abstract head

Maria Lassnig, “Selbstporträt / Abstrakter Kopf” (“Self-Portrait / Abstract Head”) (1956), oil on canvas (courtesy of the artist)

Maria Lassnig’s retrospective at MoMA PS1 is the largest survey of her work ever mounted in the United States. It reveals an idiosyncratic artist whose quirks and caprices, especially in her later work, can feel willful, even perverse — up to a point. And then, like the apocalyptic rants of a lunatic on the subway, her paintings of gorgons, extraterrestrials and freaks begin to take on a vivid, unsettling kind of sense.

When Lassnig was an art student in Nazi-controlled Vienna, she was taught to paint like Rembrandt. In 1945, when she was barely 26, her work turned expressionist, and for the next seven decades she’s shown nothing but impatience toward the conventions of painting, following nobody’s rules but her own.

As early as 1948, Lassnig developed the concept of “body awareness,” described in one of the retrospective’s wall labels as “her subjective approach to painting, in which she seeks to depict her bodily sensations, rather than picturing herself objectively as she might appear in mirrors or photographs.”

In the 1950s, in a series of abstractions that weren’t abstractions, but instead abstracted portraits of herself and the people she knew, she spread swatches of clean, muted color across the canvas in search of Kopfheiten, or “headness.” Later, in the early 1960s, she went deeper,  setting out to imagine what the inside of her body was like, swapping the portraits’ knifed-on paint and restrained palette for scrubby brushstrokes and hot, membranous colors. Soon she was turning her attentiveness to the body outward instead of inward, adding a performative element to her process by lying or kneeling on the canvas as she made the painting.

And then, in 1968, at the age of 49, she moved to New York to study filmmaking and animation at the School of Visual Arts. (Her movies, which feature animated sequences of full-bodied nudes, are presented in a side gallery.) This was of course the moment in American art when critical attention to painting, and especially the figure, was at an all-time low. Lassnig seems to have taken neglect as a challenge, and promptly embarked on her distinct approach to figural expressionism.

It must be said that there’s a disconnect in these works between the medium of oil paint — its use and history — and the often disquieting content. In the paintings of Lassnig’s younger American counterparts, such as Peter Saul (who, at 80, is still nearly a decade and a half younger than Lassnig), Judith Linhares and Dana Schutz, the handling of the paint, often in wide, bold strokes of bright, clashing color, is of a piece with the outré subject matter. Lassnig’s color, on the other hand, though often electrifying, is always one step shy of lurid, and her paint strokes are at the service of a consistently limpid, almost Impressionist light.

triple self-portrait

Maria Lassnig, “Dreifaches Selbstporträt” (“New Self”) (1970-72), oil, charcoal on canvas (courtesy of the artist)

One of the earliest of her figurative paintings is the striking “Dreifaches Selbstporträt” (1970-72), which literally means “Triple Self-Portrait,” though the wall label translates the title as “New Self.” In the painting, Lassnig depicts herself in the nude as if she were all three candidates in the Judgment of Paris. Her personae on the right and left, immersed in a green-tinted, crystalline shadow, are turned frontally toward the viewer. In between them, she paints herself in profile, her body vertically divided by areas of light and shade, with both domains rendered in rich tones of orange, yellow, red and violet. The triple self-portrait, however, is actually quadruple: the middle figure is composed of two superimposed bodies, with one tilted slightly forward, as if caught in motion.

What could this image possibly be about? The wall label gives it a self-actualization spin, suggesting that it shows “Lassnig metamorphosing from a static seated figure into a standing, assertive one,” but that flies in the face of an aesthetic filled with self-lacerating and self-parodying imagery. None of the forty years’ worth of paintings presented here can be reduced to a formula of a + b = c.

I found the most intriguing detail in the painting to be the cigarette held in the left hand of the nude on the right. Despite the long tradition of depicting smokers in art, from Dutch genre painting through Cubism and German Expressionism, there is something utterly fresh, a rude nowness, to Lassnig’s cigarette. The two figures on either side of the canvas are rendered so classically that the painting really does feel like a Judgment of Paris, and consequently it carries the kind of shock (when the technique was new) delivered by a Mozart or Wagner opera performed in modern dress: an ideal from the past violated by the banalities of the present.

This effect is pushed to extremes in Lassnig’s science fiction paintings, such as “Kleines Sciencefiction Selbstporträt” (“Small Science Fiction Self-Portrait”) (1995) and “Fröhlicher Marsmensch” (“Happy Martian”) (1998), or in the painful “Prothesenselbstporträt” “Prosthesis Self-Portrait” (2000), or the notorious “Du, oder Ich?” (“You, or Me?”) (2005) — a nude self-portrait that shows the then-86-year-old Lassnig wielding two pistols, one aimed at her own temple and the other at you, the viewer.

prosthetic self-portrait

Maria Lassnig, “Prothesenselbstporträt” (“Prosthesis Self-Portrait”) (2000), oil on canvas (collection Michael Young)

In these paintings Lassnig is dealing with ideas rarely addressed without irony in visual art. While novelists and filmmakers regularly undertake the metaphorical implications of extraterrestrial life, runaway technology and wanton violence, for a painter to render such matters as Lassnig does — with a sense of humor, yes, but with a deadly serious eye toward making the experience of both paint and image as solid and real as possible — doesn’t give us much of a chance to wriggle off the hook.

No matter how off-putting her pictures might be, a few moments in front of them is enough to pull us ever deeper into their liquid, swarming brushstrokes and flare-ups of acidic color. The occasional misfire aside (such as “Woman Laocoön” from 1976, which relays a winking reference to art history rather than a complex integration of thought and emotion), Lassnig’s paintings mine an untold depth of lived experience, their outlandishness mirroring the extremities of all she’s seen, and, at 94, she must have seen it all.

Maria Lassnig continues at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, Queens) through May 25.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.