PRINT Summer 2008



THE ART-HISTORICAL CATEGORY of “late work,” which emerged around the end of the eighteenth century, has itself begun to show signs of age. Strictly speaking, the kind of major, self-contained phase of artistic production defined by the term is carried out late in life by an exceptional figure who has freed him- or herself from all historical constraints and confronted the absolute head-on. Such a formulation was held to be true by intellectuals as recent as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who wrote at the beginning of their final book, What Is Philosophy? (1991): “There are times when old age produces not eternal youth but a sovereign freedom, a pure necessity in which one enjoys a moment of grace between life and death, and in which all the parts of the machine come together to send into the future a beam that cuts across all ages.” With the speed of artistic developments during the twentieth century and after, however, it has become increasingly difficult for artists to keep up with the changes in style demanded by the market. In turn, there is hardly anybody whose early work is not held up against his or her late work as a sign of the failure to develop over the decades and assert his or her relevance anew in changing contexts. And yet such ongoing pertinence is precisely what eighty-eight-year-old painter Maria Lassnig has sustained throughout her life—as is made clear once more in her most recent survey exhibition, currently at the Serpentine Gallery in London. The show, which remains on view through June 8, puts into service vibrant colors, multilayered emotional effects, and a striking intensity to condense more than a half century’s experience of painting and theory into roughly thirty canvases, most of them produced during the past three years.
Following her education at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts between 1941 and 1944, Lassnig played a key role in the emergence of art informel in Austria, and in the early 1950s she exhibited in Vienna with abstract painters such as Arnulf Rainer and Josef Mikl. Around this time, Lassnig became interested in the linguistic games and theories of the Wiener Gruppe, a literary circle centered on Oswald Wiener, H. C. Artmann, Gerhard Rühm, and Friedrich Achleitner; and she met André Breton and Paul Celan on trips to Paris. She moved to the French capital in 1961, but by the decade’s end she was living in New York, where she remained until 1980, getting to know Dan Graham, Vito Acconci, and others. Matching her circuitous geographic path is an artistic one, and it now seems clear that Lassnig’s great historical achievement is to have marked out a passage for postwar painting from the self-referential art informel of the ’50s to the phenomenological, psychoanalytic, and feminist discourses of the ’60s and ’70s.
Indeed, in light of her oft-cited notion of “body-awareness painting,” one recalls that the theories of Merleau-Ponty and Lacan were put to the test in the context of painting long before they became important in discussions of Minimalist sculpture as well as photography and film theory. The preoccupation with sensations and emotions, and the associated idea of the artist as seismograph of his or her inner life, does not necessarily exhaust itself in empty formalism and apolitical remove from the world. On the contrary: “The body,” as Merleau-Ponty puts it, “is that strange object which uses its own parts as a general system of symbols for the world, and through which we can consequently ‘be at home in’ that world, ‘understand’ it and find significance in it.” In this sense, Lassnig’s painting might be described as an ambitious attempt to assert the self and in so doing to present what Merleau-Ponty calls “the whole system of experience”—a synthesizing and comprehensive perception of “world, own body and empirical self.” This insight also illuminates the sociopolitical aspects of Lassnig’s painting: She did not take part in the feminist movement of the ’70s and has always denied that her art has any gender- specific intention, but she is nevertheless unsparingly candid in her treatment of female identity—for example, in her pictures of an imaginary “happy family,” in which the pressure that comes from socially sanctioned role models is dramatically expressed.
Although Lassnig represented Austria (with Valie Export) at the Thirty-ninth Venice Biennale in 1980 and was included in Documenta 7 in 1982, international recognition has been slow in coming. Her project, with its analytic rigor and integrity, is clearly fundamentally removed from the much-hyped neo-expressionist painting of the early ’80s and its sweeping rhetorical gestures. But this is perhaps also why Lassnig’s pictures seem so fresh: Like the work of artists such as Joan Snyder, Amy Sillman, and Josh Smith, they open up the possibility of an art that is intimately involved with expressionistic and process-oriented painting but manages to avoid getting stuck in endgame scenarios, perpetual mourning, or cynical poses.
Achim Hochdörfer


OVER THE YEARS, I have been involved with a lot of isms. They don’t simply disappear, of course, but are somehow still present even in my most recent pictures. I am, so to speak, eclectic within my own oeuvre, selecting things from the various isms that I mix into something new. I have been working long enough to establish my own tradition, from realism through Surrealism, art informel, automatism, and I don’t know how many other isms. I had to go through all of that—just imagine that I knew nothing about any of these movements when I studied at the Vienna Academy of Fine Art at the beginning of the 1940s. If you look at my early paintings, you will see how much it took at first, just in terms of color and form. So I don’t think it’s really fair for people nowadays to say that my later works are better than my earlier ones.

In the exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, there are some pictures that are very pared down, with monochrome backgrounds. This simplification comes from my pictures of the ’50s and ’60s. In those days, I often drew with a brush on the bare canvas—without a background color. This shocked a lot of people. I mean, drawing is actually always the most real; it’s the most direct way of expressing thoughts. 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. You have to be quick when painting like this, because the next minute you might not have the same feeling anymore. The difficult thing, of course, is how you formulate all this artistically. Why does one draw the way one does at a particular moment, and not some other way? Well—a feeling doesn’t have edges, and you can’t quantify it. The viewer can believe in what’s depicted, or not.

Of course, there are lots of things that are undone or painted over before you find something that wasn’t there before. I have to carry on working until I am satisfied with the outcome, and that is a long and painful process. Unlike the action painters, who literally jumped around the canvas in an attempt to dissolve the boundaries of their bodies and liberate them, I don’t need to put force into the act of painting. Instead, I analyze what I’m doing. For me, it’s not a hectic activity. There are doubts, too, of course, but the main thing is that it’s quiet. Today, the different realities can get mixed up. One example is 3 Arten zu sein [3 Ways of Being, 2004]. The figure in the middle is me, dismembered. I’ve always said that I only paint what I feel. So if I’m not feeling my arms, they aren’t in the picture, either. Or I add something that I don’t have in reality—I don’t really have a devil’s tail, of course. (Although that isn’t very realistic either, because I have really very rarely been a little devil. I’m actually more of a little angel, but nobody will believe that!) As for the nose—it doesn’t actually feel like a snout; it’s just an opening, nothing else. And the whole body, when it’s put into a certain situation—here it happened to be very hot, so I painted the body red.

But you can also see completely different aspects of my work in the show. That’s maybe because memory has become more important to me over the past few years. The outside world impinges on us so much today that it has become almost impossible to depict anything else. One example is the “Adam and Eve” series. For these works, I went back to my time at the academy—when I was twenty, I also painted people naked. Going back to my youth like that was a challenge. I again enjoyed the shininess of skin, the model with her red hair and her beautiful skin. For the picture Adam und Eva in Unterwäsche [Adam and Eve in Underwear, 2005], I said to the two models that they should tease each other and quarrel and grab each other around the neck. So you can see him holding her neck and her scratching him, but you don’t get the sense that it’s really vicious. They didn’t manage that—they couldn’t, because they don’t really hate each other. The two are a couple—a real married couple. But that’s probably what gives the picture its intimacy. The shadow creates a secret connection between the two, and of course their feet are all in a twist, too.

I made the dark pictures with the plastic sheeting in the basement of my mountainside house. It’s very pleasant there in the summer, not too hot. Still, I ended up finding it difficult to work, because the edges were dissolving so much in the darkness. I gave the young models some plastic sheets that were lying around, and they played around with them. And there’s also another group of paintings that are more like nightmares. For the picture Der Weltzertrümmerer [The World Destroyer, 2003], I gave a young man a pink inflatable globe and let out some of the air, which meant that he could squish it. Unfortunately, there are again and again more than enough people who would like to smash and crush the world.

The exhibition also includes a few of what I call my “drastic paintings.” In 1999, I wrote about these works: “Drastic is a simplification—an impetuous summary of all the things that we’ve become tired of looking at again singly. And the drastic also mixes in a little bit of exaggeration.” It is pure realism, a little embellished and uglified. Sport ist Pflicht [Sport Is Duty, 2005] is one of these works in the exhibition. Of course, sport makes sense rationally, and for our survival, but for me—and for the model hanging on the rings—sport was more of a duty than a pleasure at school. In another of the drastic paintings, Du oder Ich [You or Me, 2005], which is right at the start of the show, the act is one of simple despair. I paint myself like a yellow lemon with two pistols. The picture is very yellow, much yellower than in reproductions—it’s a kind of van Gogh yellow. Old age is not really my subject—not yet, at any rate!—and the picture is more about death, which is something that I have often confronted. A friend of mine phoned me before he died and said, “Now I will be going to heaven soon.” The funny thing is that people always believe that they will go up, when in reality they are going down, into the ground.

After the opening of the exhibition, I swore to myself that I would to go back to the beginning and start again, from square one.

Translated from German by Nick Somers and Alexander Scrimgeour.