Now over 90, the amazing Maria Lassnig was born illegitimately in Carinthia, a remote Austrian province where women often don’t marry until they’ve proved they can produce a son. Expelled from the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts during the Nazi years because her paintings were labeled degenerate, Lassnig describes her education as "learning to paint in brown." Over 60 years of wildly distorted self-portraits and figures in clarion colors have since made up for that chromatic deprivation.
Drawing things the way they look was always too easy for Lassnig. She wanted to go beyond mere representation of outer appearances to something more inwardly profound, and she christened her method of self-portrait painting "Body Awareness," because she consciously decided to depict only the parts of her body that she could physically feel. If the back of her head was numb, for example, she left it out. The results are searing expressions of the inner sensations of deformity we all experience, no matter what actual shape our bodies take.
Delineated in a style that could be compared to that of late Edvard Munch, the states of distress Lassnig portrays so lushly are far from the archetypical emotions of illness, sexual jealousy and loneliness that concerned the Norwegian artist. With their sometimes rough outlining and areas of bare canvas, Lassnig’s works are also reminiscent of those of Alice Neel , but Lassnig is not concerned with individual personalities. She could be viewed as a feminist precursor to German Neo-Expressionism, but her work is far sharper and less self-indulgent. Not only that, it’s continued to develop while neo-expressionism has retreated into the historical past.
Lassnig could have easily been included in Peter Selz’s 1959 Museum of Modern Art exhibition "New Images of Man," a critically panned show that included such specialists in figurative angst as Giacometti , Bacon, Dubuffet and Golub -- at a time when the stripped down abstractions of Frank Stella were New York’s most admired art. Lassnig’s fascination with physical discomfort is also sometimes associated with the Viennese Actionists (famed for their bloody masochistic performances), but as she says, "I made my first body awareness painting in 1948, when Hermann Nitsch was still in his diapers."
Lassnig moved to Paris in 1961, where she was associated with writers including Breton and Paul Celan. After her mother died, she lived in New York from 1968 to 1980, painting rough self-portraits that no one understood while also making animated films and admiring performances and installations by Dan Graham and Vito Acconci. Already 61, she moved back to Vienna as professor of painting at the Academy for Applied Arts, the first woman to hold such a post in a German-speaking country. Since then, she’s divided her time between Vienna and a house in the town where she was born.
At Friedrich Petzel Gallery, a judicious selection of work painted over the last 10 years can be seen, some previously included in a large 2008 exhibition that appeared at London’s Serpentine Gallery and Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center. Live models, including the sexton of her local Protestant church, are the subjects of approximately half the paintings. Don Juan d’Austria (2001), among the most troubling images, foreshadows a horrific case of child abuse discovered in Austria in 2008. A man known as Josef F. kept his daughter imprisoned in a basement for 24 years while she bore him seven children, also all held captive.
In Lassnig’s painting, a naked, overweight middle-aged man holds a small nude woman horizontally, with her legs around his body, a position that negates her humanity by turning her into an oversized extension of his phallus. Moreover, her torso is too short to have room for genitals and her leg turns transparent when it passes over his side, as if her entire lower half has been traumatized out of existence.
Other paintings feature imaginary hybrids with absurdly truncated bodies acting out bizarre scenarios, somewhat reminiscent of the scabrous drawings the Polish playwright S.I. Witkiewicz created in the 1920s and ‘30s. In Fraternite (2008), for example, an elf-like figure wearing a green cap plays patty cake in gloves as it thrusts its foot between the legs of its eyeless sibling, whose head leans back to provide a view up its nose. Its legs are atrophied and boneless, and its torso is a strange rectangular construction that resembles a schematic drawing of a military jacket with the sleeve trickling off into a drip of paint.
Froschkoenigin/Frog Princess (2000), perhaps a self-portrait, is an image of a flabby hairless female seen against a background of glowing turquoise as she holds a bright green frog between her legs, thus equating her sexual organs with a slimy reptile. In another self-portrait, unfortunately not in this show, Lassnig depicts herself naked, pointing one gun at her head and another at the viewer. "I want to paint things that are uncomfortable," Lassnig said in an interview with Frieze magazine editor Jorg Heiser, "Embarassment is a challenge." Here’s hoping she keeps on making her fearless, transcendently hideous images forever. Prices range from £200,000 to £300,000.
Maria Lassnig, Oct. 29-Dec. 22, 2010, at Friedrich Petzel Gallery, 537 West 22nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and critic.