PRINT October 1999

Greer Lankton

By the night I photographed Greer Lankton at the opening of her second show at Civilian Warfare, I’d known her for years. I met her in the late ’70s when she first arrived in New York, from Chicago, and though still in her early twenties, she had already created some significant pieces, like her huge cloth pregnant hermaphrodite giving birth, made after having a dream in which she gave birth to herself—a dream that might be said to presage her entire life and work. Born the youngest son of a Presbyterian minister, her father’s church paid for her sex change, and Greer spent the rest of her life constantly transforming her own body and the bodies of her dolls. The consuming theme of her life and work was sexuality and gender, in all their mutable permutations. According to Diego Cortez—who, in 1981, included her in P.S. 1’s “New York/New Wave,” a defining show of the downtown movement—“Greer was one of the pioneers who blurred the line between folk art and fine art.”

Beautiful, glamorous, fragile, with a disarming sweetness and an ironic wit, Greer quickly became one of the luminaries of the East Village art world, a muse to other artists, like David Wojnarowicz and Peter Hujar, and a seminal artistic force in her own right.

Greer created magical kingdoms, in my studio on the Bowery and on the stages she built for her exhibitions. She constantly worked and reworked her dolls, changing their genders, identities, sizes, and clothes. They were beautifully rendered, with complex substructures and movable joints. She surrounded herself with her own family of “freaks,” society’s outsiders, whom she deeply identified with—contortionists, Siamese twins, hermaphrodites, pinheads—and made astoundingly accurate renditions of her heroines (Candy Darling, Edie Sedgwick, Diana Vreeland, Teri Toye, and Divine). In bringing her dolls to life, Greer worked through her own traumas: the pain from complications from her surgery, her struggle with anorexia, her rejection by lovers, her drug problems. She remolded her dolls, changed their names, skinned them, sometimes hanging their skins as the finished work. Her work was so visceral, so exposed, that I once told her it was like an operation without anesthesia.

Greer moved back to Chicago to escape the loss of so many of her friends from aids and to try and stop using drugs. The last time I saw her was in New York, when she was in the 1995 Whitney Biennial curated by Klaus Kertess. Her last show, in October 1996, was at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, where she recreated her apartment, a tiny room full of dolls, furniture, drawings, photographs, pill bottles, and drug paraphernalia. She titled the show “It’s all about ME Not You.” On November 18, 1996, Greer was found dead from an overdose of cocaine. She was thirty-eight years old.

Nan Goldin is a New York–based artist.