Maria Lassnig, MoMA PS1, New York – review

She stares at you with an expression of scalding horror, but it’s not her eyes that draw your gaze. What demands immediate attention is the black gun pointed straight at you. Next, you see the gun in her other hand, directed at her own brain. Only then do you register the rest of her – the small flap of belly, the wilting breasts, the dead-chicken skin of her thighs.

This octogenarian naked lady with a pair of pistols, titled “You or Me”, greets visitors to Maria Lassnig’s provocative retrospective at PS1. It’s a challenge, a threat and a question. Is she aiming at the male artists who have marginalised her for decades? At the voyeurs/viewers who gratify themselves through her narcissism? Or, since the triggers are cocked in both directions at once, does she want to end a destructive dynamic one way or another?

Lassnig clearly survived that existential high noon. Now 94, she recently stopped painting her harrowing self-portraits, but not for lack of will: she’s simply too frail to continue. Happily, as her output has shrunk, the artist’s reputation has grown. After decades of languishing in central European obscurity (she lives in Vienna), she was honoured with a 2008 retrospective at London’s Serpentine Gallery and in 2013 she won the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Venice Biennale. The PS1 installation, curated by Peter Eleey, is her work’s first significant outing in the US.

The exhibition showcases the self-portraits, which range from hilarious to horrifying. Lassnig performs herself as a grotesque, exaggerating her ears into space-alien trumpets, suffusing her face with bruised purples and bilious greens, yanking an eye out of its socket. In one painting she gives birth to a devil; in another she is a monster with a smashed crimson head and a puppy nose. These perverse alter egos leave enough clues to remind us that it’s really her beneath the parade of deforming masks. Even in her most forgiving mode, there’s something cadaverous or reptilian about the way she presents herself. The cheeks bulge, the mouth gapes, the blue eyes go blank, and the nose turns up to reveal her flaring nostrils. With dogged obsessiveness, she has put these features at the service of art, perhaps because she didn’t want to subject anyone else to her merciless eye.

A droll poem she wrote in 1992 sums up her feelings: “God didn’t make me a beauty, let’s face it, but He gave me the gift with a pencil to trace it; like a latter day Dürer or some other big cheese, all I portrayed proved easy to please.”

It’s not surprising that Lassnig invokes Dürer as a spiritual ancestor: her work, like his, renders unlovely flesh idiosyncratically, taking his suspicion of classical form to bizarre extremes. Lassnig studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna during the Nazi years, when the instruction was strictly classical and the walls were brown, stripped of degenerate modernists’ vivid hues. She internalised that brown. Seeing her first self-portrait, a professor commented, “You paint like Rembrandt.” She felt flattered, but eager to move beyond mud colours. The screamingly bright palette of her later career was a riposte to the bleak, fascist tones of her youth.

After the war she moved to Paris, where expressionism and surrealism opened her eyes. By 1969 she was living in New York. She stayed for a decade even though no one really liked her stuff. “Americans are so simple-minded,” she said, and returned to Vienna to become the first female professor of painting in a German-speaking country.

And yet the doltish country left its mark on her work. She followed the path that de Kooning hacked away from abstraction and, like him, she ushered vulgar women on to her canvases, menacing hags slathered in war paint. That didn’t make her a disciple. De Kooning summoned his ill-favoured sisterhood out of lingering misogyny; Lassnig’s motivations seem more complex.

She also found a kinship with another American, Alice Neel, who, with a cruel eye and consummate technique, could magic a stunner into a troll. But Lassnig seems less driven by hatred or sadism than by an ungodly mixture of narcissism and self-loathing. She can’t bear to see herself; nor can she avert her eyes. “You or Me” takes on an even more sinister reading if you recognise that the artist isn’t looking at the viewer at all, but rather at a mirror, as she must endlessly do. Whether the first bullet hits the model or her reflection, the feedback loop between them ends.

Lassnig often describes her art as emerging from “body awareness”, a disciplined hypersensitivity to the workings of her internal organs. She paints pain, thought, blood and breath, as if they were objects she could hold and scrutinise. In “Lady With a Brain”, the knobby mass of grey matter has migrated from its rightful place inside the skull and attached itself to the exterior like the latest fad in millinery. Eleey has likened these self-eviscerations to the confessional world of social media, and called Lassnig “the perfect artist for the age of the selfie”. But there is nothing remotely trendy or perky or cute about her pictures, which connect less to today’s habits of self-construction than to the Viennese rawness of Schiele or Kokoschka. To spend time with her paintings is to surrender to a defiant exhibitionism: she wants us to watch her enact her most outrageous fears, project her own worst urges, imagine her enemies’ vilest wishes. And we can’t look away.

Until May 25,

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