New York

Maria Lassnig, Selbstporträt als Tier (Self-Portrait as Animal), 1963, oil on canvas, 39 1⁄4 × 28 3⁄4".

Maria Lassnig, Selbstporträt als Tier (Self-Portrait as Animal), 1963, oil on canvas, 39 1⁄4 × 28 3⁄4".

Maria Lassnig

The great Austrian artist Maria Lassnig (1919–2014) lived in Paris from 1960 to 1968, having moved there from Vienna in search of possibility: to find a place where a woman’s art would be given the same thought and attention as that of her male peers, and to steep herself in the ongoing exploits of an electrifying avant-garde. Whatever she encountered in the City of Light—and whether despite or because of what and who surrounded her there—those years heralded a hefty shift in her practice. Lassnig expanded the playing field of her paintings beyond the reactive, rebellious surfaces of art informel (generally, gestural abstraction), inaugurating what she called her Strichbilder (Line Pictures), a group of works that built upon and articulated the physical sensations she experienced as she created them. These canvases in turn evolved into her best-known Körpergefühlsmalarein (Body-Sensation Paintings), unifying the feelings and expres-sions of mind, body, and hand via renderings of glorious freakish figures—images that have placed her in the ranks of Francis Bacon, Philip Guston, and Asger Jorn while remaining in a league of her own.

This stellar show at Petzel of twenty paintings shone its light on those terrific leaps by Lassnig and almost seemed to stop time, like an Eadweard Muybridge study, so that a viewer could marvel at her every twist and turn. During her first three years in Paris, she accomplished the most conspicuous of her transformations: Two early abstractions on view, both from 1960 and untitled, exhibited an unassailable confidence, if perhaps a certain frustration, or a healthy friction with her chosen mode. Each work was marked by emotive muscular strokes that arc across the canvas. The roses and golds of one evoked a horizon; the other, interrupted by a thin stretch of foamy green, suggested a roiling seascape (images concocted in my head, naturally, since the artist at that time was aiming for what she called “the pure gesture”). By ’61, she was taking on the perils and productions of shape. Consider the plump and wonderful form featured in Grosse Knoedelifiguration (Big Dumpling Figuration), 1961–62, rendered with decisive lines in lemon, tangerine, lime, and other bright fruity hues, with plenty of white (-ish, owing to colors she painted over) space around and inside them. While this and other of her Strichbilder look like panels from a Sunday comic dipped in water, as though their images have been diluted and loosed, she soon enough engaged in narratives, painting creepy, vaguely legible characters in creepy, vaguely legible scenes. The mesmerizing and uncomfortable Frühstück mit Ohr (Breakfast with Ear), 1967, presents three figures—equally sculptural and animal—perched around a bloodred cloth, on top of which is an ear on a plate, with a fork at the ready. The viewer is as close to the dish as anyone in the painting, the artist roping us into the violence of this otherwise tidy feast.

Lassnig knew she was onto formal and conceptual achievements that rivaled, even surpassed, those of the contemporaries favored by the spotlight. “I’m so far ahead of my time that it seems reactionary,” she wrote in January 1962, “or that I go completely unnoticed.” Perhaps in part to remind herself as much as everyone else that she was the center of her creations, she returned over and over again to her most loyal subject: herself. The Petzel show presented a few wondrous specimens such as Selbstporträt als Tier (Self-Portrait as Animal), 1963; Selbstporträt als Ungeheuer (Self-Portrait as Monster), 1964; and Augengläser-Autoportraits (Eyeglasses Self-Portraits), 1965, all of which depict her in the process of becoming, or possibly unbecoming, something other than herself. She eventually tired of Paris. “There are no new geniuses, they are all just imitators,” she wrote in December 1967, the year before she relocated to New York, where she would live for twelve years before returning to Vienna. As it turns out, she was all the territory she ever needed.