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Greer Lankton: An Artist’s Life in the Village of the Dolls

Portrait of Greer Lankton. Photo by Annie O'Neil. Courtesy of the Mattress Factory.
Portrait of Greer Lankton. Photo by Annie O’Neil. Courtesy of the Mattress Factory.

Greer Lankton (she/her, April 21, 1958 – November 18, 1996) was an East Village-based multidisciplinary artist who worked in illustration, photography, and sculpture. She’s mostly known for creating lifelike paper-mache dolls of celebrities, and she explored themes around celebrity iconography, beauty standards, and the white feminine ideal. While not all of her dolls were of famous figures, likenesses of Candy Darling, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Onassis, and Divine were among her more prominent subjects. She often created her dolls as immersive installations, and she lived among them as if they were alive, re-framing her daily life into a performance art piece about the way society treats gender and sexuality.

Lankton first came to the East Village when she was 18 or 19, commuting to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn to gain a bachelor’s degree in Studio Art. Originally born male and identifying as a transgender woman, she thoroughly documented her gender transition. At the same time, she also collected research about transgender medical history in small, meticulously illustrated books that included pictures from her life and photocopies from medical texts, exploring the history of gender re-assignment surgery and, to quote her, “science stuff.” These books formed her earliest works, which she titled a Collection of “Medical Magic.”

In the early 1980s, Lankton lived with photographer and friend Nan Goldin, and appeared in her photographs and film series about queer subculture in lower Manhattan. Her connection to Goldin introduced her to the East Village’s notoriously bohemian art scene. She frequently acted as a muse for well-known queer photographers David Wojnarowicz and Peter Hujar. She was featured in the seminal “New York / New Wave” exhibition at P.S.1 Contemporary  Art Center (now MoMA PS1) in 1981, and gained the attention of Dean Savard, who awarded her several solo shows in 1983, 1984, and 1985 at his gallery/studio, Civilian Warfare (previously located at 526 East 11th Street, between Avenues A & B). 

Greer Lankton & Paul Monroe 1985 by Nan Goldin.
Greer Lankton & Paul Monroe, 1985, by Nan Goldin.

In 1982, Lankton started dating Paul Monroe, owner of the gender-less fashion boutique EINSTEINS (previously located at 34 East 7th Street) that was known for surreal jewlery and men’s dresses. Lankton frequently posed her dolls in the storefront window, and eventually opened her own gallery, THE DOLL CLUB, in EINSTEINS in 1986. Monroe and Lankton had an intimate, loving relationship, and they formally got married in 1987. However, Lankton struggled throughout her life with drug addiction and anorexia, and her health severely declined in the 1990s. She passed away in 1996 while she was completing her biggest and final work, It’s About Me, Not You, which is on view as a permanent installation at the Mattress factory in Pittsburgh. Although no longer based in the East Village, Paul Monroe now runs the Greer Lankton Archives Museum (GLAM) to preserve her artistic legacy for generations to come.

If you’d like to know more about Greer Lankton and the LGBTQIA+ scene in the East Village, visit our Guided Tour of LGBTQ sites on our East Village Building Blocks website.

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