Austrian artist Maria Lassnig painted mainly warped, writhing figures in zingy colours using viscous swathes of paint. If you see nothing else in her 31 works displayed at London's Hauser & Wirth Gallery 1 March - 29 April 2017, this would be enough to satisfy the eyeball's yearning for stimulation and surprise. Born in 1919, she died in 2014 aged 94. Her work fully engages with the historical teachings of the Western canon as well as her contemporaries Philip Guston, Francis Bacon and the post war modernists, yet much of it could have been produced by a young artist working today.
Her first public show in Britain was in 2008 when she was almost 90, making her one of a handful of female artists who finally made it to the UK's fickle art stage very, very late. Equally unacknowledged til well into her senior years was British artist Rose Wylie who at 79 had a selection of paintings appear at the Tate Britain shortly after being singled out in America. French-American artist Louise Bourgeois was 89 when her first major works appeared in London and Saloua Raouda Choucair, the extraordinary Lebanese artist, made her British debut at the Tate Modern in 2013 when she was 97. Appalling really.
As a survey of her 1950-2007 works, this exhibition builds a story of Lassnig's development, in contrast to her 2008 show at the Serpentine Gallery which was more dressed to impress. It begins once upon a time with Lassnig's modest works exploring colour and spatial relationships as a way of dividing up the canvas and balancing the composition. As time moves on Lassnig stretches and contorts these structural devices. They remain considered but at times travel off the canvas edge such as in Gartner Im Schnee (Gardener in the Snow). At other times, for instance, in Schicksalslinien / Be-Ziehungen VIII (Lines of Fate / Re-lations VIII), they are cleverly placed as equivalent to the figures, which are perched and pierced on a web of diagonal lines. Playing structure against figure and vice versa by bringing everything to the surface or creating an instability in the composition distinguished her work and continues to permeate the paintings of this century's young graduates.
Lassnig's figures themselves are embryo meets alien, squirming within outer skin casings, agonising about their own existence. At times they are part animal, as beast rather than man's best friend. They share the post war disfigurements of Francis Bacon's work, yet her often tragicomic approach stands apart from his devastations and retention of formalist structures. Instead, Lassnig created "body awareness" paintings. She would lie down to paint on the canvas which was laid out on the floor then paint the parts of her body she could feel, leaving out the rest. Reminiscent somewhat of Yves Klein's 1960s Anthropometry series, though importantly, Lassnig used her own body at the centre of her work, while Klein used women as objects. The result is unavoidably and equally self referencing as well as inclusive of the other. By lying next to the figure, the figure becomes the other yet it is also the self. It's no surprise then that Lassnig's work may well be about her but is easily accessible to us.
Maria Lassnig was a painter of extraordinary and unique vision. She noted in her diary April 1953 that she didn't want to "treat colors like a sheet of colored paper, the artwork must go beyond the problem". As a result her colours are bold, blended and unexpected, increasingly so over time until they hit a tart sting around the 80s. Looking at these recalls Joan Miro's Still Life with Old Shoe, 1937 as much as the sprays of graffiti artists. Also present seem the neon palettes of Katherine Bernhardt and Eddie Peake whose Tangerine, 2016 is remarkably similar to Lassnig's Gross Flachenteilung / Spiegel (Large field-division / mirror).
Thoughout Hauser & Wirth's survey, there's an equal chance of glimpsing last century's artists as there is of today's practitioners including the wincingly funny and equally disturbing works of Paul McCarthy, an artist who apparently collects Lassnig's paintings. She was a true inspiration. The only disappointment is that we've had to wait so long to witness Maria Lassnig's account of living in the world bodily, mindful and with a spirited soul.