Artworks, or series of them, can take over an artist’s life, becoming an obsession, a compulsion and a raison d’être. This map follows some seemingly OCD-afflicted creators, such as visionary 19th-century poets William Blake, whose illustrated poems form a densely connected whole, and Walt Whitman, who repeatedly revised his collection Leaves of Grass across 40 years. A few contemporary artists are also here, including several whose phenomenal achievements surfaced only after their death.
When Tom Phillips began A Humument, in 1966, he envisioned the project as a sideline, something to be done “at the end of a studio day.” Five decades later, the curious enterprise has become the British artist’s best-known piece. A Humument reworks W.H. Mallock’s little-known 1892 novel A Human Document, which Phillips purchased for a few pennies from a secondhand shop. Over several years, Phillips drew, painted or collaged over all its pages. And then he bought another copy and created another set of unique images on its pages. And then he did it again, and again. A Humument, whose various versions have been published, is now in its fifth edition. Phillips even developed a visual score for an opera, Irma, based on it.
A Humument is a conceptual work that, unlike much conceptual art, comprises a set of finely crafted individual pieces. So is another curious project begun in 1966, Japanese artist On Kawara’s series Today. His thousands of Today paintings, each consisting of the date he made it, rendered in white against a solid gray, red or blue background, look simple but were meticulously painted. Kawara even custom-made archival boxes to house each one of them.
On Kawara’s Today series, begun on January 4, 1966, and ending on January 12, 2013 (18 months before Kawara’s death), is an exacting, obsessive marking of the passage of time. Although repetitive, the paintings do differ: Kawara stuck to eight sizes (except for three significantly larger ones from July 1969); he hand-mixed the background colors, so the reds, blues and grays have slight variations; he altered his lettering style over time; and he spelled out the dates in different languages. (When making a painting, the peripatetic artist always used the language of the country he was in at the time.)
A character in the film Smoke records time’s passage in a similarly exacting, obsessive and subtly varying way. Brooklyn cigar shop owner Auggie Wren (played by Harvey Keitel) photographs his storefront every morning at the same time. He collects the pictures in albums, each photo labeled with its date. When he shows them to his friend Paul Benjamin (William Hurt), Paul dismisses them as being “all the same.” A true if unsung artist, Auggie urges Paul to slow down and look at the photos more closely—to observe the changes of season, weather, light and passersby they capture.
Customers at Auggie Wren’s cigar shop know him as “some guy who pushes coins across a counter,” in his friend Paul’s words. Auggie responds, “That’s what people see, but that ain’t necessarily what I am.” His secret life’s work, a daily photography project, has real-life counterparts. The Chicagoans who employed Vivian Maier saw her only as their children’s nanny; secretly, Maier was an intrepid and gifted street photographer who on vacations and days off took thousands of pictures with her Rolleiflex camera. Discovered after her death, Maier’s photos are critically acclaimed and widely exhibited; the Oscar-nominated documentary Finding Vivian Maier (2013) chronicles her strange double life. But for sheer strangeness, Maier’s clandestine career is certainly outdone by that of another Chicago resident, Henry Darger. A small, nondescript man who worked his entire life as a janitor, Darger was viewed by his few acquaintances as a reclusive oddball. Meanwhile, working alone in a succession of rented rooms, Darger was producing voluminous writings and a vast series of paintings, discovered after his death, that have become perhaps the most celebrated and influential “outsider art” ever created.
Much art transforms the ordinary, but some artists go further, using abject or insignificant objects to make works of amazing scope or quirky grandeur. In his life’s work, A Humument, Tom Phillips has refashioned several copies of a forgotten Victorian novel, turning all its pages into partly abstract, partly figural images. Sometimes described as a work of “erasure,” A Humument leaves some words of the original visible on each page, creating a new narrative “broken by quivering peculiarities” (a phrase from page five of A Humument’s fifth edition).
Phillips is a well-known artist, but some outsider artists, unrecognized during their lifetime, have likewise produced astonishing assemblages from cast-off stuff—in many cases, the only art materials available to them. One such creator was James Hampton, a Washington, D.C., janitor who labored for 14 years to make The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly (now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum). The room-size Throne concatenates all manner of junk Hampton had scavenged from thrift shops, the street and the office buildings he cleaned. Painstakingly wrapping these found objects in metal foil, Hampton transfigured them into components of a glittering, mystical epiphany.
It’s not unusual for artists, whether mainstream or outsider, to invent a universe and plunk themselves into it. Think of Dante, who made himself the main character of The Divine Comedy. That cosmological, egocentric impulse is also at work in Henry Darger’s 15,000-page fantasy novel, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Written over 20 years, Realms tells of a global struggle between the vicious nation of Glandelinia, where children are enslaved and tortured, and an alliance of virtuous Christian countries led by seven heroic princesses called the Vivian Girls. Into its convoluted, self-contradictory plot, Darger inserted himself as a military commander—fighting sometimes on one side, sometimes on the other.
Outsider artist James Hampton also played a role in the universe he conjured in his Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly. (Outsider artists can be fond of long titles.) Giving himself the title of Director, Special Projects for the State of Eternity, Hampton likely saw himself as an emissary of God—and his project as an environment summoning the Second Coming of Christ.
About the daily photographs he takes of his corner cigar store in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Smoke’s Auggie Wren says, “It’s my project…my life’s work.” A life’s work can be humble and strictly delimited, like Auggie’s, or extravagant and boundless; in either case, it requires persistence. “Only takes me five minutes a day to do it,” says Auggie, “but I do it every day, rain or shine, sleet or snow.” Another creator who, like Auggie, lived in Brooklyn, demonstrated similar perseverance. That would be Walt Whitman, who continually reworked his major collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, and released it in multiple, ever-expanding editions from the first, published in Brooklyn in 1855, to the last, the “Death-bed” edition, issued in 1892. “Brooklyn, of ample hills, was mine,” writes Whitman in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” one of only 12 poems in the first Leaves of Grass. The final edition contains nearly 400—an overwhelming, logorrheic report of Whitman’s life, times, travels, desires, sorrows and enthusiasms. In his friend Paul’s estimation, Auggie Wren’s vision of Brooklyn, amply recorded in thousands of photos shot from the same spot, is correspondingly “kind of overwhelming.”
“I contain multitudes,” writes Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself,” which appeared in the first version of Leaves of Grass but which Whitman recast through every succeeding edition. An American epic, this immense poem evokes and embraces an unendingly diverse world via the medium of the poet himself—his mind, voice and especially his body, which sensually connects to everything and everyone it encounters. Although Whitman declares, “I am not the poet of goodness only,” this poem is boundlessly optimistic, its vistas unpolluted and incorruptible. Not so the vistas of another American epic: the hundreds of illustrations Henry Darger made for Realms of the Unreal, in which an atrociously evil empire endlessly menaces the good, embodied by the innocent, transgender Vivian Girls (often depicted nude, the Vivians have male genitalia). The murder of innocence—exacted through strangling, hanging, binding, disemboweling or crucifying little children—is Darger’s overriding theme, and his often lovely, flower-filled landscapes are threatened by fire, explosions and meteorological malevolence. The reclusive Darger contained as many multitudes as the outgoing Whitman, but despite their comic-book look, the realms Darger populated are much more frightening than Whitman’s—and perhaps more believable.
Visionary literature can be excessive, crazy and just too much to abide. Everybody loves the elegant little poems—deeply felt, cleverly rhymed and exquisitely metered—of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Nobody but a Blake specialist, however, is likely to appreciate the poet’s so-called prophetic works. Long, verbose and impenetrably hermetic, these epics—America, a Prophecy; Milton; Jerusalem—are nigh unreadable. But Blake illustrated the original editions of all his books, and the pictures he made for the prophetic works rescue them aesthetically. Muscular, dramatic, psychedelic and often quite scary, Blake’s images convey his vision better than his verse does (and the pictures stand beautifully on their own). The same holds for Henry Darger’s work. Few but scholars will likely make it all the way through Realms of the Unreal or Darger’s other lengthy ramblings. But the pictures he created, over decades, to illustrate Realms are a different story. Drawn, painted and collaged on sheets of butcher paper, sometimes pieced together in 10-foot-long tableaux, these mesmerizing scenes draw viewers into a fantasy world that marries fairyland and hell. Like Blake, Darger performed the artistic miracle of making images like none ever seen before.
Some of William Blake’s contemporaries thought he was a lunatic. It’s not an uncommon judgment against people who claim to have ecstatic visions and an esoteric understanding of the forces manipulating human history—and who make it their life’s work to obsessively articulate the hidden truths only they are privy to. But where’s the line between creativity and madness, or spiritual insight and schizophrenia? That’s a question often asked about outsider art, particularly that of self-designated religious visionaries. Baptist minister Howard Finster hand-built his Paradise Garden, a crazy-quilt environment of found objects that covers four acres in northwest Georgia; later, at “God’s command,” he made tens of thousands of “sacred” paintings (including one used by Talking Heads for the cover of their album Little Creatures). Was Finster a holy man or a madman? And what about James Hampton, a Baptist minister’s son who sometimes referred to himself as Saint James and who for 15 years spent part of nearly every day working in a garage, cobbling together his flamboyant, otherworldly Throne of the Third Heaven? Was Hampton touched by cosmic consciousness or was he just “touched”? Is there a difference? More important, does it matter?