Maria Lassnig, Surveying the Body and Spirit

© Maria Lassnig Foundation Courtesy Hauser & Wirth Installation view, 'Maria Lassnig. A Painting Survey, 1950 – 2007' Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, 2016 Photo: JR Doty
© Maria Lassnig Foundation
Courtesy Hauser & Wirth
Installation view, ‘Maria Lassnig. A Painting Survey, 1950 – 2007’
Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, 2016
Photo: JR Doty

Maria Lassnig, Surveying the Body and Spirit

By Genie Davis 

Through December 31st


Continuing in a strong trend toward displaying the work of seminal female artists, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel are featuring the work of Maria Lassnig in “A Painting Survey 1950-2007.”

On view until December 31st, Lassnig’s intense yet ephemeral creations of her own physiological being span artistic genres from the abstract to the figurative, creating visual stories that are uniquely both personal and self-interpretive by viewers.

Lassnig’s development moves from a primarily pastel palette to one of richer, warmer color and back again in her evocation of emotions produced within the body. She challenges artistic style throughout the chronological exhibition, with pieces that seem to create their own mythos. It’s interesting to note that as early as 1948 Lassnig described her work as “body consciousness,” yet depicted primarily figures in which parts of the body are consciously missing. Like photographic artist Cindy Sherman, Lassnig focuses on self-portraiture, though it is not always easily recognizable as such. Also like Sherman, though working in a far different medium, she skewers others’ self-appraisal, objectifying, de-mystifying, and conversely creating surreal and immortal versions of herself.

The artist created these portraits in a variety of styles, both fully realized and sparsely sketched. Moving from abstract to figurative, she took her body – and her spirit – on a metaphorical quest for meaning, shaping herself through a wide-ranging series of disguises and forms. In one panting she is a monster, another a robot, in another a ghostly shape, a mere silhouette, a frightened baby, an inanimate object.

Her work is strongly feminist, but the overriding impression of portraiture here transcends gender or gender politics. It is one of motion, of the freedom of motion, of motion as a transcendent ideal. Lassnig’s study of animation in the 70’s and creation of films in that era seems to have strongly influenced her depiction of movement, but the intensely fluid nature of her work is evident long before that.

In her 1961 piece “Two side by side / Double-Figuration,” loose, pastel hued figures that evoke Matisse have the characteristics of ghosts about to slip from the canvas. In 1963’s “Self Portrait as an Animal,” two self-figures, top and bottom, have the appearance of dogs or pigs, their resolutely pink-hued shapes seemingly only temporarily confined to oil on canvas. By 1987, her “TV Child” depicts a child version of herself trapped within the pearly static of a television screen, while the characters from a multitude of channels swim in a mesmerizing, sometimes appalling dance around the child. In her later works, such as her 2006 “Self Portrait with Speech Bubble,” the artist returns to a cooler palette, here with a two-headed, silent and speaking profile.

As always, Lassnig has created a work that shifts with repeated viewing, transcending form, and inhabiting the viewer.

Having passed away last May, Lassnig was present for the dawn of the selfie, and was in fact termed the perfect artist for the age of our own obsessive photographic self-portraiture. But her own art is a selfie of a different sort, focused on the emotions and psychology that are held within the body not visible to the naked eye. Perhaps it is this very illusive nature of emotional being that creates the sense of movement in her work; after all neither tears nor laughter last forever.

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