those who steals or destroys them.

Occupying pride of place at the American Folk Art Museum's main Darger exhibit, in a vitrine by the foot of the crucifix-shaped space, is the sole remaining spine from one of the three books in which Henry Darger originally bound his paintings. The paintings were cut free by Lerner, in order to be exhibited more easily. What's left on the bone are scraps of color: tantalizing shreds of landscapes, part of a child's head.

As Brooke Anderson explained at a Darger symposium in March, it's "symbolic of future research." If Darger is the tree falling in the forest that happened to make a sound, then this is the trunk, an invitation to dendochronology: by matching the detached artworks to the stubs, an order can be established for the creation of at least some of the paintings.

In Chicago, Darger's room was maintained (with some alterations) until 2000, when Kiyoko Lerner decided to sell it to Michael Lerner, a real estate developer who is Nathan's son from his first marriage. The room's objects—from the boxes of paints and old National Geographics to the fireplace tiles and sink—were acquired by Chicago's Intuit center, which plans to re-create the space. If Darger's native city gets the shell, then New York has acquired the pearl: the written and graphic material, which form the basis for the Henry Darger Study Center. Kiyoko Lerner had negotiated with several other institutions, including Atlanta's High Museum of Art and the Milwaukee Art Museum, before reaching an agreement (also in 2000) with the American Folk Art Museum. According to Anderson, the museum bought 26 paintings for $1 million and received the archive as a gift from Lerner, with the understanding that it would be conserved and available for scholars. It contains all of Darger's written material (50,000 pages), which will be available on microfilm in the fall, and a trove of 3000 pieces of graphic ephemera, including the salvaged scraps that served as Darger's ur-material: depictions of girls from magazines and comic strips, which he painstakingly incorporated into his compositions.

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