PRINT October 2014


Maria Lassnig

Still from Maria Lassnig’s Palmistry, 1973, 16 mm, color, sound, 10 minutes.

Maria Lassnig was celebrated as a painter (and, later, filmmaker) whose intense, uncompromising works spanned six decades, as well as abstraction and figuration. On November 11, 2012, Hans Ulrich Obrist sat down with Lassnig in her studio in Gurkgasse, Vienna, for what would be one of the artist’s final interviews, presented here for the first time.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST: After leaving Vienna for Paris, how did you decide to move to New York in 1968? You told me America helped you, it made you uncomplicated. Did this have to do with New York having “stolen” the avant-garde from Europe after the war, as [art historian] Serge Guilbaut famously described it?

MARIA LASSNIG: Yes. At the time, everyone was jealous. Some of my European friends went over and asked me, “Why don’t you come too? Women have it easier in America.” That worked for me.

HUO: What changed in New York?

ML: It was actually a devastating change, but at the same time it was good. I sent my portfolio around, and everything got returned. They said my work was “strange” and “morbid” and “sick.” The worst thing was, my neighbor saw what I was working on and told me I couldn’t paint! Imagine that!

HUO: That’s how the realistic paintings got started?

ML: Yes!

HUO: And parallel to that, you began working on film and also became engaged with feminist movements.

ML: Yes. Through film, I came into contact with Women Artist Filmmakers. [Carolee] Schneemann was the best of them. The others were sentimentalists, and their work didn’t inspire me. It was nonetheless very interesting.

HUO: Could one say that your animations began in New York in the late 1960s?

ML: Yes, as soon as I had my own studio. There were large wooden plates there, cable plates, and I made ten-dollar animations on them. The first one was primitive: Die Jahreszeiten [The Seasons, 1969]. I just laid out a landscape and moved cutout forms around on it. I also took an animation course in New York. But we didn’t really draw—the course just showed us the techniques. As for the rest, I had to figure it out myself. So I put two telephone books side by side, with a glass plate over them and a lightbulb under. Later, I had a proper table. Not a proper animation table, of course. What occurs to me is that I don’t like the word Zeichentrick [animation] at all. There’s not really any “trick” involved.

HUO: They are films.

ML: Yes. Drawn films.

HUO: Music plays a major role in them. How did you select the music? Or did your approach change from film to film?

ML: Yes, to be sure. With Baroque Statues [1970–74], I used Bruckner. And for the others, very little-known Haydn pieces and records I took home. I had a record player that I found on the street!

HUO: So it came about in a very low-tech way.

ML: One didn’t edit animation films.

HUO: It was more about construction.

ML: Indeed. One actually dreams in this way. Almost every film consists of many small films.

HUO: Can you explain how some films use live sequences, such as Palmistry [1973]?

ML: Palmistry means palm reading. There is a Chinese palm reader with his girlfriend, whose hand he reads. He is dressed like a witch, and she constantly contradicts him. She represents my spirit, so to speak. The Americans are terribly superstitious, and I don’t believe in such things. So he says things like, “You have a wound here, and that shows this and that!”and she answers, “Oh jeez, I just cut myself.” And so on. Palmistry represents a tension between science and superstition. My hand comes and goes. First, the whole course of life appears in the hand, and then, finally, the atom bomb. I burned something and photographed it—that was a very complicated procedure.

HUO: You once said that your films are about the desire to realize the complexities of bodily awareness. How did this concept of Körperbewußtsein come about?

ML: I don’t know any longer. I only know, and I’ve frequently mentioned this, that in the beginning I called them introspektive Erlebnisse [introspective experiences]. Inward. Inward looking. Most of my films developed out of my “Körperbewußt-Zeichnungen” [Body-awareness drawings].

HUO: And you made most of the films alone.

ML: Yes, in the beginning it was very difficult. It was good that a photographer lived above me. At first I filmed here and there, on the street, with a simple little camera, a Bolex Single 8. Later I had a Super 8 camera, and then, in 1970, a Bolex 16-mm camera. And of course I tormented myself horribly because I hadn’t learned to use them. I am in a state of wonder regarding where my films come from.

HUO: Can you speak about Feistritz, the village in Austria where you always spend the summer, and your “Landleute” [(Country People), 1996–2003] series you made there last year—a portrait gallery of all the inhabitants of the village?

ML: Of course, those who were nearby. I had to go everywhere by foot. I don’t drive a car. So on the shadow side of the valley, I did almost none, with one exception. Some [people] came to me. But mostly I went to them.

HUO: The portraits were painted at their houses?

ML: Yes, I went to them all. Then we’d sit in the garden or somewhere like that.

HUO: And your studio there?

ML: It is a schoolhouse, with large, southwest-facing windows. During the winter the sun shines in brightly. It’s a fight with the sun. Here I also have to fight with the sun. There it’s west, so in the evening the sun comes in. Here it is east. In the country, I paint very capably. In one summer I painted at least seven and a half large paintings—a lot for two months. In the city one is constantly disturbed by the telephone.

HUO: You said that it’s always a fight with the light. Do you mean that light should be avoided?

ML: No. Only the Americans have thought that. The French always have these old studios with huge, often-oblique glass windows. And the painters are satisfied, because they all paint from photographs. But me, I am a painter of daylight.

Hans Ulrich Obrist is a curator and codirector of the Serpentine Galleries in London.

Translated from German by Christina Lehnert.