Art Seen: National

MARIA LASSNIG // MoMA PS1

by Tara Plath

NEW YORK, NY. Maria Lassnig’s current survey at MoMA PS1 invites viewers to contemplate context, whether by intention or not. This invitation is proposed by the very nature of the self-portraits on view by the Vienna painter, born in 1919 and currently living and working in her native city, as well as the historical moments outlined in the exhibition that marked by Lassnig’s life. The often-repeated descriptor of her work, “body awareness” painting, immediately relinquishes any commitment to pictorial representation, though it evokes the figure in nearly all of her large-scale and more recent works. Lassnig’s goal is to describe – in lively loose brush strokes of blues, pinks, purples, and greens – her sensations, vibrations, and physical presence in the world.

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Installation view of Maria Lassnig at MoMA PS1, 2014. © 2014 MoMA PS1; Photo Matthew Septimus.

It is a seemingly playful existence; even the highlight of the exhibition Du oder Ich (You or me) from 2005, feels like a gag. This is partly due its clever installation – immediately facing the viewer as one walks into the gallery, squarely opposite to the entrance. In the painting, an aging Lassnig sits naked against a white background, pressing one gun against her temple while pointing another straight forward toward the approaching viewer. While Lassnig’s expression in the painting is pained, the challenge feels half-hearted, as though the unfinished background, a marker of Lassnig’s resistance against pictures, is evidence of the confrontation’s outcome. Or perhaps this reaction is the result of seeing an older woman’s uncovered aging body in springtime colors, a breath of cool fresh air in a world where the female body is perpetually hyper-sexualized.

Yet that playful existence is hard to qualify in relation to Lassnig’s life and times, which continues to be our times too. As the wall text reads, Lassnig was studying in Vienna during World War II, a historical reference that feels absence in her work. What is not absent is, as the text states, the fact that Lassnig was the first female painting professor in a German speaking country, and this was in 1980. I’m happy I’ll never have to read that piece of information again, though for every country, there has always been a first female painting professor appointed far too late, and some yet to be appointed, so it will be some time before we vanquish this sad fact. It makes me think that maybe we (the royal we) have to wait so long to show a significant survey of under-recognized female artists so the weight of the unavoidable institutional superlative will hit that much harder (“The show will be the most significant survey of her work ever presented in the United States,”). This strategic delay is evident in the rest of the museum’s representation of female artists, with five male artists in solo exhibitions in the same space countering Lassnig’s survey, and a total of seven female artists in the museum out of nineteen artists total. The strongest female presence, aside from Lassnig’s survey, is only seen down the hall, in the collective exhibition GCC: Achievements in Retrospective.

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Maria Lassnig, Selbstporträt unter Plastik, 1972. Collection de Bruin-Heijn. Photo copyright Peter Cox

Lassnig’s work exudes self-awareness, at times in ways that feel satirical of more somber realities. Her animations, in a screening room across the hall from her paintings, perfectly demonstrate the more playful qualities of her work, such as one conversation between two strange creature-lovers in Palmistry, where the man begs his partner to tell him if he’s her first, ultimately abandoning her when she fails to give him a straight answer. Their high-pitched watery voices and the subsequent piano music gives the sad story a carnivalesque quality.

In a 2008 interview, Lassnig said of New York, “There’s simply too much going on there. And the people there don’t want to know whether a person is complicated. They make you uncomplicated, whether you want to be or not. I went to America after my mother died. I was really down and America helped me. The fast friendships. But at some point you want to be complicated again.” But Lassnig’s survey certainly feels uncomplicated, as surveys are wont to do – through its polite chronological transitions, and organized stylistic shifts. Too-obvious compositions, such as Selbstporträt unter Plastik, a somber self-portrait with plastic loosely stretched across her face, or the iconic Du oder Ich, seem to fall into traps of shallow representations of an inner-self.

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Maria Lassnig, Transparentes Selbstporträt (Transparent Self-Portrait), 1987. Oil on canvas, 125 x 100 cm.

I made a fast friend of Lassnig – enjoying the gaping-mouth on a dumbfounded face in Kleines Sciencefiction-Selbstportat, which depicts a nude Lassnig wearing futuristic headgear and the lopsided leaning Selbstporträt als Ungeheuer, whose askew canvas perfectly compliments the warped drooping purple face painted upon it. Also interesting are earlier abstracted works, such as Ungeteilte Form, 1952-1953, with its overlapping black forms pressing against white edges, creating tensions and pressures that thread through all of her work moving forward.

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Maria Lassnig at MoMA PS1 runs through May 25, 2014.

Tara Plath is an artist and writer based in New York City. She currently works at Whitebox Art Center. She holds a Bachelors of Fine Arts with an emphasis in sculpture and a Bachelors of Arts in Visual and Critical Studies from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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