Mauricio Lasansky and Intaglio Printmaking
Of what use could phases of either Abstract ExpressionismAction Painting or Color Fieldbe to a committed printmaker? In "Action Painting" the act itself becomes a prominent feature of the work of art. The animated gesturing with paint seems to be in large part a physical acting out of the artist's feelings at the time of the painting. Even though Lasansky was interested in the action style, it had little applicability to a medium that demands unhurried method and craft. Something of the print's integrity and consequent fullest expressive potential would be diluted if a split were forced between the patient and painstaking labor involved in pulling a print and the unleashed spontaneity in creating an image in the action mannersuch spontanaeity would be false to the medium. Also, the Action Painting appearance in intaglio plates can mainly be achieved by etching or sugarlift aquatint, neither of which is the fullest exploitation of the plate. Lasansky utilized the plate's potential so fully that his prints only could have been made as prints. Color Field painting emphasizes not so much line as its main expressive element, but color. The fewer lines and forms the better, so that the power and intensity of large areas of color can press themselves upon the viewer. This was no better suited to intaglio printmaking. It was at the time inconceivable to create prints large enough to produce a field of color that would interrelate with the viewer in a way that fields by Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman do. And laying down fields of color, if not false to the intaglio print, is not the traditional strength of that graphic medium.
Lasansky took all the steps toward the style of Abstract Expressionism, but to have taken the ultimate step into it would have prevented him from expressing that movement's heavy pathos in his chosen medium of prints. Lasansky perhaps realized that the abstractions he made under the influence of Hayter were rather decorative and lightweight compared to the expressionistic prints he had made before. Only by returning to the figure could he bring to bear in printmaking the Zeitgeist he shared with the Abstract Expressionists. Seen in this perspective, My Boy in 1947 was not a regression but a breakthrough. Perhaps Lasansky became convinced of the inadequacy of abstraction for his own art during the period of 1946-48 when he worked on For an Eye an Eye, a series of dreamlike but figurative prints. The grisly source of inspiration was the unearthing of what had transpired in the concentration camps at Dachau. To communicate these experiences through small abstract designs would have seemed nearly irrelevant.
It must also be pointed out that when Lasansky started For an Eye an Eye in 1946, producing figurative works did not have the same implication for him as it would have had for, say, Rothko, since printmaking and painting have somewhat different histories. The tradition of printmaking may have reached a low ebb in the thirties, but it was far from the overly-exploited and worn out tradition that easel painting seemed to be. It might be proposed that a mere three artistsDurer, Rembrandt, and Goyacreated major art in prints during a span of four hundred years, until Daumier. France in the 1890s witnessed the start of an extraordinary resurgence in printmaking which was continued in Germany a decade later. But this hardly was enough to exhaust a tradition. Indeed, it has been argued that while Picasso's quality as a painter deteriorated by the thirties, he was able to maintain high quality through printmaking. Whereas easel painting seemed dead, there was, then, unfinished business in the medium of prints during the forties.
The new image Lasansky brought to printmaking around 1947 incorporated some of the spontaneous handling of Action Painting and the subsequent heightened sense of the artist's presence. This was done by using, in places, a gestural line quality, and also by occasionally allowing a "rejected" line or shape to remain visible, again calling attention to the artist's presence (as with the trace of a second left ear above the dominant one in My Boy). Also, this exposure of the artist's handling was a quality shared with the Abstract Expressionists who often exalted their love of working the paint. But most important, Lasansky's prints after 1946 were richer and more complex in line, chiaroscuro, and the interplay between the two than any of his prints before, and this expanded complexity fulfilled its potential by being put in the service of the heavy emotional quality also found in works by Abstract Expressionists. The prints are so complex that in a typical year he may complete only three; each may pass through fifty states. They often are in several colors, and merely keeping the numerous plates that make up a single large work in register is a formidable job. Most works combine etching, drypoint, aquatint, and engraving. But technique is not an end in itself, and in Lasansky's prints it is rarely sheer bravura.
What is the emotional quality most often conveyed so fully by Lasansky's mastery of techniques? Manet said of Raphael that he painted everything in the springtime of life"life without wear." But Lasansky, like Rembrandt, shows us people rich in wear. Indeed, there are many interesting similarities between Rembrandt's paintings (especially after 1650) and Lasansky's prints. Rembrandt built up and scraped the surface of his canvas as though he were not only modeling by illusionistically depicting light and dark but actually creating the surface in relief with the impasto. Lasansky works his plates with a similar intensity and thoroughness (his first prize, at age sixteen, was for sculpture, and there is an obvious relation between sculpture, especially in relief, and intaglio printmaking). For both artists the surfaces are worked in a way that suggests how life works over individuals, wearing away youthful smoothness into "character lines." Lasansky also uses a strong chiarscuro that recalls Rembrandt, and in neither artist is this used to mask an inability to articulate anatomy or any other kind of form. Indeed, Lasansky dwells upon eyes, ears, fingers"things that talk; from the fingers you can know everything." Both use light and dark not only for decorative contrast but for overtones such as joy and sorrow or truth and ignorance. Finally, each artist chooses the same subjects to convey the pathos of life's wearhis wife, his children, and his own face and body.
Lasansky's range of expression encompasses the simple and nearly sentimental Changos (1937), the complex and Manneristic El Presagio (1940-41), the directly affecting and variously somber and amusing self-portraits, and the visually spectacular Quetzalcoatl (1972). But the heart of what Lasansky expresses almost always is constant, and is of the utmost difficulty to communicate without sentimentality because of its profunditylove of humanity, and grief and anguish over its suffering. The expression of love reaches its height in portraits of his family, and his distress over human suffering achieves its strongest statement in The Nazi Drawings executed between 1961 and 1966 (motifs of which can be seen in the Pope and Cardinal prints and Bleeding Heart).
Just as the humanism of an artwork depends upon the humanity of its creator rather than the choice of subject or style, so the quality of the artist determines the quality of the work, regardless of the medium. Certainly some of the traditional prejudices against printsthat they are small or that they lack colordo not apply to Lasansky's often life-sized and richly colored impressions. For some critics, prints never will be as cherished and worthy of concentrated attention as paintings, simply because they exist in more than one impression. But this is quibbling when one realizes that Lasansky found his way to give prints the same emotional weight and impact found in the major paintings of his generation.
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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