“Her favourite colour was Baby Blue. Her skin was flawless like paper. She used Shiseido face powder and Chanel lipstick- usually RED. Heavily mascarred eyes. And the finest of penciled brows. She would sit at the mirror for hours perfecting them. For scent she wore a mix of Kiehl’s Chinese Flowers and Chanel Number 5. Her nails were either Tiffany blue or cherry red.” The late artist Greer Lankton is remembered by Paul Monroe, her husband and the custodian of her archives.
Words JOHN WILLIAM
It was through pictures in a greasy library book that I got to know Greer (and Paul, and Cookie Mueller, and a whole velvet underground of beautiful creatures I so desperately wanted to belong to as a teenager). Nan Goldin’s photographs were like stained glass windows to another world. Greer was born in Flint, Michigan in 1958, and given the name Greg by parents who, with the help of their church congregation, paid for his sex reassignment surgery. Greer’s father was later minister at Greer and Paul’s wedding (where Teri Toye was maid of honour and Nan Goldin wedding photographer). On a piece of paper found in Greer’s archives, she wrote, ‘Greer Lankton. At 8:00am on August 14th 1978 I had sex-reassignment surgery by Dr. Richard Murray in Youngstown Hospital Southside Unity, Youngstown, Ohio. I was 5’8” and weighed 130 lbs’.
Although it is easy to look at the ever mutable gang of creations as a result of Greer’s (by some reports; involuntary) sex change, that doesn’t take into account the fact she was sewing together dolls since childhood. At the age of twelve she made a life-size boy with shoulder length hair and a bellybutton. This tweenage companion was later cut up and reassembled into ‘Dee Dee Delux’, an outrageous, fat queen who Greer would sometimes actually step inside and wear. Dee Dee was eventually given a gastric band, wire-wool dreadlocks and a new name: Princess Pamela. In all of her blue-fleshed crimson-lipped glory, Pamela caught the eye of Iggy Pop who couldn’t resist taking her home to live happily ever after. One of the dolls lost on the subway of time is Sissy – formerly named Missy – the slightly taller and skinnier than life size doyenne, who Greer worked on and worked over for years. Picture Norma Desmond dressed by Manuela Pavesi. Sissy had a full set of human teeth and was house model for Einsteins Boutique’s ever changing window where Greer would display her dolls. Paul opened Einsteins in 1981, and it is in the back room of the shop where Greer gave Sissy her surgeries under the loving watch of Paul.
Greer is sometimes lumped in with ‘outsider’ and ‘folk’ artists… Perhaps because of the compulsive, personal nature of her work? Perhaps because of her use of appropriated junk? Perhaps because of the craft evident in the dolls? Nonetheless, it’s not like Greer had not experienced success or recognition in her lifetime. Alongside the ever-evolving Einsteins windows, she had solo shows at Civilian Warfare, showed at MoMA PS1 and was included in the Whitney and Venice Biennials. After a period of relative obscurity, Greer completed one more major show in the months leading up to her death, ‘It’s all about ME, Not You’ for Mattress Factory. Greer died in 1996, before the show came down, and thankfully the gallery were able to preserve a large selection of Greer’s artworks that may have been thrown away. She was only 38 years old and died in an apartment in Chicago. Her dolls, her art, her things, her wedding dress, were thrown into a skip. So many of her peers dead or strung out on dope… no global social network of misfits and hipsters to canonize Greer or raise her up in a gilded palanquin. There are horror stories online regarding Greer’s last days, as told by friends and acquaintances of varying degrees of dubiousness. Culture juggernaut Roberta Smith wrote Greer Lankton’s obituary in The New York Times. But there is still no monograph.
Paul Monroe, Lankton’s widower, is talking to me from Los Angeles, and I think we should imagine him sat surrounded by Diana Vreeland… Jackie O… Paloma Picasso… Candy Darling – the constellation of Greer Lankton’s guiding stars. He may well be, as Paul runs G.L.A.M (Greer Lankton Archives Museum) and is the current custodian of Greer’s gaggle of gangling, gorgeous dolls. On the G.L.A.M Instagram the mission statement is clear: ‘Putting Greer Lankton back into the conversation for good.’
PM: Greer wasn’t allowed to play with dolls as a kid and everytime she would get a doll her parents would like, you know, destroy it… make big deal out of it. But she was allowed to buy trolls and trolls were really popular like when she was like six or seven, so those were her first dolls that she could buy like a lot of and keep in her bedroom and not get in trouble for. She has a super strong connection with trolls and that’s why they’re in her work a lot. Like one of the things that I’m searching for is more of the trolls because she made lots of them, and they’re just all over the place.
Just this week we’ve had people packing everything for The National Gallery show that opens in DC, and then there’s a show at The Met in April, and then there’s one at LACMA for the end of this year. There’s a bunch of shows going on so we’re just, kind
of like, doing that at the moment.
JW: Is that what you spend a lot of your time doing? Looking after the archive?
PM: Well I do that and then, you know, I decorate houses that Lena Dunham owns that’s the other thing that I do…
JW: Yeah, of course.
PM : So it needs to be seen. She made an enormous amount of work; I’m finding it like all the time. It’s very exhausting because now that she has become more known, sometimes people want, you know, like $100,000 for a doll that they bought from us for like, you know, three grand. There is a lot of greed.
But you know who she was like? She was very English and she was very like Oscar Wilde. Do you know that kind of feeling?
JW: Well of course… hear no evil, speak no evil, and you won’t be invited to cocktail parties.
PM: Like, it’s a knowing kind of cockiness she was so incredibly witty, like super witty. She was really super sweet and would not be like the kind of person who would say something rude to you, but she would say something rude when you left the room, you know. But everybody thought she was like the sweetest. She was basically very much like a child with a really great wit and style. She had a super English quality about her without a doubt. She was very refined and she was really into British culture… like the queen.
JW: It is through art, and through art only, that we can realise our perfection.
PM: She was obsessed with celebrities like John Collins and Elizabeth Taylor. Anyone who went to the excess part of stardom – extra fat or extra skinny or extra fucked up – she was all in. And then her other key thing too is the bellybutton.
She has a lot of work like her final project at Pratt was called umbilicus and she had made like a 20 foot large interior of a bellybutton. And I think she really liked bellybuttons a lot because of all the weird connections to like birth and mother – plus, she got a lot of sexual satisfaction out of her bellybutton. And she used to do family castings. Like she’d go over to somebody’s house and do their whole families bellybuttons, like that was her art that she did on the side to make money. A lot of people haven’t really discovered that yet in her work, which I think is interesting. I think it kind of freaks them out.
JW: I think in this day and age the bellybutton is freakier to people than a cunt or an arsehole. Maybe it’s the final frontier.
PM: Yeah it is; they can’t figure it out. Greer’s finger was always in her bellybutton it was really irritating! You know, what’s kind of weird too is like at the time period like in the early 80s Madonna was always talking about bellybuttons then too.
Greer wasn't allowed to play with dolls as a kid and everytime she would get a doll her parents would like, you know, destroy it… make big deal out of it.
JW: How much of a full-time job is that?
PM: That’s a hugely full-time job! Right now we are looking for like two more houses to buy and then, you know, I’ll decorate them, and we’ll go on for another like two or three years. So that’s my side project, and you know, she’s the head of the Greer Lankton Archive Museum; she’s all of our money.
PM: She’s the Chief Operating Officer so, you know, she’s a big part of everything.
JW: Was the archive already together before you started using Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest?
PM: The physical archive was already in place, so putting it out on the Internet was just another vehicle to like, you know, have it seen. And to get people interested in her because, you know, my whole plot has been very simple in just kind of creating like a sainthood for her. And like, slowly putting things out over the last years and, you know, all the shows that I’ve done have been kind of planned out. And it’s just to bring her work more into the focus of the universe, you know, that’s basically what it’s about, so her life isn’t like wasted in that kind of way.
JW: Yeah I was going to say!
PM: And she was really into bellybutton sex and the whole world is so freaked out that she would talk about her bellybutton.
JW: I remember one of the interviews I read with Madonna she said she likes being pressed really hard in the bellybutton just when she’s about to cum.
PM: Yeah it’s crazy! Her and Greer were friends and they had a big bellybutton discussion once at a barbeque, it was really cute. Greer adored her. I couldn’t stand Madonna because when I was in high school she was a waitress at the restaurant we used to go to and she was the worst waitress in the world – she was the kind that would stand on the table to get everyone’s attention, you know? And she was covered with thick black hair on her arms and that used to really gross me out. But Greer was a huge fan of hers; she loved her. I mean she was nice and all, but I never really got it.
Greer was very explicit about me having to be her slave for eternity. You understand that, right? Like, she was very much into the dreamy world of like I’m going to kill myself and be a big star and you’re going to have to be responsible. I don’t know what you might have read, but sometimes people like to say that she killed herself. She didn’t overdose, her heart exploded. It was a whole different kind of medical thing, but you know, people like to put a different stamp on things. So, it wasn’t like she killed herself and it was a suicide – which is, you know, part of the dreamy mystique around her name – it was more just her body had given in. She was very like sickly all the time. I mean, she just had a really bad immune system and constitution and the sex change was really hard on her body because she couldn’t take hormones. So, you know, the psychological part of not having any hormones in your body from like 20 to 38 is like pretty intense.
JW: What do you think of the rising vogue for outsider art in the commercial art world?
PM I think the term is just ridiculous I think it’s a financial kind of political term and that it has nothing to do with reality. Because there is such a thing as like, outsider art… to me it is like, you know, a lady that’s at home and she has kids and she makes art and it could be amazing and fantastic but she’s not trying to have an art career. That to me is outsider art – a person who’s not trying to have an art career. To say that Greer didn’t have a career by calling her an outside artist kind of gets on my nerves.
She had a degree and she showed from the time she was 21, you know, like one of her first shows was with Hans Bellmer it’s not like she was a nobody. I know if she were around to witness those kinds of things, she’d be really pissed off because she wouldn’t consider herself an outsider artist. It’s like how is she any different than Nan [Goldin], you know? There is no difference.
JW: Is it painful to be spending each day with pictures of Greer, the archive, making all of that personal work so public?
PM No, my whole thing is that I’m really good at denial. So, in my weird brain I have just made it like Greer’s still alive, so I really don’t have any kind of like problem with it. I’m just kind of keeping her alive in the way where it just feels like she’s still alive. It doesn’t really feel personal to me. On this one level it feels like I’m a little bit removed from it, and on the other one it just feels like, you know, she would like this picture to be out today.