The Lost World

For decades, Kiyoko and Nathan Lerner were the caretakers of the astonishing collection of outsider art left by their reclusive tenant Henry Darger. But what remains unsold has found no permanent Chicago home.

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Photo: Selena Salfen

Kiyoko Lerner sits in the kitchen of her handsome Lincoln Park home on Webster Avenue and recalls people knocking on the door, asking to see the room.

“I have to explain to them that everything has been redone,” she says, shaking her head and laughing.

The pilgrims are hoping to glimpse an iconic space in the art world, the apartment in the building next door that was home to a curious man named Henry Darger, a tenant of Kiyoko and her husband, Nathan Lerner, a successful designer and photographer. In life, Darger worked as a janitor, had little to no contact with his neighbors, and regularly attended Mass-occasionally several times a day. In death, Darger left behind an astonishing collection of drawings, collages, and watercolors, now considered one of the foremost bodies of outsider art in the world.

Before he died in 1973, at age 81, Darger gave the works to the Lerners, and over the years, tending the collection came to dominate their lives (Nathan died in 1997). Half a dozen books have been published about Darger and his work. The American Folk Art Museum in New York City has opened a Henry Darger Study Center, featuring pictures and original Darger manuscripts. Darger’s story has been the subject of poetry, an opera, and most recently a critically acclaimed documentary, In the Realms of the Unreal, which was released last year. And, according to Kiyoko, a feature film is in preproduction.

Sales of Darger’s paintings have brought in revenue to the Lerners conservatively estimated in Forbes magazine to be in the low seven figures-perhaps $2 million. But while Darger’s drawings remain in Chicago museums and private collections here, much of his work has been relocated to other cities, particularly New York. Though local museums that might want to acquire more Dargers have been inhibited by the tremendous cost of preserving the fragile material, some Chicagoans think the city has lost a treasure. “The art community in Chicago doesn’t always recognize its own geniuses until they go elsewhere,” says the local dealer Carl Hammer, one of the first gallery owners to sell Darger’s work. “Our artists are much more appreciated by the outside world.”

Meanwhile, Kiyoko Lerner has sold or given away two-thirds of her Dargers, and she is leaving the street where he lived and created his art. “I feel enormous responsibility with all this work, both to Henry and to Nathan,” Kiyoko says, but “I just couldn’t take care of it anymore by myself.”

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