Ellen Lanyon: The Objects of Her Obsession

Ellen Lanyon, Curiosities, Toad (2014), screenprint, 47 x 46 cm. Edition of 30. Printed by Kip Gresham, The Print Studio, Cambridge, UK. Co-published by the artist and The Print Studio. ©Estate of Ellen Lanyon. Courtesy of Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago and New York.

“It all began with a small majolica humidor in the form of a toad in a red westcott [sic], smoking a pipe.”1 Thus Ellen Lanyon (1926–2013) opened her autobiography with a Victorian earthenware vessel that rested on the mantel of her childhood home in Englewood, IL. Over the course of Lanyon’s life, hundreds of objects—from antique pipes and taxidermy animals to measurement devices and dental molds—joined the smoking toad in her curio cabinets and in her paintings, prints and drawings. In her last decade, Lanyon embarked on two ambitious, multipart projects: in the drawings and prints of Index, she catalogued and classified her wondrous collection, while the paintings and prints called Curiosities brought together the indexed objects alongside the mass-produced images Lanyon collected in dense accumulations. Together they look back over almost every aspect of her career. This article surveys the permutations of these two important bodies of work, tracing their structure and linear quality back to her collecting habits and her longstanding fascination with the wood engraver Louis Poyet (1846–1913). In doing so, it reveals Lanyon’s debt to the visual language of the 19th century, particularly its way of systematizing and presenting information descriptively.

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  1. Thank you to Lisa and Andrew Ginzel, who opened their mother’s studio to me and let me dig through Index and her papers. Many others generously spoke with me, including Kip Gresham, Janet Ruttenberg, Arthur Levine, Lynne Warren, Gregg Hertzlieb and Angie Levenstein. Thanks also to Gale Rawson and Jennifer Johns at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for letting me review the Index objects.

    Lanyon’s autobiography, “The Toad Humidor,” was unfinished at the time of her unexpected death and remains unpublished. Lisa Ginzel generously provided access to a copy. []