Greer Lankton: Sissy and Cherry, 1988, 35mm photograph; at Participant Inc.

“Love Me,” the first New York survey of work by the late artist Greer Lankton, was a tour de force of resolve organized in collaboration with Lankton’s former husband, Paul Monroe. Two years in the making, it represented a vital contribution to the history of the 1980s East Village art scene, as well as an ode to one of its most beloved—if, until now, largely forgotten—icons.  

The survey brought together over 100 of Lankton’s signature handcrafted dolls, borrowed from various estates, collections and friends, along with a vast array of ephemera assembled from Monroe’s G.L.A.M. (Greer Lankton Archives Museum). The majority of it is installed chronologically in custom-made plexiglass vitrines.

From giant trolls and caricatures of junkies, circus ladies and drag queens to life-size portraits of the legends she adored (Candy Darling, Jackie O., Diana Vreeland, Divine), most of Lankton’s dolls are constructed from panty hose, stuffed and stitched over wire-hanger armatures. Intricately painted and outfitted with hand-sewn clothes and cut-up wigs, the dolls get their sense of animation from their taxidermy glass eyes and articulated joints, which underscore their status as objects to be played with and manipulated. Indeed, as some of the photographic documentation on view attested, Monroe and Lankton often traveled with the dolls, and displayed them regularly in the windows of Einstein’s, the cult East Village clothing store where the two worked, waiting on clients such as Madonna and Warhol.  

Lankton’s three solo exhibitions at the East Village gallery Civilian Warfare were also well documented. A photograph by JoJo Baby of Lankton’s installation The Waiting Room (1985) perfectly encapsulates the kind of raucous tableaux typical of the artist’s work. Her lively characters sit around a cake on bright, stuffed, handmade furniture. 

The inclusion of dolls Lankton sewed as a child evidenced a lifelong obsession, as if the dolls served an ongoing function as surrogate friends, fantasy playmates and self-portraits. For instance, one can read in the emaciated figure of Sissy—a sculpture that like many of Lankton’s dolls underwent constant modifications—the artist’s chronic struggle with anorexia. So too, the various hermaphrodite dolls displayed in “Love Me” evoked her pioneering role as a transgender muse. The latter is also accentuated in photographs of Lankton from the early 1980s, many of them nude, by her now-famous friends Nan Goldin, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Peter Hujar. Lankton’s friendship with Goldin, with whom she briefly lived, is also intimately conveyed in the photographs she took of Lankton and Monroe’s wedding in 1987. They were a highlight of the exhibition, as were the cartoonlike drawings Lankton created to document her sex reassignment surgery, which, like her dolls, are at once deft, witty and vulnerable. 

Much has been made of Lankton’s drug use, and her overdose at age 38, and this, along with her body dysmorphia, have led some to assume her relationship to gender identity was a tortured and unhappy one. “Love Me” did much to debunk this myth, emphasizing the joie de vivre Lankton so clearly embodied in her expressionistic dolls and prodigious output, and returning the artist to her rightful place as an East Village icon.