New York

View of “Greer Lankton,” 2014.

View of “Greer Lankton,” 2014.

Greer Lankton

PARTICIPANT INC

View of “Greer Lankton,” 2014.

Greer Lankton created a world that she wanted to live in. The often life-size dolls that peopled this exhibition, which was high on many people’s favorites lists for 2014, have a psychic charge that speaks of needs and ambitions not only aesthetic but immediate and personal, as if in making these sculptures she’d been making beings to give herself company and support. Should the thought arise that this turns them into something other than art—therapy, perhaps—I would quickly dismiss it: The feeling of entering a previously unimagined dimension that its maker has realized and worked through to a degree unthinkable to others, yet whose necessity they recognize, is an aesthetic experience of a high kind. In any case, therapy may not be such a bad way for art to go. (Perhaps Giacometti, too, could on some level have been making company for himself.)

Lankton, a transgender woman who died in 1996, at the age of thirty-eight, was a principal figure in Manhattan’s East Village art scene of the 1980s. Although that short-lived circuit of storefront galleries and clubs produced artists who would prosper in the market, notably the neo-geo group that included Jeff Koons, it is significantly and fondly remembered as an alternative to the established art world: a low-rent bohemia, memorialized in the photographs of Lankton’s friend Nan Goldin, that allowed young artists to live and work without much in the way of means. (The wire armatures of Lankton’s dolls she supposedly made from the skeletons of abandoned umbrellas.) Surely one reason this show struck the chord it did was that the East Village then was the antithesis of present-day Chelsea, whose grand spaces demand equally grand and finance-intensive art. Even so, while Lankton was never exactly mainstream, she was visible, showing not just in the East Village but uptown and internationally. Her biennials included not only the Whitney but Venice, and when she died, Roberta Smith wrote her obituary in the New York Times. Despite the difficulties of her life, she is some kind of model for how to come from outside and make a career.

The show was full; the checklist included, by my count, more than fifty three-dimensional works, along with a crowd of drawings, ephemera, and photographs, including wonderful and well-known ones by Goldin, Peter Hujar, and others at the heart of the East Village world of the time. And the dolls—some diminutive, some larger than life—had lost none of their presence and character. Like the sculptures of another East Village artist, Kiki Smith, Lankton’s works reflect a full sense of the troubles and difficulties of sexuality, but they are comforting as well as grotesque, endearing as well as heartrending, and her portrait of Vogue editor Diana Vreeland has as much style as its model did. Her dolls—she began to make them as a child—have been compared to those of the Surrealist artist Hans Bellmer, but she may be closer to an artist whose work I doubt she knew, the Venezuelan Armando Reverón, who made dolls as a kind of community and family for himself, then included their images in his painting. In fact, my only reservation about this labor-of-love exhibition was its placement of Lankton’s no doubt fragile sculptures in vitrines. I don’t remember seeing them displayed that way in the ’80s, and many photographs, including some in the show, suggest how closely Lankton seems to have cohabited with her dolls, how present they were in her life. (It’s all about ME, Not You, 1996, a permanent installation at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, still gives some sense of this.) Although the exhibition’s abundant ephemera provided some balance, the containment of the dolls, the limitation of their vitality, contributed to the show’s sense of loss.

David Frankel