Press Releases

Date of Release: 
Friday, November 6, 2015
Contact Info: 

Erika Monroe-Kane, Director of Communications
608.257.0158 x 237 or

Curious Worlds: The Art of Ellen Lanyon

Curious Worlds: The Art of Ellen Lanyon

Exhibition on view December 5, 2015 through April 17, 2016

Opening Reception, December 4, 6–9 pm


MADISON, WI— Drawing on its strong holdings in the expressive, figurative art of the Chicago School, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art presents an exhibition of paintings and prints by Ellen Lanyon, a key figure in the development of the post-War Chicago art community. Opening December 5, 2015 and on view through April 17, 2016, Curious Worlds: The Art of Ellen Lanyon will focus primarily on a period the artist named “Magic,” a career phase that marked an important shift in her style and subject matter.

In the late 1960s, Lanyon began to find inspiration in her personal collection of curios and decorative objects—a diverse assembly of boxes, bowls, cups and saucers, baskets, and fans. In a unique blend of realism and surrealism, she created fantastical still lifes that juxtapose illustrations of her eclectic collectables with imagery of a resplendent nature filled with birds, rabbits, amphibians, reptiles, and insects. Seemingly imbuing her compositions with metaphysical powers, Lanyon often animated the inanimate, depicting her objects as though they could come alive and interact in unexpected ways with a multitudinous animal world.

Lanyon’s subject matter underwent another evolution in 1976, the year she received a commission from the Department of the Interior to document wildlife in the Everglades. In her own words, she was “awakened to the environmental crisis,” an experience that led to an increasing focus on flora and fauna. As her work continued to progress, she brought together flowers and machines in nocturnal settings, as seen in the painting Arabian Nights (1998). In an iconography reminiscent of the juxtapositions of the Magic period, winged insects hover over a bed of irises and cavort around a vintage radio microphone like moths to a flame. Are they mesmerized by a story strangely broadcast from the microphone, much as the sultan was by the magical tales of Scheherazade that were gathered in One Thousand and One Nights, also known as Arabian Nights? As with her other works, in this piece Lanyon reflects an uncanny sense of transformation, of a continuously surprising world around us that the artist poeticizes and imbues with the mythic.



Although not linked specifically to the Monster Roster of the immediate postwar period or to the Imagists who dominated the later 1960s and 70s, Lanyon was likewise drawn to eccentric figuration, the fantastical, and surrealism. Postwar Chicago had become a major center for surrealism, with the rich holdings of the Art Institute of Chicago and major exhibitions devoted to the topic, the development of important private collections on the subject, and the character of the art being produced in the city all leading to the notion of a Chicago School.

Lanyon, a painter and printmaker, earned a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1948 and her MFA in 1950 from The University of Iowa. Working as an artist in the 1950s and 60s, producing simplified portraits and still lifes, she honed her vision, coming into her own in the early 1970s. At this point, Lanyon began to develop a mature style inspired by the irrational imagery of surrealism and magic realism, henceforth naming her works “dreamscapes.” Lanyon said of her art in 1977: “The putting together of a visual poetry is intended to be independent. It stems from and hopes to speak to private regions of the intellect. That landscape of day and night dreams where symbolism liberates itself from textbooks and develops an autonomous and unique intensity.”

Lanyon taught for almost forty years at universities and professional art schools and retired as an Associate Professor at Cooper Union in New York City, where she was based in her later career. Her work appears in the collections of institutions as the Art Institute of Chicago; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Brooklyn Museum; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.


Housed in a soaring, Cesar Pelli designed building, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art provides free exhibitions and education programs that engage people in modern and contemporary art. The galleries offer changing exhibitions that feature established and emerging artists. The Rooftop Sculpture Garden provides an urban oasis with an incredible view. The museum is open: Tuesday–Thursday: noon – 5pm; Friday: noon – 8pm; Saturday: 10am – 8pm; Sunday: noon – 5pm; and is closed on Mondays. 

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