Ellen Lanyon: Art Commentary by Gregg Hertzlieb

Lanyon art

Ellen Lanyon (1926-2013)

Silk Cabby Screen, 1971

Acrylic on linen

72 x 36 1/4 x 1 1/2 inches (each of three panels)

Gift of the Ellen Lanyon Estate

Brauer Museum of Art, 2014.15.002

Image by Kevvie Simonsen


Ellen Lanyon's painted folding screen titled Silk Cabby is an extraordinary piece in the Brauer Museum's collection and a fine commemorator of her long and remarkable career.  The Brauer Museum staff was fortunate to know Lanyon well during her life and are delighted to present to viewers this work and numerous others by Lanyon in the Brauer's permanent collection.

     Originally from Chicago but later living in Manhattan, Lanyon very much considered herself a Chicago artist influenced a great deal by popular culture, ethnographic art (seen in the Art Institute and Field Museum collections), Surrealism (seen in the Art Institute's collection), and various folk or outsider art products of the Midwest.  Her whimsical creations and considerable technical skills proved immensely inspiring to the artists in the late 1960s / early 1970s known as the Chicago Imagists, whose pieces typically pursued paths of even greater whimsy and stylization.

     Lanyon throughout her career worked with a very personal, very autobiographical type of Surrealism.  Earthly and familiar objects assumed complex, enigmatic identities in the fanciful tableaux or fantastic juxtapositions with things living and nonliving.  Birds were a frequent subject for the artist, who had them in her pieces oftentimes interrelate with antiques and curiosities drawn from her personal collection.  Interestingly, exhibitions of Lanyon's works have on several occasions included a sampling of these objects that the artist had accumulated over the years.  Viewers thus could see not only etchings and drawings of, for example, the leather purse seen in Silk Cabby's right hand panel, but also the purse itself.

     Lanyon was able to work effectively in virtually any medium, with her watercolors ambitious in size and complexity hanging in exhibitions alongside her paintings in acrylic and oil, as well as collages and prints in a variety of processes.  Occasionally, her ambition took her into three dimensions, with modeled sculpture or the Silk Cabby screen.  Silk Cabby is a painting, generally speaking, but by formatting the painting as a hinged screen the artist makes the configuration part of the overall content, urging viewers to consider the associations and meanings or even past experiences of a folding screen when standing before and pondering it.  The pigment of the subjects sits evenly on the coarse and unprimed linen, the background for the artfully composed elements that like on a kimono flicker back and forth between realism and abstraction.

     An important theme that runs through her career is an interest in magic, in transformation, in the sleight of hand seen through the use of vintage tools of the trade.  A silk cabby is an actual magic trick device involving a box with holes on either side and flaps for the front and back of the box.  The magician lowers the front and back flaps of the box to demonstrate to audience members that the box is empty.  He then raises the flaps and begins feeding individual handkerchiefs in one hole of the box.  After inserting a number of handkerchiefs, he begins extracting the handkerchiefs through the other hole—and lo and behold, the handkerchiefs are all tied together.

     In Lanyon's Silk Cabby screen, one sees the box in the center panel atop sturdy legs and emblazoned with an image of Lanyon's family home.  In the right panel are lovely flowers, colorful ribbons, and the aforementioned purse; these enter the box to emerge in the left panel as tied-together fabrics.  A bird sits on the box, either supervising the process or supervising the viewers.  The stout legs supporting the box seem to match or come from the stout house adorning it (or instead of our looking at a picture, we are looking through a window revealing the house within).  Things Lanyon loves go into the box, which is a house or a symbol of a house or contains a house—and a house is a box—and they come out unified, together, resolved.  Colored fabrics, organic color, patterned skins enter and go through the home, through the heart, and emerge connected, as white sheets.  Inspiration is synthesis, with the artistic awareness as a magical, mystical filter that strips away what once was in order to give new life—and in this instance, the new life presents the process.  Lanyon's Silk Cabby is the mind of an artist, her mind, where what goes in comes out forever cleansed of any existence or nature save what the artist brings to it in its new iteration.

     In viewing the screen, one can always enjoy assuming that the artist is behind it.


Gregg Hertzlieb is Curator and Director of the Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University.  Hertzlieb is the editor of the books The Calumet Region: An American Place (Photographs by Gary Cialdella), published in 2009, and Domestic Vision: Twenty-Five Years of the Art of Joel Sheesley (2008), as well as a contributor to The Indiana Dunes Revealed: The Art of Frank V. Dudley (2006). He has been awarded the Edward L. Ryerson Traveling Fellowship by the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and a Conant Writing Award for Poetry from Millikin University.  His artwork has been exhibited widely, including at the Aron Packer Gallery, August House Studio, the Central School of Art and Design in London, Columbia College, Elgin Community College, the Goodman Theater, and Struve Gallery.