Maria Lassnig’s brushy oil paintings could work as an antidote to the malady of self-consciousness. They are so potently focused on the body—particularly Lassnig’s body—that they pull you completely out of your own head and take you straight into her’s, which is not often a comfortable place to be. The tremendous exhibition of her work at MoMA P.S. 1 spans her seven-decade career and includes a quartet of films and a room of watercolors in addition to the spread of oil paintings.
The first work one encounters sets the bar for what’s to come. Simply titled, You or Me (2002), the painting shows Lassnig in a frontally nude position, legs spread, with a pistol in each hand: one aimed at her head, the other pointing out towards the viewer. Her mouth is slightly agape; her green eyes are wide open. She looks deadly serious, an eighty-one-year-old woman ready to kill or die at her own hand. It gives one the sense that death does not intimidate Maria Lassnig.
Maria Lassnig, You or Me, 2002, oil on canvas; Courtesy of the artist & MoMA PS1
Born in Austria in 1919, Lassnig was enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna during the Second World War. The earliest piece in the exhibition is a dark self-portrait from her school days that masterfully mimics the palette and loose brushwork of Rembrandt. Though she quickly abandoned the old master’s brown palette, the quickness and confidence of Rembrandt’s brush stroke are characteristics that seem just as natural to her hand. Even in Lassnig’s later work, such as You or Me, there are no errant lines.
Lassnig uses the phrase “body awareness” to describe her process and approach. It’s a phrase that prompts a lot of curiosity as one takes in pictures of Lassnig muzzled, portrayed as a monster, straight-jacketed, depicted with her brain falling out of her head, or tries to make sense of her “endoscopic abstractions.” What drives our bodily awareness? What aspects of our body are we most aware and how does that shape the way we conceive of ourselves? What about the inside of our bodies? What about the non-physical aspects, like the psyche?
Curators Peter Eleey and Jocelyn Miller focused the exhibition on the artist’s self-portraits and in doing so brought these questions even more to the fore. While the eye becomes a recurring symbol in Lassnig’s imagery, it falls away as the dominant sense with which she builds her body awareness. Very few of her portraits look as if they were painted from a mirror or photograph. Instead, Lassnig does a lot of imagining.
Maria Lassnig, Small Science Fiction Self Portrait,1995, oil on canvas; Courtesy of the artist & MoMA PS1
Science fiction, fantasy, art history—each field offers the Austrian artist new terrain in which to refine her sense of the body, its limits, and its connectivity. In Woman Laocoön (1976) Lassnig portrays herself as the ill-fated Trojan priest, minus any children. In Self portrait as Monster (1964) she appears as mauve creature with puckered lips. In Small Science Fiction Self Portrait (1995) she gazes upwards through futuristic headgear. All of these portraits present a renewed or reimagined self, as if Lassnig has access to an infinite supply of suitable avatars. It also suggests that there is no end point to one’s “body awareness,” but rather the more areas one explores the more areas for exploration open up.
Lassnig’s films are set apart from the gallery of paintings and they provide a nice foil. It is the only room in the exhibition where laughter occurs with some regularity because it turns out this rather serious Austrian painter can also be pretty humorous. In Kantate (1992) Lassnig tells her life story in fourteen verses, changing costumes maybe twice as many times. She’s a cop, a punk, a Parisian, the Statue of Liberty—she’s an artist who has experimented with so many versions of herself as to seem an infinite personality.
(Image on top: Maria Lassnig, Woman Laocoon, 1976, oil on canvas; Courtesy of the artist & MoMA PS1)