It appears as though the Germans (and one Austrian to be accurate) have momentarily taken over a significant portion of New York’s art scene. There is Sigmar Polke at MOMA, Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937 at the Neue Galerie, and both Christoph Schlingensief and Maria Lassnig at MOMA PS1.
Many of the reviews, particularly of Maria Lassnig’s work, stick to formalist observations with little regard for the context in which her work was produced; another tendency is to try to elevate her video over her painting practice. On PS1’s website we read that Maria Lassnig “is one of the most important contemporary painters and can be seen as a pioneer in many areas of art today.” I wish this statement were true, as I believe that she is a more important artist than Immendorf or Baselitz, for instance. In the end this statement only discloses our obsession with ‘discovering’ artists and assigning them meaning to satisfy our need for the new - only to forget them shortly thereafter (take painter Forrest Bess as an example).
In 1980, after having spent ten years in New York City (where her painting was not met with great enthusiasm) and two years in Berlin, Maria Lassnig returned to Vienna, Austria to accept an invitation to teach at the University of Applied Arts. It is important to note that Lassnig became the first woman in a German-speaking country to teach painting at the university level - at the age of 60.
Mara Mattuschka, Lucy, oil on canvas, 2009
Two years into her teaching position at the Vienna university, Lassnig established Austria’s first animation studio. One of her first students (who happens to have been my first teacher in art school) to make use of Lassnig’s animation class was Austrian-Bulgarian artist Mara Mattuschka who is virtually unknown outside of the German-speaking countries. Mattuschka's practice, similar to Lassnig's, refuses media hierarchies. Painting and film are equal collaborators in the attempt to find an analogy to our bodily experiences and more importantly, to the female body. Rather than depicting the body, both artists regard their media - film and painting - as extensions of the body. Their ultimate goal is to externalize the internal and to make bodies visible as individual & social, psychological & physical, historical & political and above all, unequally gendered entities.
Maria Lassnig, Self-Portrait, oil on canvas, 1942
In his review of Maria Lassnig’s exhibition at MOMA PS1, Hyperallergic’s Thomas Micchelli makes an unintentionally funny and inaccurate observation by writing that the painter “was taught to paint like Rembrandt” in Nazi-occupied Austria when Lassnig was a student at Vienna’s academy during the early 1940s. In truth, Lassnig got herself kicked out of her first painting class (in which she painted the above-pictured portrait), because her work was deemed “degenerate" by her professor Wilhelm Dachauer (after this incident, Lassnig joined the class of painter Herbert Boeckl).
Cindy Sherman, Untitled #218, color photograph, 1990
In Lassnig’s self-portrait from 1942, we are not looking at a student trying to paint like Rembrandt. Instead of emulating Rembrandt’s style, Lassnig appropriates it, and puts Rembrandt’s status as an Old (male) Genius Master to work for her own form of self-fashioning: she replaces his face with hers - something we generally associate with artist like Cindy Sherman. Lassnig’s self-portrait is about empowerment and resistance: it is not the early attempt of a copyist. This pictorial manipulation becomes even more plausible in light of a much later work by Lassnig, the film Art Education from 1976, in which she articulates feminist interpretations of Old Masters’ paintings.
Maria Lassnig, oil on canvas, 1950s (title not available)
One of the traits of a great painter is her painterly versatility and Lassnig is no exception. From early monochromatic abstractions that are reminiscent of Ellsworth Kelly and Don Voisine, to fully fleshed figurations, and dozens of paintings that are located in between these two poles, her work defies any clear categorization and instills a sense of unhinged, but rigorously focused experimentation.
Maria Lassnig, Self-Portrait as Monster, oil on canvas, 1964
Maria Lassnig, Self-Portrait under Plastic, oil on canvas, 1974
Two good examples of the extreme fluctuation between modes of representation are the portraits Self-Portrait as Monster and Self-Portrait under Plastic. In both paintings Lassnig’s likeness remains obstructed. In the former, we are looking at a creature that could be from an early modern nightmare as depicted by Matthias Gruenewald. In contrast to Gruenewald’s vision, Lassnig’s monster is humanized, far less frightening, with closed eyes and calm features as if waiting to be awakened.
Self-Portrait under Plastic offers a comparatively conventional painting only to insert a degree of distance by showing a face covered in plastic. What might be put into question is the relationship between interior and exterior. A piece of false skin - in this case plastic - encloses a face which, in turn, is made of paint instead of skin. Lassnig’s painting is as much a meditation on the multiple facets of ‘self’, as it is a close look at what constitutes a painting of the ‘self.’ Painting, it turns out, is a potent medium with limited faculties - not unlike the people and bodies it tries to depict. Our perception of ourselves and the world is as unreliable as it is indispensable. In this sense, painting - with its sensory and linguistic limitations - is an adequate medium to describe ourselves and the world we inhabit.
Maria Lassnig, Vom Tode Gezeichnet (Drawn by Death), oil on canvas, 2011
The English translation of the title Drawn by Death is misleading insofar as the German phrase describes a state in which a person is visibly close to death (due to sickness, a weakened physiognomy, etc.). In a literal sense, the phrase evokes an image of death itself drawing somebody else: this is exactly what occurs in Lassnig’s painting. Painted about three years before her (very recent) death, Lassnig’s disembodied head flows and rests at the same time. Death is not much more than a hand and head, holding a sharp pencil that looks as though it is cutting through a face instead of merely drawing one. The pencil that draws, the brush that paints, the knife or scalpel that dissects - all of these instruments share the idea that their initial gesture is finite. Maria Lassnig, the great dissector of mind and matter, finds herself in the grasp of death. But with humor and ease she turns death’s reach upside down. It is Lassnig who paints death drawing her. In the end, Lassnig takes the pencil out of death’s hand to do the work she does best. May her work live on.