In this century, the Museum of Modern Art has presented a series of exhibitions of women artists from other countries: Lygia Clark, Isa Genzken, Alina Szapocznikow, Sanja Ivekovic, Marina Abramovic, Marlene Dumas, Pipilotti Rist, Lucy McKenzie. It has been a privilege to live in New York and become more acquainted with them. But very often, the accompanying texts place them in an artistic context comprised solely of their husbands, boyfriends and guy colleagues — as if their acclaim had separated them from their female peers. I’d leave the exhibition wondering whether the artist ever had a woman friend! (Cornelia Butler’s essay in the Clark catalogue is an exception – she situates the artist within an international feminist framework.) After I visited Maria Lassnig’s provocative retrospective at PS1 MoMA last spring, I began to do some informal sleuthing.
Lassnig, who died in May at age 94, was well known in her native Austria, representing her country at the Venice Biennale together with Valie Export in 1980; participating in documenta 7 (1982) and documenta 10 (1997); and finally receiving the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement with Marisa Merz at Venice in 2013. She has been recognized in the United States only recently, although she lived in New York from 1968 to 1980, years in which her art changed radically. She is widely quoted as saying that she came here to be in the “country of strong women.” But there was nothing in the catalogue, wall labels or related material to tell us who those women were, or whether she ever met up with them! Many of the artists in my community knew her and Martha Edelheit generously connected me to others. I’ve included their stories to bring Maria’s middle years to life.
Lassnig arrived in New York at age 49. She studied animation at the School of Visual Arts 1970–72 and joined a working collective, Women Artist Filmmakers, although she was at least 10 years older than the other women and already had a significant history in the European art world. (W/A/F existed from 1974-1981.) According to Jerry Gorovy, Louise Bourgeois’ studio manager, Lassnig and Bourgeois admired one another’s work. Bourgeois was carving her notorious marble penises in the 70s. Maria knew Joan Semmel and liked the paintings she made of her own nude body, which Semmel was showing at the Lerner Heller Gallery during those years. When Semmel visit Lassnig in Vienna in 1991, Maria asked whether she was still creating those paintings and expressed disappointment when Semmel told her that she had moved on to other subjects. Lassnig would have seen Alice Neel’s portraits, which were exhibited at the Graham Gallery in 1968 and 1970, and at her 1974 Whitney Museum retrospective. Ida Applebroog’s videos and multi-panel wall pieces, which relate to Maria’s animations, were shown at PS1 in 1977 (a 3-person exhibition) and the Whitney (a solo show) in 1978. Edelheit was painting groups of large, languorous male and female nudes: “genitals, pubic hair, warts and all.” Although not listed in the catalog’s selected biography found in the catalogue for the PS1 MoMA exhibition, which originated at the Neue Galerie, Graz, Maria Lassnig exhibited her paintings in New York at the Green Mountain Gallery in 1974 and Gloria Cortella Gallery in 1976. Green Mountain was a gathering place for figurative artists, and painter Diana Kurz remembers meeting her at their openings.
The Austrian literature on Maria Lassnig appropriately talks about her formative years in Vienna, beginning in 1951; her early visits to Paris; her residency there from 1961 to 1968; and her exposure to European mid-century philosophy and art movements: Surrealism, Art Informel, Tachisme. Well known (male) artists who participated in those groups and whom she knew, are often cited. When critics discuss her New York period, during which Lassnig articulated and developed her singular “body awareness” aesthetic, they often reference male performance and body artists.
When the 2014 PS1 show was reviewed in the United States, younger women artists like Dana Schutz and Amy Sillman, who acknowledge Lassnig’s influence, are mentioned. But until recently, there has not been a discussion in print about the intense dialogue that Maria Lassnig shared with her female contemporaries in New York during the 1970s.* Most of the women in Women Artist Filmmakers were making erotic films (Edelheit, Schneider, Goldsmith, Walsh). Carolee Schneemann’s legendary Meat Joy was created in 1964, before she participated in W/A/F. Rosalind Schneider’s three-screen Parallax was first shown at the New York Cultural Center in 1973. This generative environment was one in which Maria Lassnig thrived — where she could explore and experiment. Her friends describe the artist as a modest, ladylike, even self-effacing woman, who would rather talk about the work of others than her own. But her art was fiercely feminist, so there were contradictions and struggles within her, which fight it out in the paintings and animated films.
Comments and Images From Maria Lassnig’s Feminist Collective
Maria was in our film group, Women Artist Filmmakers. When I met her, she was living on East 6th St and Avenue B in the early 70s; she was delighted that the streets were so lively and full of people all day and night…not realizing that they were junkies, never noticing the discarded needles and condoms and shit and piss and vomit and passed out bodies on her stoop and in the hallways. She had very little money so she walked everywhere and her animated films were made by using 4 bricks that she found on the street, covered with a sheet of broken milk glass, also from the street, a 16mm Bolex from the nearest pawn shop, and some cheap flood lamps. When the street people/addicts broke into her tenement apartment and stole her Bolex, she finally moved to a rental loft on Spring and West Broadway.
During her time in New York, the Austrian government declared her Artist Laureate and there was a hilarious ceremony at her loft, which was almost bare: 1 cup, 1 saucer, a plate, a bowl, a bed, a few chairs and a table. We stood in the middle of the loft in a circle and these very uncomfortable Austrian gentlemen in their business suits crowned her with a laurel wreath and opened a bottle of champagne, with plastic glasses. The art school in Vienna, the University of Applied Arts, offered her a professorship. She didn’t want to go back, she liked living in New York. She said that if they paid her what they paid Joseph Beuys, she’d return! They did…and she felt she had to go back.
Before New York, she and Arnulf Rainer were lovers. When I visited her in Vienna in the 1980s, she, her good friend Hilde Absalon, a fabulous weaver and I went to a museum where Maria discovered that there was a wall of her work next to [Rainer’s]. She was delighted…he had always put her down.
The photograph of W/A/F seated and standing around the table was taken by my late husband Hank, who took a lot of photos of us.
Been thinking about my dialogue with Maria and our mutual response to each other’s work. We talked about the events that were the source for our work and how they played out in its realization. Maria was responsible for getting our work to venues in Europe that included the Museum of Modern Art, Innsbruck; Museum of Modern Art, Vienna; Museum of Modern Art, Basel; and the Arsenal, Berlin.
The amount of work she did promoting all of the films, translating and personally reading texts during the European screenings, indicates her involvement with W/A/F. It made her feel strong about her own films. She clearly supported our work and felt good about being included in the group. Filmmaking, unlike painting, is not a solitary process. Feedback during the work is a part of the making. She showed them to us and was pleased with, interested in, our responses.
Two of our members are missing from these photos, Alida Walsh and Olga Spiegel. Maria also was at the Millennium Film Workshop every night, looking at films, screening her films and attending classes there with Bob Parent, who taught the ‘workshop-classes’ I attended — and it was at Millenium where I met and became best friends with her.
Goldsmith shared with me a 1970s Lassnig painting featuring her portrait beside Maria’s. Lassnig painted double self-portraits throughout her life, but a portrait with another woman is rare. Comparing the two figures, one is sporting a patterned party dress, the other wears the skin of her own body over her nakedness from the waist up; one looks at us through alert eyes, the other is blind or asleep, eyes barely visible; one smiles, the other breathes through parted lips; one wears exotic earrings, the other has boxed off her ears; one extends a hand affectionately, the other holds both of hers in her lap. Lassnig fades into a remote, internalized zone, while her friend exists in the vibrant material world. Perhaps their friendship provided a link to that world, New York in the 1970s.
This painting of Silvianna and Maria recalls “The Two Fridas” (1939) by Frida Kahlo, which was intensely discussed among feminists in the 1970s. Kahlo’s most ambitious self-portrait, the artist appears in formal European attire on the left, in traditional Mexican clothes on the right, representing her mixed parentage. The two figures are connected by a vein of blood from one heart to the other, and holding hands. Mexican Frida’s heart is intact; she holds a small image of her husband Diego Rivera in her hand. European Frida’s heart is open, exposed; she severs the connecting stream of blood, soiling the whiteness of her dress to dramatize the rupture in their marriage.
Maria Lassnig put her face and/or body through every conceivable configuration and distortion. She talked about “body awareness” as being inside herself, frequently thwarting the viewer from experiencing her totality in her many paintings of isolated heads, isolated torsos, isolated organs. She had fun representing herself in outrageous roles: as an astronaut, an extraterrestrial, a robot, a monster, a baby. And there is a searing social/political consciousness coursing through her loosely painted, acidly colored art — the tanks and missiles zooming across her 1980s canvases; the animals she depicted with soulful empathy; and above all, the confrontational self.
Entering the show at PS1, “You or Me” (2005) was what we saw first. It carried a shock, holding not just the wall, but the whole room. She was 86 when she painted it, an image of herself seated, nude with legs spread, hairless body and head, mouth ajar and eyes dilated, no ears, silence. She points a gun to her head, and another gun straight at us. Her body is outlined in arresting teal brushstrokes, the color of her eyes. At first, the painting appears to be straightforward, but then invites multiple interpretations. Reviewers have speculated that she is reproaching her male colleagues and us, the art audience, for not recognizing her sooner. I projected a more intimate reading: that in rage and grief, she is addressing a lover.
In her 1971 animated film, Selfportrait, Maria Lassnig says, “I could have been as beautiful as Greta Garbo, or a lion like Bette Davis.” And for a moment, her face morphs into theirs. In Mysterious Lady (1928), Garbo shoots the villain. There is a famous image in The Letter (1940) of Bette Davis pointing a smoking gun. In Mildred Pierce (1945), Joan Crawford’s gun is doubly reflected in the mirror behind her. Later, Gena Rowlands riffed on the tradition in Gloria (1980). Hannah Wilke played with toy guns in So Help Me Hannah (1978); Mary Beth Edelson created a body of work based on Gloria in 1991. All of these women were witty and self-aware, like Maria, who placed herself into that long tradition.
Maria Lassnig had ongoing intellectual and aesthetic exchanges with men and did not wish to be viewed from a reductive, essentialist perspective. But when describing her life, those heady days in lower Manhattan must be seen as a crucial part of her development. Learning about her professional relationships and networks will deepen our understanding of her work. When a woman artist is canonized, if she is treated as one of the boys, she is de-gendered and our collective history is diminished. We do not denigrate this artist’s extraordinary achievement by describing a milieu which nurtured it! This is a rich subject, which can be explored in more depth.
*Lassnig mentions Women Artist Filmmakers in the October 2014 issue of Artforum in a 2012 interview by Hans Ulrich Obrist. In the October 2014 online version of Artforum, Carolee Schneemann reminisces about Maria in the group, “Maria Lassnig (1919-2014).”
Disclosure: I worked with images of female shooters in a public artwork, The Movies: Fantasies and Spectacles, 1993, Los Angeles Metro’s Seventh and Flower Station, commissioned through Los Angeles County Transportation Commission’s Art for Rail Transit Program.