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Mauricio Lasansky:  The Artist in Print

The Prints of Mauricio Lasansky

The following essay appeared as the introduction to Lasansky: Printmaker
(The University of Iowa Press, 1975). Reprinted with permission.

Mauricio Lasansky has been making prints for more than forty years. First in his native Argentina, then in New York City, and (for almost thirty years) in Iowa City, he has devoted himself to exploring the expressive possibilities of the graphic arts. In doing so, he has left behind a series of prints that are among the most powerful and impressive works by a contemporary artist in any medium, and he has done as much as any individual to establish printmaking as a meaningful concern for the serious student of the arts. As a result, among the important printmakers of the younger generation, and the teachers of printmaking in scores of American art schools and universities, are scores of Lasansky students.

This is not the first publication devoted to the prints of Lasansky, and, since he is working with unremitting vigor, it will not be the last. The present book presents the existing corpus of Lasansky's prints, in as much detail and with as much accuracy as the compilers could muster; since Lasansky himself was fully involved with the process of cataloguing, the entries that follow are of the greatest possible authenticity, based on his memory and records, and corrected through consultation of as many published sources as could be examined.

Lasansky has been generous in sharing his ideas with the author of this essay, and what follows is an attempt to give the reader a reasonably accurate account of Lasansky's thoughts about his work and about art in general. Among a considerable number of useful publications on Lasansky, perhaps the most extensive and certainly the most useful is the essay and catalogue published in 1960 by Carl Zigrosser. If some of the statements in these pages reflect Zigrosser's text, it is because his work was so itelligent and thorough that no writer about Lasansky could better express the points Zigrosser makes. Since that catalogue was published, however, Lasansky's work has taken a new direction: the prints have become more complex in color; a greater number of plates are used in each print; and there has been a remarkable change in mood and imagery.

Lasansky himself has characterized the development in his work as an evolution from romance, the classic, to "contemnporary" to — or back to — humanism; schematic as it is; his account of his stylistic growth is revealing for what it says about his attitude towards his work. The subject has remained the human being — his condition, his relationships, his society — but the great change has been in Lasansky's command of the visual arts, and in his relationship to the work of other artists. In his full maturity, Lasansky expresses his art in terms of its themes; until then, he had thought of it in relationship to stylistic conceptions.

Mauricio Lasansky was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1914, the son of an immigrant printer of banknote engravings. Mauricio's father was born in Eastern Europe (his country of origin has been described, at various times, as Russia, Poland, and Lithuania), and had worked at his trade in Philadelphia before settling in Argentina. Buenos Aires, during Mauricio's formative years, was a reasonably lively cultural center, supporting a number of theatres, many serious musicians, and an academy of art; it was oriented to Europe, but generally conservative in taste.

Lasansky's first interest was in music, which he studied seriously until his fourteenth year, when a slight (and — it turned out — temporary) hearing impairment caused him to change to the study of sculpture. He graduated in 1933, at the age of nineteen, and commenced postgraduate work in printmaking at the Superior School of Fine Arts.

Since he had been familiar with the processes of printing from hearing his father and an uncle talk about their work as engravers, Lasansky found printmaking particularly sympathetic. Almost at once, he worked with an assured hand. His earliest prints were in relief etching (according to Zigrosser, his father had known the technique in Europe), and in liniloeum cuts, but before long Lasansky was working in drypoint. His drypoints were unconventional both in technique, and in conception. Lasansky used the drypoint needle to create fully modeled tones, in contrast to the linear quality traditionally associated with the technique, and worked to far larger scale than is common in drypoint. Moreover, while the first relief prints he made were direct social statements, stressing the grim poverty of ordinary life, the drypoints — a few years later — are lyrical and imaginative, relying on surrealist juxtapositions of interior and exterior space, objects in different scale, and interpenetrations of one form by another.

These early works are consciously poetic; many of Lasansky's friends and intellectual heroes were poets and writers, who used language in the Spanish tradition with a rich employment of metaphors, strange juxtapositions of objects and ideas, and the frequent expression of objects and ideas, and the frequent expression of states of mind in similes — equivalents for feelings being made vivid by reference to objects. Despite the richness of this aspect of his cultural life, Lasansky felt that in the visual arts Argentina was isolated. Exhibitions of work from abroad were infrequent in Buenos Aires, and scarcer still in Cordoba (where he moved in 1936, to direct the Free School of Fine Arts), and such work as was shown reflected the more conservative official French and British taste, lacking the more daring and experimental work discussed and reproduced in the few serious art publications that came into the country from abroad. Though his work was exhbited and recognized, and though he had been able to get a responsible teaching position while still in his early twenties, Lasansky dreamed of finding a way to become familiar with the larger world of the arts.

His dream took a step towards realization when Francis Henry Taylor, on a South American trip in 1940, saw his work, met Lasansky, and recommended him for a Guggenheim Fellowship to study printmaking. As director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Taylor was an influential and respected sponsor, so in 1943 Lasansky arrived in New York and commenced two projects: a systematic study of the entire(!) print collection of the Metropolitan Museum, and technical study with Stanley William Hayter in the New York "Atélier 17."

A few years earlier, Hayter had established a remarkable workshop in Paris, called "Atélier 17" after its address on the Rue Campagne Premiere (and retaining its name thereafter, no matter where it was located), devoted to the discovery of the technical and aesthetic possibilities of the intaglio printmaking process. The studio was a center for serious experimentation in intaglio printmaking, and many of Hayter's artist friends came to apply his techniques to their own work; Picasso, Miró, Chagall, and many others of international renown, engraved and printed in Atélier 17 in Paris, and those who found themselves in New York after the outbreak of World War II came to work with their old friend.

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