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Quetzalcoatl (1972)
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Young Nahua Dancer (1961-73)
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Little Boy (1992)
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The Artist and His Wife Emilia Barragan (1994

Mauricio Lasansky:  The Artist on His Art

An Interview with Mauricio Lasansky

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J M Can we back up now and talk about your print, Quetzalcoatl, and how you conceived it.

M L Bleeding Heart is where the idea came for breaking up the space like I did in Quetzalcoatl and Nahua Dancer.

J M Was Quetzalcoatl done as a result of your extended stays in Mexico? How long have you been going down there to your studio?

M L I've been going there for the last four or five years, and Quetzalcoatl was the first print I did there. I wanted to conceive it, you see, as a grandiose figure, as a god, kind of powerful, like a god is supposed to be, but very elusive.

It is an identification with the best parts of Mexico. Quetzalcoatl is one of the one million gods in Mexico. He is one of the most beautiful gods. He was attractive, like that [pointing to the print] . . . His mama just swallowed a piece of jade, thinking it was a pea or something, I suppose, and that's the way Quetzalcoatl was conceived.

Quetzalcoatl is a very concrete image, at the same time very evasive. He is a very strong god and people believe in him. Nobody knows why. In reality, Quetzalcoatl represents the physical dreams of what Mexico is supposed to be. He's a very strange figure. He's there—he goes away—very evasive. So if you'll notice the way I saw him—he has no outline—the way the spaces are and the color, it creates an illusion of form. You see, there are two faces—there's the real face and watch it carefully and you will see the jaguar face on top. See the eyes of the jaguar? The jaguar is one of the animals used to represent Quetzalcoatl.

J M Quetzalcoatl is the largest print you ever made, right?

M L I think it's the biggest print ever made in intaglio, at least it felt like that when I was making it. I'm pretty sure. Quetzalcoatl, I think, is a very important plate made in this country, for technical reasons. Why? When young artists will study that plate they will find a completely new approach to working a plate.

And the work! It was quite a job. There are fifty-four plates. Sometimes five or more are printed at one time, one on top of the other, at the same time—some jigsawed together too, of course, and that besides the piling up gives it a three-dimensional quality. The conception, the intellectual energy that goes into the preplanning and preconceiving, I think is much more difficult than planning a building twenty-five or fifty stories. It's so complicated, you need to see it all in your mind. I need to watch a lot of cowboy movies on television. Really! I sit there and never move, but I need action with my eyes. No complications but I need my eyes moving or otherwise my brain does not work. Really the planning is quite methodical, precise. It was one of the prints that is so big, so complicated, that I had to plan way in advance.

J M How many assistants worked with you?

M L Five people, one acted as engineer.

J M He orchestrated the project?

M L Right—Phillip [one of his six children]—he has a fabulous memory. He watched the timing and just watched if the things will work. It was an interesting experiment. There is a thesis written about it. He helped pull the print.

J M How many time did you have to go back to the press when you were editioning Quetzalcoatl?

M L Four or five times. You see, that's where the planning goes. Why? Each time you run, that print has five to ten thousand pounds per line inch pressure. You need to learn how to preserve the paper so that's where your planning goes, too. You have a piece of paper seven feet long and damp. It's been in water twenty-four to forty-eight hours and in the damp box for two or three weeks before we even started—pressed, so it's very soft. If you pick it up she breaks on you. So we developed a most fantastic thing to handle the paper. It's like if it was a god, you couldn't touch it with your hands. You know, each time Michelangelo made a god, Jesus Christ, human hands never touched him. Did you notice that? I think, since I'm making Quetzalcoatl, a god, I can't touch him either.

With this roll [a long cardboard tube with a slot cut out], I lasso the paper, then roll it, go to the press with it and feed it on to the plate.

J M Then what happens at the other end?

M L I turn the plate, that's all. Technique is no more than a good vocabulary, not an end in itself. Most people think it is, though. We solved many technical problems, and I enjoyed every moment of it. We learned a great deal. I must be able to do that, every human being needs that, otherwise we are nothing.

J M What do you hope that a student will get from studying printmaking and related subjects with you?

M L The first thing they will learn is that nothing is so bad and nothing is so good. The main thing is not to be chicken about anything and then start the discipline, do what you want to do and if you don't know how to do it, learn, take your time, and don't be scared, that's all. Draw a lot. And to me drawing is just to take a pencil and then an idea. Each one has his own idea so it means that there are a million different ways of drawing. There is nothing wrong with drawing from the model and there is nothing wrong to draw without the model, just draw. Learn to catch an idea.

You see, to me the most important aspect of a work of art is the image. Now mind you, the image does not always mean that you can read it, that is, realistic; it can be a very abstract image. But it has a moment of truth, let us say, that lasts only maybe two minutes. You work like hell, maybe two years on the plate or painting and for two minutes this fullness, this universe, this whatever-you-want-to-call-it, comes true. This is what keeps you working. The point when this comes, and it does come, you need to be trained so well, otherwise you will miss the train, she will just pass by you. That is why the kids should revise their vision, and still have heart for the freedom as a means for truth and inspiration. You know it is true. Freedom is a discipline, otherwise it is anarchy. If you want to be an artist—then you get back to what I believe Oscar Wilde said, "There are only two kinds of artists, the one that is and the other that looks like it." Lots of kids today like to look like artists, with a beard, La Boheme, and all that. And I don't know if they want to, but they ignore the discipline or they were not trained well enough.

J M How about the problem of self-criticism?

M L Yes, one of the things you teach is to have a sense of synthesis and self-criticism. Self-criticism is pretty hard for a student to develop but you can train him. You ask me what I want them to learn from me, that's one of the qualities, absolutely demand it.

J M Drawing is important, how about art history?

M L Yes, I want a young kid to draw, I don't care what he draws, and to take as much art history as he or she can. I know that some don't like it, I know it takes time from their studio work, I know all that. If I'm right, an artist learns more through the quality of his pores than from anything else. Even if he is in an artist history class, and he closes his eyes and the slides are projected there, he will still see them. I swear it is true—through osmosis, through his pores.

J M How do you feel about training art history students in the studio?

M L I think they should be trained in studio disciplines and they should study with the same intensity they are studying art history. They will be able to work closer to an artist, they will get closer to understanding how a work of art is made in this field so let them go all the way. This studio experience will help them learn to think graphically. Everyone should learn to draw, it's a way of thinking.

Reprinted from "Mauricio Lasansky: a Retrospective Exhibition of His Prints and Drawings," a catalog published on the occasion of an exhibition at the University of Iowa Museum of Art (September 24 - November 28, 1976).

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