Maria Lassnig’s paintings on view at MoMA PS1 (through September 7th) amount to no less than an impressive, cohesive, radically sincere and searching body of work. They amount, too, to a holistic work of the body—around it, about it, into it, inside of it. Implosive and explosive at once, Lassnig’s somewhat abridged retrospective is one of extraordinary, reciprocally affecting introspection.
Born in Austria in 1919 and attending art school in Vienna during World War II, Lassnig endured a heavy share of sociopolitical tumult, treachery, reinvention and tragedy. Remaining creatively active almost up until her death earlier this year, she also witnessed a great many once unforeseeable socio-technological shifts. All of this, in perhaps indirect ways, would find meaningful confluence in her seven or so decades of artistic production. Far more conspicuous, though, would be Lassing’s own conceptually keen probings of body and mind. She worked assiduously, and with candor and honesty—and during a century that stacked staggering heights of odds against her—to address a most telling query she once posed to herself in a diary: “How much can I be myself?” Her answers to this apparently simple question—in paintings ranging from representational self-portraits to completely abstracted depictions of not exactly tissues and innards, but rather expressive notions thereof—run an extensive gamut: ‘a lot’; ‘a little’; ‘barely’; ‘it depends.’ With respect to her works overall, though, her response is a bit different, and anything but wavering: ‘absolutely’; ‘in toto.’
Through Lassnig’s aesthetic pursuit of what she called “body awareness,” the depictive self that she ‘is’ or ‘becomes,’ and the manners and modes of self-ness she conveys, can also be intuited, by viewers, with reciprocity. Colorful, tight, brushy, bright, funny, moody, brooding, small, large, thin, thick, confined: You are presented with an abundance of palettes, styles, mediums, and spatio-emotive states, and while some of the works make quite personal claims of self-assertion—such as the epic, thesis-statement-like Dreifaches Selbstporträt (listed as New Self, though a more literal translation would be Tripartite Self)—many of them present forms and ideas enjoining you to think about yourself, or ideas of the body in general, in relative terms. Next to a painting called Kopf (Head), for instance, is one called Kopfheit (Headness). Titles aside, their compositional cues encourage you to look from one to the other, all the while feeling some strangely weighted notion of your face, your neck, your skull. This sensation, then, is this ‘headness’? Perhaps. And that’s precisely Lassnig’s point. Moreover, these tandem works, like other variably sequential pieces in the exhibit, are as brilliant in unison as they are individually.
From one tumultuous era to the next, in defiance of so many personal and formal odds, in several cities from Europe to the US, and in various mediums—the show also features a series of riveting, perfectly relevant film pieces—Lassnig worked. Hard. And thought. Hard. She asked incisive questions and made penetrating, sagacious suggestions. And her output is refreshingly, devastatingly great. There are a number of big solo exhibitions and retrospectives around town right now, including a few comparative sideshows at PS1. Do not miss this one in favor of any of them.
You can follow Paul D’Agostino on Twitter @postuccio