I want to eat them. In this way I am cannibal. Maria Lassnig’s titular retrospective at MoMA PS1, her first major museum show in the United States, included works so lush, the paint felt like icing on the cake—if the whole cake were made of icing. The entryway was a confrontation of this and other desires. Her iconic self-portrait You, Or Me? (2005) shows Lassnig, her birthday suit outlined in a cyan wash, holding a gun to her head and another straight out toward the viewer. The paint is, by turn, delicately soaked into the surrounding white canvas and accumulated into the thick pink folds of her body. Most of the works explicitly depicted the artist herself, in a sweeping range of styles Lassnig explored throughout her 70-year career. Curator Peter Eleey set up a relatively straightforward chronology, starting at her academic beginnings in the Nazi-controlled Vienna Academy for Applied Arts. She subsequently got kicked out for expressionist, “degenerate” leanings. Here you begin to see her concept of body awareness, a technique she developed wherein she would only paint the parts of herself that she could feel, in her mind and body, while standing in front of her canvas. This resulted in partial views, singular ears, dropped jaws, and exaggerated noses found throughout the exhibition. As you view her work, understood here in decadal phases, her practice of body awareness translates into a visceral understanding of figuring out, as in outing the figure, figuring the figure, turning it inside out and back again.
Selbstportat expressiv (1945) is the token beginning of this awareness, a skillfully drafted self-portrait of her torso and head, in which she is nude except for pearls draped across her neck. Instead of the nudity, the first thing you notice is the multiplicity of color on her skin, as if her nerve endings were fireworks exploding in a beige sky. The brushwork is such that I know the touch of her face, her underlying bone structure, the ski-jump cartilage of her nose, from simply standing there and looking, almost 70 years later.
Being a body in physical space looking at representations of Lassnig’s body in its internal space, it is helpful to consider the meaning of feeling. It is entwined to her awareness, in all its variance of experience, endurance, sensation, and discernment. Lassnig pushed her process to the edge, wall text in the exhibition included her statement, “Art begins with brain science and also with the science of feelings. Art grows from burst soap bubbles, from shriveled hearts, from the spying cerebellum…You become aware of your body through pressure, through tension…in other words awareness is expressed in sensations.” In these paintings, for the viewer, to see is to feel and to feel is to empathize with Lassnig’s struggle of being a sentient body in space, having both physicality and consciousness.
Color always poses a risk, and Lassnig knew it. That is why she threw herself into it, figuratively and literally, such as in her “Line Pictures” series from the 1960’s. She would paint a repetition of primary-colored outlines of her body while kneeling or lying on seven-foot long canvases. Here Lassnig’s presence is a ghost, known only by its literal trace. The works are reminiscent of cathedral stained-glass windows, physically tall with translucent, overlapping hues. There is an aesthetic recall of prehistoric handprints in French caves, dragging color around her entire body as an extension of blowing pigment through fingers. The intention feels similar as well; I was here.
In Transparentes Selbstporträt (1987) Lassnig painted herself with a screen over her eyes, face flattened by the weight of it. Rhythmic horizontals of supernatural color form the screen, her face and body, and the slightly darker background in shades of magenta and turquoise. Her nose rises up like a mountain; her nostrils dark caves leading to her brain. These later pieces complicate her use of color from previous decades, and add a phenomenological questioning of how we see each other and ourselves. In Fröhlicher Marsmench (Happy Martian) (1998), the head of the figure is obscured, encased in a metal frame with dangerous spikes and screws jutting out—you can only see wide, terrified eyes and an open mouth, mid-grunt. The accompanying wall text frames Lassnig’s use of fantasy coupled with anxiety, concluding with, “After watching the movie Alien (1979), Lassnig remarked that ‘only a woman and a cat survive the apocalypse.’ ”
The exhibition circled back to You, Or Me? This work, a touchstone for the entire show, is especially poignant, given that Lassnig passed away at the age of 94 during this retrospective. Was she declaring her mortality in this piece—a self-portrait at the age of 85—or is it simply a continuation of her body awareness, an acknowledgement of how a body feels in life and paint? How does one see oneself? Or rather, how does one feel oneself seeing oneself? Lassnig had twoself, threeself, fourself, and more.
From the Zephyr print edition published fall 2014.