Maria Lassnig: The Biography
Translated from the German by Jeff Crowder
(Hauser & Wirth Publishers, Maria Lassnig Foundation, Petzel Gallery, 2022)
The biography of Maria Lassnig reads like a heroine’s journey. Her early beginnings, maybe predictably for someone who painted such haunting self-portraits, were rough. Born out of wedlock, she was initially raised by a grandmother who made her feel neglected and unloved. But by age six, her mother married and created a stable home, giving Lassnig pencils that set her on an artistic path. Trials and tribulations ensued, but Lassnig’s story ended happily—the heroine prevailed to see her work celebrated, live comfortably, and receive accolades. This is not the usual tale of the woman artist, since many only see recognition in their twilight years (or after their deaths).
Nonetheless, if you’re not from Austria there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of this protagonist—one of the country’s beloved contemporary painters. Despite living for long periods in Paris and New York, Lassnig was mostly known in her homeland for much of her career and only started gaining global recognition around the 1990s. This was partly because the notoriously prickly painter had a hard time parting with her canvases, thwarting sales to international collections. For example, when the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC and the Drawing Center in New York wanted to acquire her work, she passed. Her attitude was the same towards private collectors. “I don’t know why collectors have to grab everything for themselves,” Lassnig once said. “Collectors are all assholes to a man, or rather, asswipes.” (The misogyny of the art world may have also played a role.)
But now that Lassnig has worldwide momentum—a retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in 1996, a 2008 solo exhibition at London’s Serpentine Gallery, and a major solo show at MoMA PS1 in 2014 (the final year of the artist’s life), among other showcases—this biography by Natalie Lettner, newly translated into English by Jeff Crowder, furthers her acclaim. This English edition is co-published by the Maria Lassnig Foundation, Hauser & Wirth, and Petzel, and is a translation of a 2017 German edition, in order to introduce her to a broader audience; it includes over two hundred illustrations interspersed in the book’s text, making them easier to relate to the artist’s biography, and seventy of these are exclusive to the English translation.
Lettner was tasked with studying the life of an artist who spent over seven decades obsessively studying herself. Lassnig explored the idea of Body Awareness—a concept of transferring bodily sensations to the canvas through form and color. “There are pain colors and torture colors, nerve-cord colors, discomfort and fullness colors, stretching and pressing colors, hollow and swelling colors, crushing and burning colors, death and decomposition colors, fear of cancer colors—these are colors of reality,” Lassnig wrote of her palette. In her innumerable self-portraits, she recorded the ever changing ways that she experienced herself. In one of these later paintings, Forced Speech (Sprechzwang) (1980), a nude Lassnig holds her mouth agape but struggles to speak into the white void of the canvas’s background—an illustration of how difficult it was for her to talk about art in her role as a professor at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna.
Though Lassnig was preoccupied with Body Awareness, she also constantly experimented. “There are many artists who, once they have found a recipe for success, stick to it and more or less always do the same thing and fare well in reviews and with the public. That would never be Lassnig’s thing,” writes Lettner in the biography. “She remains someone who searched, evolved constantly, and experienced repetition as crippling and boring. She revisited certain questions and topics throughout her long artistic life, but she always found new answers and approaches.” This was the case even when sales were good for a particular body of work, and gallerists encouraged her to create more of the same. “I would rather contradict myself—before I repeat myself,” Lassnig said.
For an artist who constantly experimented with styles, subjects, and media (such as animated film), the biography gives invaluable context for why and when she made certain things. Lassnig painted her series of large scale “Line Pictures” in the early 1960s, for example, right after she’d moved into a roomy Parisian studio that could contain 2-by-2-meter canvases. And when Lassnig moved to New York in the late sixties, it was the first time in her life that she owned a refrigerator; she used it for both food and clay, allowing her to sculpt.
Maria Lassnig: The Biography is deeply comprehensive, sometimes veering on generous tangents to provide background information for those who crossed paths with Lassnig. (One such example is Iris Vaughan, a divorced waitress in her twenties that Lassnig befriended while living in Manhattan, and who posed for portraits.) It also shares the kind of details that give a sense of who this self-inspecting artist was, off canvas. When Lassnig was preparing for her first-ever Venice Biennale (a two-artist exhibition with Valie Export in 1980), she was living in a studio with no running water, phone, or toilet, and had to make logistical phone calls from a payphone. Lassnig almost always wore sneakers, even to the fanciest exhibition openings. She was known for making an apple strudel for special guests. And she loved to watch American TV.
Yet the overarching detail—and motto of this artist’s life, as well as the biography representing it—is succinctly summed up by Lassnig’s own words printed on the fore edge of the book. “My sole purpose in life, and only wish, is to be a good painter,” Lassnig wrote. “Gaining self-confidence through painting was the focus of my entire life.” Lettner’s detailed retelling of Lassnig’s life story successfully captures this quest.