at Petzel Gallery, New York City
Reviewed by James Quandt
Many female artists — most recently Carmen Herrera, Faith Ringgold, and Lorraine O’Grady — have had to wait a lifetime to be accorded the recognition of a major museum retrospective. The Austrian painter and filmmaker Maria Lassnig abided many decades of curatorial slights and oversights before being granted one at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 2008, six years before her death at the age of ninety-four. Astonished by the revelation of Lassnig’s extreme paintings, with their sometimes bilious palettes and gleeful emphasis on aged, corpulent, and deliquescing flesh, The Guardian’s reviewer, Laura Cumming, proclaimed, “Maria Lassnig is the discovery of the year—of the century.”
Hans Ulrich Obrist, the curator of the retrospective, later revealed that
Maria had a lot of doubts about doing an exhibition at the Serpentine in London. She didn’t think it would be a success…. A week before the opening, she wanted to cancel because she thought the ceilings were too low.
But she was thrilled when British critics compared her portraits to those of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, two of the artists she admired most. Indeed, the rotund male nudes who repeatedly appear in Lassnig’s work — such as The World Destroyer, a bemused colossus who clutches what appears to be a deflated globe between his beefy hands — seem like comical confreres of the obese performance artist Leigh Bowery, who appears in many of Freud’s paintings. Even when whimsical, Lassnig’s depictions of the human body tend to be unsparing — “drastic,” to use her word — not least in her many ruthless self-portraits. Du oder Ich (You or Me) depicts her as a menacing nude, her senescent body haloed with her trademark viridian, her legs brazenly splayed to emphasize her hairless pudendum as she points two guns, one at her audience, the other at her temple. Who will perish first, the onlooker or the artist?
Born in 1919 in the southern Austrian state of Carinthia, Lassnig developed both an early confidence in her artistic ability and a sense of self-doubt. Her autobiographical film Maria Lassnig Kantate (The Ballad of Maria Lassnig, 1992) portrays her childhood home as a parental battlefield where she was constantly ducking to avoid a barrage of domestic projectiles. In her prodigious biography of the artist, Natalie Lettner offers a psychological reading of Lassnig’s often paralyzing combination of immense pride — “I painted far better than any man,” she boasts, her hubris laced with self-mockery, in Kantate — and debilitating insecurity. Lettner observes that “even in old age, Lassnig still attributed her low self-esteem to growing up in the countryside: ‘zero self-confidence!’”
Lettner further implies that Lassnig’s anxiety emerged from her feelings of illegitimacy, as the child of a father who claimed noble lineage and refused to marry her nonaristocratic mother, Mathilde. He rejected his newborn daughter because he desired a male heir, but he deigned to inspect her and declared in dismay at her homeliness, “She’ll improve” — a tale her mother repeated to her many times. After abandoning Maria for some years to be raised by a harried and unloving grandmother, Mathilde married a much older baker named Lassnig. Though she was so unhappy in marriage that she attempted suicide, she pressed her daughter to wed and have children, which Maria instinctively knew would mean capitulation to domesticity and the end of her artistic career. In Kantate, she celebrates her intransigent resistance to the many marriage proposals that came her way, and Lettner writes that she turned the fine linens and sheets that her mother had gathered for her dowry into materials for her paintings.
Lassnig recorded her guilt over not fulfilling Mathilde’s wishes and her grief over her premature death from cancer in several works, most movingly in the painting Mother and Daughter. The periphery of the canvas is crowded with witnesses who gaze impassively down upon the distraught artist as she nestles on a white sheet next to her dead mother, whose stomach and hand have sprouted lush greenery, as if to make literal the saying from Isaiah, “All flesh is grass.”
“I grew up without language,” Lassnig once claimed. A taciturn, pious child who valued images over words, she excelled at a convent school run by Ursuline nuns despite being tormented by the other students. Lettner recounts that the sole exception to her perfect grades was “a C in Diligence because she was too shy to speak.” She did not remain mute for long. The acute, antisentimental nature Lassnig developed in this often cruel setting later found expression in her profuse notebooks, which teem with mini-manifestoes, acid observations, and witty notations — “I want a man I can switch on and off like a TV.” And the bulletins she wrote for Viennese newspapers from Paris and New York about gallery shows and aesthetic trends during the 1960s and 1970s reveal a crisp proficiency.
However, Lassnig remained unusually vague and evasive about her years at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, to which she was admitted in 1940 after fleeing a brief stint as a country schoolteacher. She did not know enough, she claimed, to be frustrated by the stringent antimodernism of its faculty, which by then had been purged of all Jewish and “Jewish-miscegenated” professors; she remained largely unaware of anything other than classic realist and Old Master painting. Lassnig seemed to flourish in the conservative atmosphere of the academy, where the artistic ideals were Rembrandt and Dürer, “probably,” she surmised, “because my drawings had a rustic farm quality to them — and on top of that I wore a Dirndl dress and had braids.” She described her attitude as “childlike” during this period, which suggests a naive obliviousness about the war and the academy’s collusion with the Nazi regime. Her professor Wilhelm Dachauer, for example, who produced celebrations of Aryan peasantry, went on to paint, Lettner notes, “a monumental full-length portrait of Hitler for the ceremonial room of Vienna’s City Hall.” Her account of this period of Lassnig’s career suggests that she could not have been entirely unaware of the academy’s politics and was granted scholarships that would have gone only to politically acquiescent students.
“Over the years, I have been involved with a lot of isms,” Lassnig professed at the beginning of an essay in Artforum on the occasion of her Serpentine retrospective. Those “isms” included the “degenerate” artistic movements that the faculty at the academy had assiduously concealed from its students, especially Surrealism, Expressionism, Automatism, Cubism, and, to a lesser degree, Impressionism. Repudiating the precepts of her professors once the war ended, Lassnig took up some of those hitherto forbidden styles, often combining elements from each, and her palette brightened from what she called “brown sauce,” the dun monochrome decreed by the academy, eventually transforming into an antirealist riot of minty greens, fleshy pinks, and citric yellows, inspired by the intense colors used by artists in her home province of Carinthia.
Though Lassnig is credited with helping to introduce the gestural abstraction of art informel and Tachisme into postwar Austrian art, she inherited those movements from others. Her increasing emphasis on dissolving the division between mind and body resulted in her most important contribution to art, which she called “body awareness painting.” In the Artforum essay she describes this approach:
Figuration comes about almost automatically, because in my art I start first and foremost with myself. I do not aim for the “big emotions” when I’m working, but concentrate on small feelings: sensations in the skin or in the nerves, all of which one feels. I became interested in all this early on and tried to fix these sensations in straightforward brushstrokes, because in the body they are changing continuously.
As Lettner details, Lassnig’s intense apprehension of physicality no doubt originated in her hypersensitivity, to sound and odor especially, but also to any kind of pain or suffering, including that of animals; she wrote in 1944, “I feel like a fragile apothecary’s scale being used to weigh sacks of flour.”
Attempting to translate corporeal sensations and ephemeral perceptions onto the canvas — what she called “paining the painting into form” — Lassnig subjected the representation of her body to a series of mutations, excisions, and attenuations. A self-portrait might situate her brain outside her cranium, perched at the back of her head like a misplaced beret; shear off her hair entirely, leaving an exposed, slab-like forehead atop a squarish, blankly staring face; place her head next to an abstract one whose central feature is a vulva; or taper an arm into a flimsy ribbon of tissue where the hand should be. Lassnig systematized colors so that they matched various emotions or parts of the body: pain had its own hue, as did thought.
“Maria Lassnig: The Paris Years, 1960–68,” at the Petzel Gallery, traces the development of her art during her crucial Paris sojourn, beginning with a series of informel abstractions. Their scribbles carry hints of the violets and lilacs that later predominated in many of the paintings of Joan Mitchell, whom Lassnig befriended in Paris and who shared her derision at the term “lady painter.”
These are followed by a series of exquisite Strichbilder (line paintings), whose airy skeins of pigment eerily anticipate the late works of Willem de Kooning.
As figuration returned to Lassnig’s canvases around 1962, in such waggish works as The Grumpy Hero, in which a red-faced warrior dominates center stage only to implode in a fit of mock fury, and she became fascinated by science fiction, her body awareness paintings transformed into a strange bestiary of homunculi and chimerae. Humans merge with animals, machines, or monsters, as in Dressur (Dressage, 1965), in which a half-canine, half-sphinx creature with a human face crawls across a field of green while another torso-less anthropoid, consisting only of a face (Lassnig’s?) and jumbo, outthrust legs rides its back end, and a male figure lurks ominously in the upper-left corner. A dog is also discernible at the edge of the frame, one of many in Lassnig’s work, like the black puppy that lolls on a recumbent nude in her early film Iris or the mutts that crowd her recently discovered Dog Film from the mid-1970s. The exhibition culminates with two of Lassnig’s strongest works of the period: Hospital (1965), the canvas that Laura Cumming considered the masterpiece of the Serpentine retrospective and that reveals an affinity with the crowd scenes of the Belgian symbolist James Ensor; and Breakfast with Ear (1967), a surrealistic parody of Édouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, in which a series of deformed organisms and upturned pieces of furniture attend a repast of a single ear on a plate that is set, instead of in Manet’s verdant forest, in a blanched, Bacon-like amphitheater.
In 1968 Lassnig left for New York on the advice of Nancy Spero, who told her that female artists had a much easier time succeeding there. Lettner suggests another reason for her departure: she was frightened and appalled by the street riots that broke out in Paris in the summer of 1968, and she pitied the police who did battle with what she considered spoiled, bourgeois children rebelling out of “silver spoon” privilege. In this she shared the feelings of Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose films she admired and who wrote an infamous poem taking the side of the policemen pelted by protesters in Rome.
In New York, Lassnig became mesmerized by the many movies on television, often watching several a day, when she was not viewing her favorite sitcom, The Odd Couple. (In Kantate, she assures us that even in old age, “my television helps me through the night.”) The passion for cinema that she had nurtured in Paris, combined with her oft-repeated belief that artists must constantly change their style, led her to explore filmmaking. After attending some courses in animation and frequenting screenings at the Millennium Film Workshop, Anthology Film Archives, and the Film-Maker’s Cooperative, Lassnig cobbled together a primitive studio and storyboard table to assemble her experimental animations, despite her antipathy to technology and machines (including a typewriter on which she had briefly trained in an attempt to make extra money as a typist). When asked why she was suddenly interested in making films, she said, “New York is a film city; of course films are made there.” In one self-portrait, she portrayed herself with a movie camera affixed to her face as a prosthesis.
Though she continued to draw and paint, Lassnig’s energies increasingly focused on filmmaking, and in 1974 she cofounded Women/Artist/Filmmakers, Inc., a collective of ten women whose primary purposes were to offer mutual support and inspiration and to share funding, ideas, and opportunities for exhibition. Typically acerbic, she eventually dismissed all her colleagues in the collective (except for the radical Carolee Schneemann) as “sentimentalists,” and though invigorated by the women’s movement, she preferred not to be labeled a feminist. She later insisted on using the male form of the German word for artist (Künstler) for herself, and she wanted her work measured against that of the most eminent artists, all men. She asked, “What does Baselitz think of me, what about Richter? What does Lucian Freud say about my work?” (The two male artists to whom she would most profitably be compared are Martin Kippenberger and Philip Guston.)
Lassnig’s films enjoyed considerable success, but until now have not received the same sustained critical attention as her paintings. A fine new volume of essays, Maria Lassnig: Film Works, while occasionally burdening what are mostly modest works with excess theory, offers a wealth of information and analysis about this important aspect of her art. The anthology includes a series of brief appreciations of Lassnig by curators, friends, and artists — some of whom note her thorny, mercurial nature and her social anxieties — a selection of insightful essays by both art and film scholars, a generous offering of pages from her notebooks, and an exhaustive annotated filmography, the hallmark of publications from the Austrian Film Museum.
Lassnig’s so-called canonical films, in which she draws on such childhood memories as being taught that chairs are not lifeless but sentient objects (Chairs, 1971) and her mother’s visit to a psychic who predicted that Maria would become a great artist (Palmistry, 1973), have long been available on a DVD simply titled Maria Lassnig: Animation Films.
Like other feminist filmmakers of the 1970s, such as Babette Mangolte and Yvonne Rainer, Lassnig was drawn to the dance film. One of her earliest works, Baroque Statues (1970–1974), opens in the Gurk Cathedral in Carinthia where she was baptized, her handheld camera surveying statues of the four evangelists and their respective attributes. In a series of crude match cuts — edits that match an action, sound, or object from one composition to the next — Lassnig rhymes a writing quill in a statue’s hand with one wielded by a woman’s hand outside, her nails painted a pulsating red and the feather on her quill in fuchsia. The film then departs the carved inertness of the statues to offer an ecstatic study in motion, as a young woman in a heavily brocaded dress begins a dance with some Martha Graham poses before whirling like a dervish through an alpine meadow, becoming a crimson, lavalike blur as the music segues from the baroque (Lassnig’s favorites, Bach and Handel) to the granitic splendor of Bruckner.
Other dance films turned up in a trove of Lassnig’s “films in progress,” which the artist had consigned to a trunk to be opened only after her death, and which are included on a DVD attached to the back jacket of Film Works. Unlike the Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira, who decreed that his film Visit, or Memories and Confessions be exhibited only posthumously, Lassnig did not intend to pique speculation about the hidden material, but rather wanted to concentrate on painting and teaching after she was lured back to Austria to become a professor at the Vienna University of Applied Arts. (The films seem to have represented a past from which she wanted a decisive break, and she abandoned some hurt and puzzled companions from New York in the process.)
In many ways, the unfinished films that Lassnig set aside turn out to be superior to the ones she completed; they frequently revisit her themes and motifs but with a greater sophistication of means and sureness of tone. The two dance films found in Lassnig’s trunk last one and two minutes, respectively. The longer one, Autumn Thoughts (circa 1975), features a bare-chested male leaping and pirouetting through a forest, an obvious homage to Maya Deren’s classic dance film A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945), intercut with shots of Lassnig shambling along in a body wrapping, barely able to move, an image of female incarceration. The contrast between immobility and freedom, confinement and motion, recalls Baroque Statues, but the concision of Autumn Thoughts intensifies its effect. Aside from The Princess and the Shepherd. A Fairytale (1976–1978), a twee, overlong fantasy, the other newly discovered films similarly benefit from brevity, and their humor relies more on Lassnig’s sardonic wit and less on the cloying whimsy of, say, her venerated Art Education (1976), which turns the tables on Vermeer by having one of his young female subjects take his place at the easel to paint him while cooing, “Honey, you’re a wonderful model.”
In general, the music tracks in the newly available works are more tightly tethered to the rhythms and visual tonalities of the films. For instance, the shuttling between two pieces by Schoenberg and Morton Subotnick’s electronic Touch — Lassnig repeatedly used both the Second Viennese School and the Subotnick — lends a piercing aural density to perhaps the best of her rediscovered films, Moonlanding/Janus Head, a blizzard of imagery intended to evoke America in all its crazed beauty, sports mania, and incipient violence.
Filmmaking seemed to make Lassnig more generous, less prone to the rivalry and resentment she often experienced in the art world. In a series called Soul Sisters, discovered in the trunk, she offers three loving portraits of women she considered soulmates. Alice looks directly back to one of Lassnig’s best-known films, Iris, by featuring another nude odalisque, here squirting herself with red wine out of a decanter as fireworks burst over her body in superimposition, meant to capture how, in Lassnig’s words, she “appeared in the New York art scene like a sparkling comet” and disappeared just as quickly. In a silent film, Mountain Woman, she captures the quotidian life of a Carinthian peasant farmer, a filmic analogue to a series of portraits she painted in tribute to her compatriots.
Lassnig also learned to be generous to herself as she aged, and by the time she made Kantate, a mock musical biopic, she could review her turbulent life with a kind of wry serenity. Huskily intoning a ballad that summarizes her existence from newborn to old age over a hurdy-gurdy drone, she plays dress-up, donning an array of costumes to reflect the various stages of her peripatetic life. Festooned with the medals and awards she accumulated along the way, she goes on to sing in a Harlequin sweater, “Now I love the world with all my might,” as she caresses a globe, leaving far behind the artist who had declared in 1962, “I don’t love anybody. Nobody loves me.”
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Originally published under the title “Body Awareness” in the 16 December issue of The New York Review
James Quandt is a regular contributor to Artforum. He has edited monograph volumes on Robert Bresson, Shohei Imamura, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Kon Ichikawa.