Henry Darger is the reclusive janitor whose fantastical, 15,000-plus-page manuscript, complete with now iconic “Vivian Girls” watercolors, earned him a posthumous fame he never sought in life. Darger, who died in 1973, was a bit of a hoarder, and his personal collection of pop culture collages is currently on display at the American Folk Art Museum, for which there was a benefit on Thursday, May 15, with a performance by Patti Smith at Espace.
The neon-lit midtown venue seemed a curious place to celebrate the life of a man who lived out his secret life inside a small apartment on Chicago’s North Side.
“I don’t think he’d show up to the party, do you?” asked Steven Sebring, director of the documentary Patti Smith: Dream of Life. “I think he’d probably stay at home in that little place of his and do something strange.”
Jeff Koons, the priciest living artist at auction, studied in Darger’s hometown of Chicago and called the artist a “personal icon.”
“I wish I could afford to buy some of his work,” designer Betsey Johnson said, gazing at the projections of Darger’s watercolor “little girls at war.” “They’re like my old paper dolls.”
Ms. Smith’s set was brief but energetic, raw as only she can be. Punk impresario Danny Fields, who was shadowed by a biographer, enjoyed the show. He remembered playing matchmaker for the singer and her husband, Fred.
“Before they ever met, I showed her a picture of his naked butt. I’d taken a picture of it,” he said. “And she said, ‘Who’s that guy with the cute butt? I’ve got to meet him.’”
It’s all about exposure!
But what of Ms. Smith’s recent claim that New York is no longer welcoming to young artists? Photographer Ryan McGinley, 32, offered polite dissent.
“I think as you get older, you’re not in touch with the things you were when you’re younger, when you have no money and you have to sort of make things happen,” he said. “I don’t really like when people say to me, ‘Oh, well, the East Village changed, there’s not that element of fear.’ I’m not into that. I don’t want to get mugged.”
So the young New York art scene’s not dead?
“No, it just moved to Brooklyn,” he said.