Maria Lassnig

Maria Lassnig has called this exhibition Mit dem Kopf durch die Wand (Headfirst). While her title can be construed as alluding to her artistic evolution, it is also the name of a painting that Lassnig completed in 1985. In it, a stretched yellow-primed “painting within a painting” looms diagonally into the pictorial space, separating two figures on either side of it. The two figures are virtually pilloried within the canvas. The picture-within-a-picture motif describes an existential theme, one that more or less dominates Lassnig’s work. The confrontation of painter, painting, and subject matter becomes a metaphor representing the general struggle for existence and the individual’s difficulties in communicating with the world and with other people. Lassnig clears the hurdles of her highly emotional theme in an unusual way. By situating the existential problem on a formal level she avoids any moralizing undertone. In her recent figurative paintings, she resolutely pursues the confrontation that was the actual theme of her works during the early ’50s—namely, the struggle with what Lassnig describes as “body feeling.” Those early paintings, which resulted from her encounter with postwar art informel in Paris, have relatively small formats and are limited mostly to a simple, dark contour against a light background. The contours become signs of concentra concentration; they look like energy beams that compellingly outline a body in space. In translating her own “body feeling,” the artist herself becomes the subjectively verifiable standard of reality. The existential condition of the artist’s own body—a condition that can be articulated in, say, relaxation or spasm or even pain—becomes the subject of a thorough inquiry, one relating that physical state to the surrounding space. This generates fields of tension, in which the “body feelings” crystallize their relationships to one another and to space as abstract formal shapes; according to Lassnig, investigating them is like “fencing in clouds, pinning down realms of fog.”

The artist’s approach is manifested perhaps most effectively in her “stroke paintings” of the ’60s, where we find “tension figurations”: contour fragments that compete with the surface space in a charged emotional atmosphere. We can almost see the artist painting out of herself, projecting herself into the painting, while simultaneously observing herself as a painter. Hence, these are also self-portraits, just like the later figurative paintings. Against the background of her earlier works, it is obvious that Lassnig’s paintings of the ’80s cannot be understood in terms of the style of Die Wilden, for their painterly approach derives not so much from the external motions of the body as from concentrated introspection.

Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.