Henry Darger art at the center of new federal lawsuit in case of retiring North Sider whose work became world-famous

CHICAGO — The work of Chicago “outsider” artist Henry Darger has been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world and has brought in millions of dollars.

But Kiyoko Lerner and her late husband, Nathan Lerner, had no legal right to own the retired artist’s watercolor paintings, sketches and extensive writings after he died in 1973, according to a federal lawsuit filed last week.

The suit says Kiyoko Lerner, who was once Darger’s Lincoln Park landlord, does not legally own or copyright the artist’s work.

The suit also accuses Lerner of something called “anticybersquatting” by having a website called “officialhenrydarger.com”. The site offers information about Darger’s life, his work, as well as a warning that “images may not be reproduced, copied, transmitted or manipulated without the written permission of Kiyoko Lerner.”

The lawsuit follows an application earlier this year to the Cook Circuit Court to determine Darger’s heirs. One of those future heirs, Christen Sadowski, who lives in Clarendon Hills, was appointed administrator of the Darger estate in May. That case is ongoing.

Darger as an artist was unknown during his lifetime. He lived in a one-bedroom apartment on West Webster Avenue for about 40 years. He was an eccentric loner. From time to time, neighbors on the stairs outside his apartment heard raised voices—voices that sounded as if Darger had invented guests or companions.

It wasn’t until 1972, after Darger left, that a secret life was revealed, in a room filled with dozens of broken glasses, hundreds of his own watercolors, collage paintings and, in a briefcase, a 15,000-page typewritten fantasy novel entitled “In the Realms of the unreal.”

The Lerners have long claimed that Darger willingly gave them all his work when, as he grew weaker, he left the apartment he rented from them and moved into a nursing home. He died in 1973, at the age of 81, and was buried in a pauper’s grave. He never married and had no children.

Nathan Lerner asked Darger after he moved if he wanted to keep anything from his room.

“I don’t have anything I need in the room. It’s all yours. You can throw everything away,” Darger reportedly said.

The Lerners took possession of the work. Darger has since become one of America’s greatest outsider artists. Much of his work is housed in the American Folk Art Museum in New York. The Art Institute of Chicago has some pieces. A piece by Darger sold at auction for about $680,000.

The federal lawsuit aims, among other things, to give the estate exclusive ownership of the copyright in Darger’s works and return to the estate of those works. The suit is also seeking any profit from the sale of the art and a list, from Lerner, of all Darger artworks in her possession.

Lerner could not be reached for comment. Her attorney, Eric Kalnins, said Monday that he had not yet had a chance to discuss the lawsuit with his client. Sadowski was also not available for comment.

(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire – Copyright Chicago Sun-Times 2022.)

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