MARIA LASSNIGby John Yau
FRIEDRICH PETZEL GALLERY | OCTOBER 29 – DECEMBER 22, 2010
Dear Reader, can you imagine the following scenario? One day, in the spirit of Institutional Critique, the curators of the Museum of Modern Art decide to organize a series of exhibitions under the collective title “Missed Opportunities” and announce that the first show will focus on Maria Lassnig, who was born in Austria in 1919, one year after Gustav Klimt and his protégé Egon Schiele died, and who—in contrast to many German artists who tried and failed—revitalized, expanded, and inverted the possibilities that Schiele first touched upon. The route Lassnig took to get here was hardly direct. She began studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna in 1941, a time when, as she stated in an interview with Hans Ulrich-Obrist, the only art the Nazis approved were “paintings of peasants.” During the 1950s she spent time in Paris where she met and befriended a number of poets, including André Breton, Benjamin Péret, and Paul Celan. In 1968, when she was almost 50, she moved to New York City and studied film and animation at the School of Visual Arts, and made six films during this time. In 1980, she was invited to return to Vienna as chair of the Academy of Fine Arts—the first female professor of painting at an Austrian university. The time spent in Paris and New York conveys her determination to see with her own eyes, to get beyond the suffocating confines of Austrian history without forgetting her origins. (The writer Thomas Bernhard was another who took a similar path). While Lassnig is well known and even celebrated in Europe, she has barely been heard of in America, and this was just her third solo show in New York since 1989.
For 60 years Lassnig has painted what it feels like to be inside her own skin
in “Kørperbilder” or “body awareness paintings.” She describes this undertaking as follows:
I step in front of the canvas naked, as it were. I have no set purpose, plan, model, or photography. I let things happen. But I do have a starting-point, which has come from my realization that the only true reality are my feelings, played out within the confines of my body. They are physiological sensations: a feeling of pressure when I sit or lie down, feelings of tension and senses of spatial extent. These things are quite hard to depict.
Lassnig’s approach to art shares something with the poet William Carlos Williams’s insistence that “one’s life is informed from and by one’s own body,” a possibility that Charles Olson would elaborate upon in his poetry, theoretical writings, and teaching throughout his life. Basically, Lassnig, Williams, and Olson base their work on the understanding that the individual’s experience can be divided into three modes of perception: exteroreception, which is our perceiving of the exterior world; interoception, which is our experience of the movement of interior organs and physical pain; and proprioception, which is the view one receives regarding the body’s movement in space as well as where the parts of one’s body are in relationship to each other. Rather than situating their work in the first two modalities of perception, they try to locate it in the last and most difficult. (It seems to me that a number of important artists, including Jasper Johns, have done this in the past half century).
For Lassnig, proprioception is a way to locate painting anywhere in the body’s perceptual field other than the ego’s “I,” which helps explain why she generally doesn’t depict the figure in a context or against a background, and in fact finds these devices unnecessary. She isn’t interested in narrative or story because, like Williams and Olson, she knows the laws defining them are false. She also knows that they soften a work’s impact and are often used by observers to explain its perception (bodily awareness) away. Those who regard Lassnig as a counterpart to Alice Neel miss the point. Neel’s paintings have a social nakedness that is powerful, but Lassnig achieves a psychic nakedness that is disturbing in its acceptance of anarchic feelings. This is one reason why, at her survey of recent paintings at the Serpentine Gallery, London (April 25, 2008 – June 8, 2008), she installed her self-portrait, “You or Me” (2008), so it was framed by the gallery’s entrance. Lassnig depicts herself sitting naked, with one hand pointing a gun at her head and the other pointing a gun directly out at the viewer. There is no negotiation, which, of course, is implicit in Neel’s portraits of others. In Lassnig’s “You or Me,” only a thin brown line suggesting hair curves across the top of her head because, I assume, one does not feel one’s own hair, which is dead matter. Her use of teal blue, green, and yellow around the edge of the figure don’t contradict the confrontation so much as add another layer of acidity.
Many of the 12 paintings on display were done within the past four years, with the primary theme being gender relationships, ranging from the constrictive pressures of socially sanctioned female roles to the destructive fantasies entertained by men. And yet, even as I state what is fairly obvious about her paintings (the confrontational aspects of her content, which most observers would be quick to focus on, as they offer a convenient handle by which to talk about the work), I want to emphasize that there is much more to them than these access points. For one thing, while it is unmistakable that the same individual did all 12 paintings, they are radically different from each other. No doubt this is because—to paraphrase Heraclitus—you can’t step into the same body awareness twice. Second, Lassnig is a great painter, by which I mean what she does with paint is always at the service of something beyond subject matter, even when what pulls it forward is not nameable.
In “Selbst mit Meerschweinchen” (2000 – 2001), Lassnig again depicts herself naked, holding a guinea pig in her open palm, elbow bent, arm pointing straight up. Slightly too large for the body, the artist’s hairless head becomes a façade, at once flat and volumetric, while the guinea pig is plump and presumably soft. In “Froschkoenigin/Frog Princess” (2000), a seated, naked woman gazes at the oversized frog she is holding between her open legs. Her greenish, hairless, mask-like face is scumbled and blurred, which is perhaps why the green frog is staring up at it so intently. In “Don Juan d’Austria” (2001), a middle-aged naked man with strong arms and a large belly stands nearly in profile (he reminds me of Silvio Berlusconi). His arms are extended out, palms open, as if he is both imploring and helpless, holding a naked woman under the armpits, who horizontally bisects him. At the point where her body intersects his, she turns from modeled form to a sketchy outline. Lassnig’s ability to make the viewer sense that the woman’s shoulders are resting solidly in the man’s hands, while feeling that she is, paradoxically, weightless, is where her mastery comes across. Through paint alone she convinced this viewer, at least, to believe the woman is both real and a figment of the man’s imagination; that he is simultaneously conscious and unaware of her being there. She understands that paint is visceral matter in itself as well as tool to make an image, and embraces both.
As we ought to know by now, one problem with linear art history is that it can justify why certain artists get left out. Another problem is one that Lassnig implicitly critiques in her work. By locating the impulses of her work anywhere in her body’s perceptual field but the ego’s “I,” she underscores a resistance to the male-dominated, dogma-driven explications of art history; her work doesn’t bear the literalness of much contemporary art, and it cannot be appropriated to pat curatorial or theoretical ends, which might be the reason why Lassnig is so little known in America. Her paintings cannot be reduced to cause and effect.