On Greer Lankton, the Best Friend I’ve Never Met


On Greer Lankton, the Best Friend I’ve Never Met

Author: Isaiah Bertagnolli, PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture


On the night before my last day working as a graduate fellow with the Greer Lankton Archive at the Mattress Factory, Greer came to me in a dream. She handed me a black shoebox. Inside of that shoebox was the doll she made of the drag queen Divine, star of Pink Flamingos, one of Greer’s favorite movies. I myself have never seen the movie, but remember the poster well from the video rental store my family used to frequent when I was a kid. As a six-year-old in Montana, I had no idea what drag was. But I remember thinking Divine was...ridiculous looking. This is the best gift I have ever been given, even if I’ll never have the doll in my possession. Thanks diva.

To work during the summer of Covid was a challenge. It wasn’t until my final month as a fellow I could access the archive itself, and even then only twice a week and each for a short amount of time. For most of my fellowship I catalogued photographs remotely, and went through some of the materials from the archive which had been digitized. I could glean bits and pieces of her life, and I found her very sympathetic. But being in the archive was a profound experience, emotional rather than scholastic. I felt her with me most days, and I think of her as the closest friend I’ve never met.

She was assigned male at birth to her parents, Bill and Lynn Lankton in 1958. She came out as gay at 14, suffered a psychotic break at 19, and began to transition shortly after. She underwent gender confirmation surgery, which her Presbyterian minister father got his Church’s board to cover under the church’s medical insurance. She went to Pratt Institute, and started making a name for herself in the East Village art scene of the 1980s. Peter Hujar shot an ad for her solo show at Civilian Warfare, which appeared on the back cover of ArtForum International. Her father officiated her wedding to Paul Monroe, and the event was photographed by her friends Joyce Randall and Nan Goldin.

Greer struggled. A lot. She was bullied growing up for being effeminate, and bullied for being gay. She came to regret her gender confirmation surgery because she felt deeply unattractive and consequently unloveable. According to close friend Joyce Randall, Greer felt gay men didn’t want her and neither did straight men. She struggled with substance abuse, and went through rehab for heroin addiction after her divorce. According to medical records in the archive which quote Greer, she was subject to domestic abuse. She attempted suicide a number of times throughout her life, and she ultimately died of a cocaine overdose. But despite all this, one can feel the happiness that making dolls brought her. One can feel the love so many had for her in letters and photographs that the archive preserves. She may have felt alone, but there were people who loved and supported her, who wanted things to be better for her, to be easier for her, even well before she moved to New York.

Greer played with dolls as a kid, and as anyone who had to play by themselves can tell you, that really exercises your imagination. That same sense of make believe is manifest in all of her dolls; they were actors in her fantasy world. An interview published in Cellar Door asked “Do you think of them [the dolls] as being real?” To which Greer replied “No, not really, I mean in a way I do. I talk to them. I know they are dolls. I miss them when they are not here, but I don’t feel lonely when they’re not around.”[2] Her dolls all have unique personalities indicated by their names, their sense of style, their appearances. For Greer, I came to suspect, dolls were her friends, and this was a question that I posed in an interview with her close friend David Newcomb. Newcomb said the dolls were the type of friends she wanted, the drag queens she never quite fit in with. Some of her dolls were autobiographical, but not all of them are self portraits. Her dolls are art, but to regard them solely as art minimizes the enormity of the world to which they belong.

It is appropriate in a lot of ways that her installation at the Mattress Factory was a house. It’s a doll house. It’s a reconstruction of her apartment, but more succinctly it represents her world. It is full of the things she loved, and the things that brought her joy. The installation title “It’s All About Me, Not You” tells us as much. It’s a declaration that this installation is unequivocally Greer. But that’s not to say one cannot participate. Initially, visitors were allowed to enter the space, to see these little treasures up close. It seems that Greer Lankton wanted people to get to know her through her art, on her terms. She wanted to be known, and to be loved. It’s Greer’s world. We’re all just living in it.

To close, I would encourage supporting trans-led organizations which seek to benefit transgender folks who are at higher risk for suicide attempts, substance abuse, domestic violence, and homicide. Trans people of color are at especially higher risk. Here in Pittsburgh, SisTers and BroThers PGH, True T, and Trans You-Niting are all local community organizations which address intersecting systems of oppression to uplift and care for trans people in this city.

[1] Personal Interview with David Newcomb, 14 July 2020 conducted by Greer Lankton Archive team. I was able to tell Newcomb about Cloey’s dream, to which he said “She wanted to be remembered, for sure.”

[2] “Three Women Artists in the 80’s: Greer Lankton” Cellar Door Vol. xii No. 2, Spring 1985, pp 33-42, Archive Cabinet 3, shelf 3, box 1 “Newspapers and magazines 1972-1989 and undated” Folder 34.

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