Maria Lassnig: A Painting Survey, 1950 – 2007
Hauser Wirth + Schimmel, Los Angeles
September 17 – December 31, 2016
By SHANA NYS DAMBROT, NOV. 2016
I do remember when it occurred to me the first time, when I got the idea of painting the way I feel at a given moment. I was sitting in a chair and felt it pressing against me. I still have the drawings where I depicted the sensation of sitting. --Maria Lassnig
The above quote is ubiquitous in the art history and sophisticated personality cult of Austrian painter Maria Lassnig (1919-2014), with good reason. As the intimate but thoroughgoing survey at Hauser Wirth + Schimmel articulates, Lassnig’s is above all a story of self-discovery enacted in public, characterized by a deliberate stylistic transformation, about she herself wrote eloquently and often. Even as she worked diligently in the studio to renovate her relationships to the predominant modes of abstraction, figuration, and narrative that she encountered through the decades and across the continents, she also kept meticulous literary observations on the progress of these subversions and shifts in notebooks and classrooms. When it comes to Lassnig’s work, the compositions themselves may be replete with ambiguity and nuanced paradox, but her intentions are abundantly clear.
Making one’s way through the chronologically installed survey is like experiencing these shifts in condensed real time, moving through the milestones of her evolution apace with the watershed events in her life -- especially as it relates to the series of interactions with better-known artists of her time and circle. It is a remarkable note that while, perhaps precisely because many of her colleagues have been more widely known here in the US, that in these encounters the assumption is that of their influence on her. In fact, a closer look at the correlation of dates and formal expressions often reveals that it was she who arrived at certain art historical markers first, and it begs the question of whether perhaps we should be looking instead at her influence on them. Whatever the read, the compelling effect is one of moving through a kind of parallel universe in which a close version of the same art history we already know unfolds -- but just a bit off-axis.
There’s a stunning smallish work from 1951 called “Purple Form” that shows off her depth and restraint with matters of palette in an organic abstract shape that “echoes” what Ellsworth Kelly got into around 1952-55. She was refracting her way through a more hard-edge phase as of 1953, exploring a way of describing geometrical flat-space that became prevalent in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Overt inflections of Bacon and latter Guston manifest in Lassnig’s works of around 1960 on -- looking to and/or coinciding with them as she moved her through own rather radical embrace of figuration while yet tethered to modalities of abstraction. Her works “Two side by side / Double Figuration” (1961) and “The Earthly Race” (1963) reflect stylistic concerns discovered and absorbed during her travels and art-world encounters, as she at the same time began to unpack the specificity of her subject matter -- her touchstone of self, her sensate body, and the advent of technology -- that would become the nexus of her life’s work.
“Self-portrait as animal” (1963) reflects rapid advances in her abstract/representative hybrid, with the “self-portrait as…” construction becoming prevalent in her practice, with dozens of other examples of presenting herself “as” non-human creatures (especially rabbits for some reason) and in many cases non-sentient, even non-organic objects for example kitchen and studio implements. She was at this time living in Paris, where she stayed from 1961 to 1968, at which time she moved to New York. By 1971, she was expanding her original term “body-awareness” painting, indicating her deep understanding of the body as a physical site of perception and experience, and itself a valuable source of knowledge about the world. As she paid ever-closer attention to the amalgam of sensations with both internal and external causes, she evolved a form of non-sighted Impressionism, a way of executing portraiture other than by likeness.
Around this time she was also making emotional, schematic works in a quirky tertiary pastel-derived palette, including a number of “double” and “triple” self-portraits presenting different modes of rendering in tandem, and otherwise expressing her own actual human multiplicity -- as well as, further down the road, pushing back against the disapproval of American critics of the time who failed to see her prescient genius on the occasions she showed in New York while living there in 1969-78. She called this somewhat pugnacious stance “American Realism,” the epitome of which is the masterpiece “Triple Self-Portrait” (1972) which demonstrates among other things, an important dialog with Alice Neel, which reflects on the more frontal and anatomically fleshy, dimensional, quasi-conventional confrontations of both her studio and self-portraits during this time.
After returning to Europe, elements of all her previous periods recirculated in subsequent work, ambitious in scale and increasingly allegorical in narrative, brought to bear in new semiotic contexts. Abstraction, vibrating almost sketchy linework, multiple figures not alway herself, and the coming of human/animal/cyborg hybrids speaking to an increasing and rather suspicious fascination with technology and science fiction. War and aging are also felt through the body’s conduit, making the distinction between personal and collective experiences less perceptible, along with the compositional distinctions between abstraction and pictorialism. Her interest in technology was especially directed at mass media, and how it distorted the continuum of perception and experience in society and in the individual. The epic work “TV child” (1987) speaks directly to the empty center of a life dominated by pop culture’s relentless parade of violent images and the carnage of military conflict. This line of thinking coincided with the zeitgeist though her style remained unmoved by the charms of its aesthetic vocabulary.
Her approach is performative in its singularity of both direct and conceptualized physicality, producing painting with the soul of proto-feminist performance art, and a prescient antagonism toward photography’s usurping claim on realism, which was always dependent on privileging appearance over inner life -- the very premise she most strongly rejected. The main takeaway from this exhibition is the utterly surprising freshness of even her earliest work. Her struggles with depicting both inner and outer life, while using both abstract and figurative languages, speaks so directly to the concerns of today’s younger generations of painters that the oils on Lassnig’s canvas may as well still be wet. WM
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Flaunt, Art and Cake, Artillery, and Palm Springs Life.
She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She is a member of ArtTable and the LA Press Club, and sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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