NEW YORK — If she weren’t considered one of the most significant contemporary artists, Maria Lassnig could probably pass as your grandmother.
A slight and gentle Austrian woman dressed casually in burgundy cords, a blue-hooded henley and tortoiseshell Guess eyeglasses, Lassnig, 86, walks slowly into the Friedrich Petzel Gallery on 22nd Street where her work will hang through Dec. 23. To the casual observer, the moment sparks a bit of a disconnect. Could this rosy-cheeked woman who laughs easily really be the one behind the acerbic neon paintings of naked bodies and skeletons on display?
There’s nothing in her manner to let on that she could indeed be the one, but there’s also no question that she is — many of the pieces are self-portraits. Known for working within the themes of body and form, Lassnig draws herself in various situations: dancing with death, carrying the symbolic sacrificial lamb (in this case, more like a dog) or, of course, painting.
“When I paint others, I’m hindered by their expectation of what I do,” says the artist, who began her career at age six, drawing pictures of her friends.
Like most creative types, Lassnig is loathe to categorize her work. When asked to do so, she toys with the phrase “psychological expressionism,” but then decides that’s too specific.
Critics have called her a feminist, something she’s more inclined to identify with.
“When you’re a woman and intelligent enough, you’re stamped a feminist,” she laughs.
Before she began painting seriously, Lassnig spent 12 years living in New York as a filmmaker. She’s pleased, if not slightly jet-lagged, having flown in from Vienna the night before, to be returning. She’s eager to check out the newly remodeled MoMA. “But I’ll be very sad,” she says of the visit, “because I’m not in there.”
Throughout her career, Lassnig contends that she’s been underestimated by the art world. “First of all, she’s a woman. Har, har. Second, she’s Austrian,” she says, mimicking her critics in a gruff voice. “And also, I’m very shy.” Still, she continues to paint, spending approximately one week on each piece. “Is that long?” she asks. “No, I know surrealist painters in Austria and they paint a portrait, a little one, in three years. I paint two or three. I am gifted for that.”