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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Courtesy: Wellspring Media

Among the hundreds of works that illustrated Darger’s cataclysmic novel was this carbon transfer, pencil, and watercolor of the Vivian Girls being captured by the Calverinian Boy Scouts, who mistook them for the Glandelinian Girl Scouts (detail).

Today Henry Darger is the most bankable of outsider artists, with his works bringing up to $150,000. “Since Nathan Lerner’s discovery of Darger’s output, he has always been desirable,” Pascale says. “So much art of the 20th century relied upon collage and montage that his drawings are not so far away from the mainstream of modern art. What made them astounding is their intricate narratives coupled with Darger’s grasp of gesture and context. These are tropes that have been a part of art since people began to make pictures.”

Until last year, Kiyoko continued to sell Darger’s works through galleries and used some of the profits to support a foundation established by the Lerners that provides instruction in fine arts to the mentally ill. Then, after announcing that she would stop selling pieces from the estate, dealers and investors clamored to buy her Dargers before the December 31, 2004, deadline. Andrew Edlin, a New York gallery owner who has sold some of Kiyoko’s Dargers, says that in some cases, prices rose as much as 40 percent in the span of a few months. “I never liked the business side of controlling the estate,” Kiyoko adds. “So I’m happy to have stopped selling them.”

Out of the hundreds of pieces she once owned, Kiyoko is down to about 100 and doesn’t plan to part with them. “I’m happy to loan them to galleries for exhibits-I have 35 at a museum in Europe right now,” she says. “What I have is available for show, but I want the business side to stay calm so I can simplify my life.” But it doesn’t always work that way. “Right when I am about to close this chapter and move, I end up with more activities, not less.”

A few years ago, she was paid $20,000 for a movie option on the Darger story by the Bedford Falls Company-the maker of Thirtysomething, Traffic, and The Last Samurai. Mark Andrus, who wrote As Good as It Gets and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, has been working on the script. “Not only is there this movie but there is some interest in two more books on Darger and one on Nathan,” Kiyoko says.

For years, the Lerners kept Darger’s old room mostly intact, and Kiyoko even occasionally allowed Dargerphiles to stop by. Mark Pascale remembers visiting the space years ago. “John MacGregor was in town doing research, and Nathan and Kiyoko were out of town, so he invited me and a small group of my art students to see it,” Pascale recalls. “Two of those students I’m still in touch with and they tell me, to this day, that was the most defining moment of their education.”

In 2000, the real-estate developer Michael Lerner, Kiyoko’s stepson, bought the Webster building where Darger had lived and gutted it for remodeling, sweeping clean “the room.” Kiyoko donated the contents to Intuit, which plans to re-create the space, in all of its disheveled glory, at its gallery on Milwaukee Avenue. “Our goal is to create an installation that, although not an exact replication of Darger’s living and working space, will begin to communicate a sense of the environment where he lived and worked for so many years,” says Connie Gibbons, the new director of Intuit. “We want to have the installation completed within the next six months, but there’s still a lot to be done.”

Kiyoko has put her home on the market and plans to move into one of Michael Lerner’s projects in West Town. She hopes to concentrate again on the piano, and her new, one-story, high-ceilinged home includes a 40-by-20-foot living room, which she plans to use as a concert space.

And what will be history’s assessment of the odd genius who lived next door? Mark Pascale may have had a hint. He recalls being visited by a curator from Vienna’s Albertina Museum, which houses one of the largest graphic arts collections in the world. For some reason, Pascale had a Darger displayed in the visitor’s study center. The curator “walked over and said, ‘What is this and who is this master?’” Pascale recalls. “I’ll never forget that.”

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