New York

Maria Lassnig, Selbst mit Meerschweinchen (Self with Guinea Pig), 2000–2001, oil on canvas, 49 1/4 x 39 3/8".

Maria Lassnig, Selbst mit Meerschweinchen (Self with Guinea Pig), 2000–2001, oil on canvas, 49 1/4 x 39 3/8".

Maria Lassnig

Maria Lassnig, Selbst mit Meerschweinchen (Self with Guinea Pig), 2000–2001, oil on canvas, 49 1/4 x 39 3/8".

“I do not aim for the ‘big emotions’ when I’m working,” Maria Lassnig explained in these pages two years ago, “but concentrate on small feelings: sensations in the skin or in the nerves, all of which one feels.” The real trick to pursuing such fleeting, ephemeral “sensations,” the painter goes on to say, is by notating them with some fidelity while nonetheless acknowledging their utter strangeness and instability. In other words: how to depict that which outruns depiction? “Well—a feeling doesn’t have edges, and you can’t quantify it.”

Nonetheless, the ninety-one-year-old Austrian artist has spent a lifetime articulating what might be called affective tremors: the crisscrossing connections between exterior and interior. If such a description, however, gives the impression that Lassnig traffics in the subtle and the slight, her works could not seem more antithetical to this. Indeed, for the past six decades, Lassnig’s method, which she has famously deemed “body-awareness,” has yielded an unflinching—and quite fearless—attention to the excessive, the extreme, and the seemingly exaggerated. In homing in on “small feelings,” Lassnig allows their real import and driving force; she has described her self-representations as depicting only those parts of her body of which she is aware. One finds in her canvases, then, an animated approximation of the homunculus replete with all manner of magnifications and obfuscations, ostensible distortions that operate—counterintuitively, perhaps—in the name of not realism per se but perhaps something like a corporeal existentialism.

Yet, important as the contours of her own body seem to be, so too are the contours of others’. In this recent showing of Lassnig’s work at Friedrich Petzel Gallery, viewers were given a rich glimpse of work produced over the last decade, with a dozen canvases offering examinations of beings in various states of relational exchange. Nearly all of the works here stuck to Lassnig’s signature starkness: little background and no context for figures acting out all manner of activities, from the lowly to the allegorical, the pragmatic to the pornographic. Compositions such as Sprich mit mir (Talk to Me), 2009; Fraternité (Brotherhood), 2008; and Assistance, 2008, include schematic, geometric entities pushing and prodding at one another, aggressively animistic if not terribly human. On the other hand, Schlafende (Sleepers), 2009, gives over an intimate portrait of two nude figures sharing a bed, united in time and space if not in their dreams. Lassnig’s strongest works hyperbolize and distill the banality and brutality of the everyday: They are touching and terrible. Don Juan d’Austria, 2001, proffers the sex act as performed by a massive man and the woman he aims to penetrate: Her stiff body, held perpendicular to his own standing bulk, is no more than a receptacle, one he holds his gaze well above. The Illegitimate Bride, 2007, is a ruined looking female nude, draped in translucent plastic.

Lassnig’s important yet strikingly still under-the-radar oeuvre should be critically assessed within our recent context—her practice remains current and in dialogue with artists from a number of generations, including the most recent to come of age. But it is also important to give it the long view: It wasn’t until 2008, when Lassnig was eighty-nine years old, that a major showing of her work appeared in either the UK or the US. Organized by Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist for the Serpentine Gallery in London, the exhibition traveled to Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, and, for its only American destination, the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati. In 1980, she became the first female professor of painting in the German-speaking world. With such details in mind, one must account for exclusions and excisions, even if much has been made of the various artistic genres and discussions in which Lassnig can be seen as partaking (from Surrealism to automatism to Expressionism). For Lassnig’s work doesn’t detail universal “feelings” but rather quite particular ones, and in a sense might be said to symbolize her own status as an artist as well as comment on the parameters of her career and its various contexts. No wonder that my favorite two canvases on view here—Froschkoenigin (Frog Princess), 2000, and Selbst mit Meerschweinchen (Self with Guinea Pig), 2000–2001—depict the artist not as heroic but, rather, on par with the patently peculiar animals with which she shares the frame.

Johanna Burton