Henry Darger, “Untitled” (mid 20th century), watercolor, pencil, carbon tracing, and collage on pierced paper, 24 x 106 1/2 in, Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York, museum purchase with funds generously provided by John and Margaret Robson (photo by James Prinz, © American Folk Art Museum / Art Resource NY) (click to enlarge)

One hundred and twenty-five years ago today, Henry Darger was born at home to a poor couple in Chicago. His mother died four years later; not long afterwards, Darger was separated from his sick father and placed in a Catholic boys’ home, followed by an asylum. When he was 16, Darger managed to escape and begin the rest of his life: a mostly solitary existence that consisted of janitorial and other menial labor at Chicago hospitals, attending mass, and creating what’s now considered some of the greatest art of the 20th century.

Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art is celebrating Darger’s birthday today, and so is his hometown: Mayor Rahm Emanuel has declared April 12, 2017, official Henry Darger Day in Chicago.

In Darger’s honor, Intuit is open to the public for free until 8:30pm. Programs are planned throughout the day, including a screening of the documentary about the artist, a conversation with his neighbor, birthday cake, and the opening of a new exhibition, Betwixt and Between: Henry Darger’s Vivian Girls. These characters are Darger’s most famous creations: mystical, penis-bearing girls whose crusades against child slavery he captured in drawings, collages, and a roughly 15,000-page novel. Darger is less widely known as a writer (his books have not yet been reproduced or published), and another show currently on view at Intuit explores the relationship between his images and text. A third exhibition examines his source materials, from coloring books to Catholic imagery — and, as if that weren’t enough, the center also houses a permanent installation of the room where Darger did most of his work for four decades. The hushed, cluttered space seems to overflow with inspiration.

The Henry Darger Room Collection at Intuit (photo © John Faier)

As Mayor Emanuel’s official proclamation recounts, Darger died the day after his 81st birthday. His landlords had only just discovered his trove of art, and its greatness would not be understood until he was gone. Today, he “stands as one of the most venerated self-taught artists of all time and reminds every artist and arts patron of the extreme significance of cultivating and curating spaces for the study and presentation of intuitive and outsider art,” according to the decree, which goes on to “urge every Chicagoan to visit Intuit,” today and in the future. I’d encourage everyone passing through Chicago to do so as well — and those in New York to visit the American Folk Art Museum, which has the largest public collection of his work. Happy Henry Darger Day!

Henry Darger, “Untitled (three studies)” (mid 20th century), graphite on found paper, 7 x 5 1/2 in, 8 x 11 in, 10 1/2 x 6 in, Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York, gifts of Kiyoko Lerner (photo by Gavin Ashworth, courtesy American Folk Art Museum, © Kiyoko Lerner)

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...