Deeply felt emotions are at the core of the art of Maria Lassnig (1919–2014). Works she labeled «body awareness» art seek to render physical sensations and trace the nuances of her perception of her own body. Humorous and serious, driven by profound yearnings and relentlessly rigorous, the Austrian artist captured her sense of—mental, physical—self on paper, transmuting not what she saw but how she felt her own existence into images. Even as she honed her introspective attention to her body, Lassnig remained in constant touch with the outside world. Her portraits grow out of a searching study of reality, though her sensitive observations of animals and humans reach far beyond mere representation of the visible, engaging with her subjects to bring out their essence and probe their singularity.
Lassnig’s dialogue with the inner and outer worlds, with the complexities of emotion and reality, is especially vivid in her works on paper. A sheltering medium, the drawing becomes a scene of experimentation with spontaneously placed lines and fields of color. It opens up new perspectives and helps the artist chart new themes. Yet despite the intimate quality of graphic art, she tends to lay out her works on paper in monumental and pictorial compositions. Lassnig’s drawings have transcended the idea of the sketch or first draft for an autonomous creative articulation on paper. In the intensity of the draftsmanship, the vibrancy of the individual line as much as the radiance of the watercolor, her graphic art is visibly and palpably of a piece with her painting.
With Louise Bourgeois, Joan Mitchell, and Agnes Martin, Lassnig is widely recognized as one of the twentieth century’s foremost women artists. She placed her body at the center of her art early on, long before physical self-awareness and the relations between men and women became vital themes of the international avant-garde.
Four years after her death, the Kunstmuseum Basel, collaborating with the Albertina in Vienna, honors the artist with a retrospective of her works on paper that brings together ca. 80 of Lassnig’s most affecting drawings and watercolors. Several sheets that have never been on public display turn out to be key works. Seen side by with more familiar pieces, they shed new light on her concept of body awareness and provide fresh insight into the Austrian artist’s multifaceted and pioneering oeuvre.