Mauricio Lasansky's Prints: A Critical Perspective
Born in 1914, Mauricio Lasansky is of the same generation as the most influential artists America had produced, the Abstract Expressionists. By the early 1950s these artists developed abstract visual images with which they tried to express strong emotions. But many viewers were left cold by Abstract Expressionism's relative abandonment of recognizable subject matter. This audience regarded Lasansky's portraits as models for what art should dorecover its "humanism," a term which implied that art should be a readily understandable communication of the human condition and not merely a jumble of lines or a patchwork of color. Lasansky's portraits must have seemed a paradigm because of the assumption that portraying humans constitutes humanism. But if this assumption somehow had been made into a program for all artists to follow, there would have been no increase in art's net amount of humanism. Humanism in art is generated by the nature of the individual artist, not by the nature of his image, abstract or representational.
Despite the difference in appearance, Lasansky's representational works are not antithetical to the creations of the Abstract Expressionists nor a retreat to a comfortable but worn out figurative tradition. It will be argued that although his prints are not in the style of the Abstract Expressionists, Lasansky shares the sensibility of that generation of artists and was shaped by the same economic and social forces. Lasansky found a way to express in prints the same pathos that the Abstract Expressionists conveyed in their paintings. Furthermore, Lasansky's choice and handling of figurative art did not prevent him from achieving what is today accepted as the genuine humanism of Abstract Expressionism; rather, his choice allowed it.
If one is familiar with the development of the Abstract Expressionists and their art one sees common patterns emerge. Lasansky's earliest prints, made in his native Argentina, were of poverty and death. These works have social-realist subjects presented in a style which tends towards the geometricization of forma style that recalls Philip Guston's pre-Abstract Expressionist works. Like them, they often were most successful when dealing with children made beyond their years in suffering. In 1937 Lasansky turned from these dark subjects to works such as Changos y Burritos and Maternidad which have the enigmatic images, unusual juxtapositions of size, unexpected transparencies in solid objects, and distorted spatial relations which recall Mannerism and which also suggest the Surrealist movement of the artist's own day. Lasansky, then, like most of the future Abstract Expressionists, was at first a representational expressionist (i.e., an artist who strives to express his feelings through not only the choice but also the extremely personal handling of his subject matter) and then a Surrealist (if only stylistically) committed to an art of heavy emotional impact. His work also revealed a geometrical tendency which, typically, could be traced ultimately to Picasso's endless variations on cubism. The imagery, too, became surprisingly like Picasso'sanother characteristic shared with the future Abstract Expressionists.
An important experience shared by developing Abstract Expressionists was direct contact with European masters who had been driven to our shores by the war. In 1943 and 1944 Lasansky worked in New York at Stanley William Hayter's famous print workshop, Atelier 17, where he made prints alongside modern masters such as Marc Chagall. It was here that Lasansky encountered another experience which was nearly de riguer for future Abstract Expressionistsfirst-hand contact with Surrealists. Not only did he get this from Hayter, but Matta came from France and worked during this time too at Atelier 17, and perhaps no other Surrealist had a greater influence through personal contact on the development of Abstract Expressionists. Certainly Matta was an important influence on Jackson Pollock who, like Lasansky, worked at Hayter's studio in 1944 (Lasansky also became acquainted in New York with Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and most of the other Abstract Expressionists). After Lasansky's New York experience, the nature of his Surrealism was realigned with the kind produced by many future Abstract Expressionists. As exemplified in Sol y Luna of 1945 it was mythologically oriented, with strange creatures emerging from the murkiness in a way that coincides with Pollock's paintings of the time. Finally, Lasansky took the penultimate step on the road to Abstract Expressionism: his mythological Surrealism became abstract, and in works like Spring, Fall and Winter of 1947 he created Abstract Surrealist prints comparable to the "inscape" paintings by Matta.
In addition to parallel stylistic developments, Lasansky also participated in a less tangible but none the less real social and cultural ambience shared with the Abstract Expressionists. Most art in the forties was as intense and emotional as the events of that period. There was no Cold War as in the fifties, no impersonal death by "smart bombs" as in the sixties. War was a pressing and powerful disturbance for these artists, not only since Pearl Harbor, but since the disastrous conflicts in Spain. The Spanish Civil War stimulated Picasso's Guernica, Motherwell's series entitled Elegy for the Spanish Republic, and Lasansky's Espana. Adding to these miseries was the Depression, which was enough of an influence on Lasansky that he called it "my great teacher." Finally, the soul-searching precipitated by these circumstances was intensified for those numerous artists who were strangers in New York or who were either immigrants or children of immigrants seeking a firm identity. Lasansky's father was born in Lithuania, lived for a while in Philadelphia, and settled in Argentina; there the artist was born and lived until his arrival in New York. All of these troubling circumstances were reflected in arts and letters: in the fascination with existential philosophy, which questioned the meaning, nature and significance of one's being and identity; in poems such as W.H. Auden's The Age of Anxiety (1947); and in the art of most Abstract Expressionists, who, like Mark Rothko, sought to express "man's primitive fears and motivations."
One by one these artists emerged from this spiritually confusing and dark period, and that emergence can be witnessed in their artvery dramatically in Barnett Newman's Onement No. 1 of 1948 and Pollock's "drip" paintings of the year before. It was at the same time that Lasansky's now characteristic style emerged, as in My Boy of 1947. Even though this work is unlike Abstract Expressionism, I should like to argue that its style was equally as much as progression, maturation, and expression within the ambience of the times.
Lasansky was twenty-eight when he came to America on his first Guggenheim Fellowship in 1943, and he arrived possessing an almost evangelistic dedication to printmaking. He already has been awarded eighteen first prizes, he had been director of two art schools, and he planned to establish a national center for printmaking on his return to Cordoba. The most striking example of the seriousness of his devotion to printmaking was his plan to study every print in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was not the first person who wanted to examine all 150,000 of them, but he was the first person to actually do it. Lasansky wanted to raise printmaking to the status of a major art, rather than a minor art that was merely an inexpensive way to reproduce and distribute pictures to the masses. Lasansky was one of the first major artists whose sole medium was graphics (unlike, for example, Rembrandt or Picasso who are more commonly known for their paintings). He was and is involved in printmaking because it is a medium that can produce physical appearances as unique and distinct as, for example, oil paint or pastel.
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