Like a comet, artist Maria Lassnig flared across the 1970s New York feminist film scene before returning to her native Austria in 1980. With patience we’ve had to wait almost forty years for Lassnig as filmmaker to come back into sight, this time around thanks to MoMA’s presentation of her New York films (until June 18 at PS1). The screenings of these films, a combination of both newly restored and previously shown footage, would be impossible without the tireless and painstaking restoration work of Hans Werner Poshauko and Mara Mattuschka, former students of the artist, both present at the panel discussion I attended on January 29th, which served as an inauguration of the screenings.
Lassnig’s relationship to her film work was modest– she kept the old reels from her New York days in a beaten up trunk in her studio in Vienna, animation stills stacked between footage spliced with painter’s tape. She was aware of the magnitude of the work needed to restore the films, often telling her assistant Poshauko that the project was not meant for her lifetime. Their restoration has become one of the many legacy-securing efforts he has undertaken in the years since her death. (The artist died in 2014, which might account for her burgeoning popularity, as per the traditional relationship between artistic fame and death.)
Though the full set of films were everything from amusing and self-deprecating to almost psychedelic, the segments which made the most lasting impression were a series of four titled Soul Sisters, interspersed among other shorts. Each was a restrained, intimate, and tender portrait of a female friend of the artist: Alice, Hilde, Bärbl, and Iris, each woman with her own distinct aura. (I might have used the word “personality” here, but Lassnig’s filmic touch is light enough to depict her subjects not as persons, but rather as presences.)
In “Alice,” the titular character awkwardly spritzes her naked body with watery red ink. It trickles over her, slips, and catches on the texture of her nipples. It gathers and drips of their soft points. Lassnig’s voiceover is tender if bemused with Alice, delighting in her and, with a sad chuckle, lamenting her friend’s sudden absence from New York. In a panel discussion lead by PS1 assistant curator Jocelyn Miller, Lassnig’s former students were unhesitating when they insisted these four works were self-portraits of the artist, and knowing that Lassnig herself abruptly returned to Austria (as is outlined in her original and self-effacing Kantate (1992), which ends the film series), it is not hard to see how Lassnig’s closeness to these women might be a fractured and reassembled view on her relationship to herself.
It is in her positioning in relation to her friend that we most clearly see the conflation between author and subject. “Hilde” shows a woman at leisure in the countryside, wearing wide-legged pants in a mustard color only the 1970s could produce. As possible as it is to erase perspective from a single view of the camera lens, Lassnig has made herself appear a neutral omnipresence. Hilde catches the camera’s eye on occasion, but there is no change in her natural behavior to indicate she knows it’s there. I could’ve spent the day watching, felt not that I was folding laundry off the line with her, but that I myself was Hilde, that despite watching her open her shutters from outside her cabin, felt like I was seeing the view on to which they opened. I imagine Lassnig, behind the camera, felt similarly as she watched the joy play across her friend’s face, feeling it as her own.
The presence of a camera often creates a power differential, with the filmmaker in control, but the gaze throughout Soul Sisters is without violence. Lassnig’s work is remarkable in its depiction of the female body, presenting it as a neutral self-possessed object. She visually references Man Ray’s La Prière (1930) in one shot in Iris, and while traditional surrealist images of fractured, abstracted body parts such as this appear again and again in her shorts, they manage to repurpose the surrealist spirit and make bodies appear not to be objects, not to be tools of seduction, but simply to be bodies.
In a moment when a woman’s body is a battleground for freedom this seems nothing short of miraculous.