In the second-to-last room of Maria Lassnig’s Deichtorhallen exhibition, Der Ort der Bilder (The Location of Pictures), there was a painting of something amorphous and bleeding hung from a hook. The colours played hard and fast with the nervous system: white and red against a hatched lemon-lime background with two pink, blubbery characters, perhaps a plump gesticulating heart and a skinny liver, doing half splits. These displaced vital organs felt like a comedy duo performing a sketch at the picture’s base, mocking the emptied shell of the body whose white flesh echoed Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s famous painting of a gutted ray fish, La Raie (The Ray, 1728). Glancing over to the wall label, one read o.T., 2012 – no title. It was a relief to learn that there was nothing further to read. Like with Chardin’s dead fish, the insides were on the outside; no aphorism, no anecdote to lean on, except the date, 2012. Lassnig was 93 years old when she painted the piece.
Lassnig has only recently stopped painting and the works shown in this exhibition – which travelled from Neue Galerie, Graz, including pieces never before released from her studio – document her self-reliant 70-year odyssey from her native land of Carinthia in southern Austria, to New York and back again.
Selbstporträt expressiv (Self Portrait Expressive, 1945) was the first painting on this journey. The face and naked torso were constructed from coloured platelets of paint – reminiscent of Oskar Kokoschka – that dissipated into charcoal suggestions of arms, hands and fingers. It was both a tender and somewhat clichéd account of the student painter whose only reliable model throughout her career was herself. This situation – the latent drama of the everyday self operating in the space between body and canvas, where emotional as well as physiological inner sensations crystallize in paint – would be continually revisited by Lassnig.
Lassnig’s penetrating gaze reappeared elsewhere in the show; as a dislocated eye in Auge in Gefahr (Eye in Danger, 1993), erased by technology in Kleines Sciencefiction-Selbstporträt (Little Sci-Fi Self Portrait, 1995) or replaced by a vagina in one half of Zwei Arten zu sein (Doppelselbstporträt) (Two Ways of Being, Double Self Portrait, 2000). The wispy charcoal lines searching out the fingertips of 1945 would eventually be superseded by her most important invention: the coloured energy lines of her so called ‘Body Sensation’ and ‘Body Awareness’ paintings. A major phase of this, the Knödel or dumpling paintings, painted in Paris between 1960 and ’61, occupied a core space in the show. Napoleon und Brigitte Bardot (1961), made from scratchy threads of colour lunging across bare canvas, translated the historical and cultural vectors ricocheting inside the artist’s head. She would spend eight years in Paris before moving on to New York for 12 years (1968–80) where she made a return to naturalistic figuration. This aspect of her work persisted to the end, periodically anchoring the inner journey with a straight view from the outside and producing memorable works like Selbstporträt mit Stab (Self Portrait with Staff, 1971): Lassnig sits as a stoic warrior stripped to the waist holding a broken staff while behind her the smiling ghost image of her own mother reaches out to rest her hands approvingly on her daughter’s shoulders. Or take Adam und Eva mit Spiegel of 2007, a virtuoso double nude where a wily Eve sits on Adam’s lap and holds a mirror to him transforming him effortlessly into a narcissistic couch potato. This more naturalist-figurative approach also coalesces with the spectral and desiring inner register of body awareness Lassnig used to generate the visceral palette and motifs of her work from the 1980s onwards. This was evident in the painting Scientia from 1998. Here the human mind and body are represented as a crossroads of energy, a receiver and transmitter of the heterogeneous states of being that lie either side of the envelope of the flesh. Her forms can be mutational, monstrous and downright unpleasant. A grotesque conclusion is avoided, however, by her joyful handling of paint and her delight in a vomitorious cornucopia of colour.
Lassnig made many clear references to painters of the past such as to Max Beckmann’s Selbstbildnis im Smoking (Self Portrait in Tuxedo, 1927) with Dreifaches Selbstporträt/New Self (Three-part Self Portrait/New Self, 1972) – one of three figures stands facing the viewer, smoking, minus the tuxedo – or to Ferdinand Hodler in the camp and funky landscapes of Hochzeitsbild (Wedding Picture, 2007–08), a painting attesting to the artist’s scepticism about lasting relationships between women and men. What makes Lassnig remarkable is her articulation of the female body in paint as a kind of performative territory or space. Working from memory, lying alongside the canvas or sitting in the middle of it, she displays threads of poetic spatialization in common with artists like Carolee Schneemann, Valie Export and Bruce Nauman. Lassnig plays the right kind of painter poker at the table of contemporary art by allowing the medium the possibility of articulating new inner territories: post abstraction, post Lacan, post theory, post sexual revolution, etc., whilst not simply according it a moribund walk-on part within a theoretical ‘practice’ rooted in the social sciences. She also sidesteps ‘alive-or-dead?’ or ‘painting as market slut’ debates by demonstrating sheer persistence amidst the vagaries of art trends.
Many artists use painting slickly, coolly, cynically, cleverly, ironically, but Lassnig does not seek to control it in this way. The complex and fruitful peregrinations in her long life’s work show her to be, on the contrary, a willing conduite for painting itself to use. She has thrown her chips in with a mystical creative force, and in her own words – set to a hurdy gurdy melody for the film Kantate (Cantata, 1992) – the gamble seems to have paid off: ‘Es ist die Kunst, ja, ja, die macht mich immer jünger (…) Es ist die Kunst, die bringt mich nicht ins Grab’ – yes, it’s art that makes me younger and younger, it’s art that prevents me from being driven into the grave.