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Mauricio Lasansky:  The Artist in Print

The Prints of Mauricio Lasansky

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Thus it was that Lasansky, newly arrived from Argentina, found himself working next to artists of the international avante-garde in New York, as well as joining and a number of younger artists in becoming exposed to Hayter's particular approach to printmaking. Coupled with his exhaustive study of the print collections at the Metropolitan Museum, his approach to art changed totally. Lasansky came to realize at this time that the physical resistance of the copper plate and the precision, tautness, and varying depths of the directly cut line in the copper were the most singular characteristics of printmaking, and he responded instinctively to the tension and control he was able to exert as the forms emerged in the process of engraving. In New York he explored new ways of imposing textured areas on the plate, and of creatively using retroussage to bring brilliant white accents into a composition. Perhaps, too, the beauty of the engraved plate attracted the now-latent sculptor in Lasansky; to this day he takes visible physical pleasure in the varied surfaces and channels of the plates, which he views as objects in their own right apart from their use as printing masters.

The presence of such contemporary masters as Miró and Chagall, during Lasansky's time in New York, must have contributed notably to his development, as did his exposure to the prints of Picasso, with whom Hayter had worked closely in Paris. These artists had a profound effect on Lasansky's imagery, and in various prints of the later 1940s and 1950s, he clearly displays his debt to Hayter's abstract web of curving and spiky lines, Chagall's airborne figures, and Picasso's agonized Guernica victims. While in Argentina, Lasansky's poetic analogies had been expressed in reasonably conventional drawing, even when certain surrealistic elements came into his compositions, now he adopted a freer approach to the human figure and a stronger sense of line, and liberated himself from the profusion of observed detail that had been so much a part of his earlier drypoints. The tonality that was to characterize his work for the next fifteen years appeared at this time, too.

In this last respect, he owed a debt to Goya, and to the other Spanish artists for whom he felt such a deep affinity at this point in his career. If the days in Atélier 17 had brought him into touch with living work by live artists, his studies at the Metropolitan Museum put the powerful work of the past directly into his hands, often in examples of unsurpassed quality. Whereas, the prints of Goya in reproduction might be most compelling for their imagery, the physical richness of color was inescapable in actual examples of his aquatints and etchings, and impressed Lasansky profoundly.

Realizing that the possibilities for further development of his own career were far better in the United States than in Argentina, and feeling more than ever that the atmosphere of Cordoba was stiflingly provincial, Lasansky made up his mind to try to remain in North America. In 1944 he requested, and received, and extension of his Guggenheim Fellowship, sent for his wife and children, and discussed with Henry Allen Moe, the president of the Guggenheim Foundation, the prospect of making a new career. There appeared to be two possibilities: to stay in New York, and compete with scores of artists for attention and patronage, or to live and work in a smaller center where his attentions would be less diverted by concerns marginal to his work as an artist. Having preferred to live in a smaller city in Argentina, Lasansky felt that he would prefer to make the same choice here; moreover, printmaking was anything but an established career for an artist in the United States, in 1945.

It may seem hard to believe, in this day of flourishing print workshops, impressive print exhibitions, and the virtually universal teaching of printmaking in universities and art schools, that before the Second World War printmaking was widely regrarded as the province of a few, specialized artists, appealing to a few, finicky collectors. Not many museums had serious print rooms, and even if prints were among their collections they mounted few exhibitions of the graphic arts. The Federal Arts Project established printmaking workshops in several cities during the depression of the 1930s, and many artists were exposed to printmaking techniques thereby, but somehow even those projects failed to engender a truly widespread and innovative interest in printmaking.

This is not to say that American artists never made prints. Many made them abroad, as Whistler, Mary Cassatt, and others had in the nineteenth century, and as Feininger and Max Weber did in the twentieth. Others, like "the Eight" in New York, Thomas Hart Benton in Missouri, and Grant Wood in Iowa, frequently turned to the print to record their responses to the American scene. Benton and Wood, however, preferred to work in lithography, with the aid of experienced printers, so they remained more concerned with their subjects than with the technical aspects of their prints. While this kept them from creating anything in printmaking that was different from their painting, it did at least remind other artists and collectors that the print was a valid medium of expression, not just a reproductive tool, or pastime for the conservative purist.

In the later 1940s, when education in the arts was beginning to expand after the war, several far-sighted administrators recognized the potential importance of printmaking in the art curriculum, and Lester D. Longman, at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, was one of those prescient individuals. At Iowa the creative arts were given a unique place among the academic disciplines, and were regarded as entirely proper concerns for graduate study. University president Virgil Hancher appears to have fully realized that this was an area in which the university could take an innovative stand, and the development of the writers workshop, music school, and art department under his term attracted widepsread attention.

The first artist-in-residence at Iowa who reflected this embryonic interest in printmaking was the German-born Emil Ganso, a vital and gregarious man, self-taught and a printmaker, but committed to the graphic arts as a basic medium of expression in the visual arts, not just as an adjunct to painting. Unfortunately, in 1941 Ganso died suddenly. As soon as the war ended, Professor Longman set about to find a successor.

Just at this time, Henry Allen Moe was trying to help Lasansky find a teaching position away from New York, and he persuaded Hancher to consider Lasansky as a successor to Ganso. Professor Longman had other candidates in mind, but agreed to meet the young, obscure immigrant in New York for an interview. Lasansky recalls that their meeting took place at a Whitney Museum opening, where they somehow found a quiet corner in which to talk. The next year, Lasansky went to Iowa "for one year." He has been there ever since.

Lasansky is not a large man, and he prefers to speak in a quiet voice. What he accomplished in his first years at Iowa, therefore, speaks volumes for his determination, his powerful will, and the intellectual equipment he brought to the task, for he could not have physically awed or vocally harangued his colleagues enough to bring them to share his understanding of what prints could be, and printmaking do, for the young artists being trained at the university. He established an extensive studio, found presses and equipment, set up working procedures, and by experiment discovered the right blend of personal direction and forced independence to teach the student appropriate habits and attitudes without making him a slavish imitator of his teacher. Lasansky's own studio was traditionally closed to the student, to give the artist the time and place to develop his own work without fear that it would exert undue unfluence on the student, yet he spent hours each day helping the students to solve their own problems and to master the difficult craft of intaglio.

He turned out to be a teacher of genius, and the students in those postwar years (frequently returning veterans of uncommonly serious purpose, to make up for the "lost" war years) helped to create an atmospehere of serious endeavor, strong personalities, and lively exploration.

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