What teaching taught Mauricio Lasansky
IOWA CITY, IA Mauricio Lasansky's eyes gleam. They are the eyes of a mischief-maker, their gleam always anticipating the quick, knowing smile that says "I've seen something of life."
He sits at his desk in the unpretentious, undistinguished office of a professor in the art building on the University of Iowa campus, knowing full well that just across the way the university's art museum has a permanent display of his works in a room named in his honor.
He leans across the desk, those eyes gleaming, his tight facial features forming that smile, and he says with the still-heavy Spanish accent of his native Argentina:
"The devil knows more when he is an old devil."
Then he sits back, still smiling, waiting for the truth of his joke to sink in. As a young devil, he knew enough to earn five consecutive Guggenheim Fellowships and organize what is arguably the finest school of printmaking in the country.
Now, at age 70, the old devil is quitting his teaching post to spend more time working on his drawings, paintings and prints.
His prints, in particular, have made him famous, at least in Iowa. They are ubiquitous everyone in Iowa with an art collection has a Lasansky.
The rewards of that kind of success a success that he says was reached without compromise are numerous real-estate holdings, including a beautifully remodeled four-story building in downtown Iowa City, an outstanding personal art collection and the unquestioned acceptance of his talent.
Lasansky takes great pleasure in his success, in part because of his belief that he did it his way, spitting in the face of conventional wisdom.
But he also takes great satisfaction in the knowledge that he has helped direct thousands of artist, many themselves now teachers.
The Lasansky method he'd laugh at the formality of such a title calls for a lot of soul-searching and a little gut-wrenching:
"I tell students to stick their hands down their throats and reach into their stomachs. What they bring up is a lot of crap, but it's their crap."
Recognizing what makes their "crap" their "crap" is the first step in the method.
Lasansky's style is a very personal one, suggesting an intensity that is reflected by his direct manner, colorful language and feisty attitude.
"I confront a student, find out who he is, what he is and where he is. Then I wait for the student to lead me. There's no formula for teaching, only a conception.
"You know," he confides, "in five minutes I know if a student is a good artist or not, but that doesn't stop me from teaching."
Almost as an afterthought, he adds with a laugh: "Also, sometimes I'm wrong, too."
THAT ADDENDUM is pure Lasansky. He is given to bold, sometimes outlandish statements that are as much meant to provoke the listener as to define some truth. It's what happens when the artist also is a teacher.
In many ways, Lasansky is free of the constraints most of us place on ourselves. He behaves the way we expect artists to behave: flamboyantly. Artists don't have to relate to anyone, he proclaims, but everyone must, of necessity, relate to artists. And that means training the viewers to the same extent that artists are trained.
"An artist must learn to live in two worlds: the real world, which the artist must learn to use, and the world no one else gets into."
To train artists he says he doesn't train printmakers or sculptors or painters he must walk a thin line. On the one side, he must not so influence his students that they imitate the master, yet he must exert enough pressure to bring out the artist in the student while developing the technical skills. He says:
"Artists can't help being artists. They don't pick; they are picked. It is not a skill. You can learn skills, but skills don't make an artist, only a commercial artist. And commercial artists are castrated."
Artists are born, not made, he says for the umpteenth time. "They can't help it . . . It is a destiny, and the less you monkey with it the better off you are."
Lasansky says he must teach his students to think with their fingertips and no further. When either the heart or the brain controls the hand, he says, it is a dangerous thing. It's not exactly that emotion or intelligence must be held in abeyance, it's just that they must be held in the proper perspective maybe tempered is a better description with the moment and the medium."Art is an impulse. When you work, you don't think. You need to develop the idea that your brains are in your fingertips. Artists must learn how to sublimate their feelings through art. They must translate the feeling, say, of the pictures from Ethiopia into art. It is a visual language that has nothing to do with written language."
He doesn't try to judge the honesty of a student's work; that's for the student to decide. But he does, nevertheless, have to grade students' work.
"As you grow old, you don't want to make decisions. When you're young, pffft! it's nothing to make decisions. Now, it's not so easy. I spend many hours [grading work]."
LASANSKY began teaching as a young man in Argentina but left when his growing concern about the Nazis ("we had them three years before Europe") and the series of military dictators that ruled the country coincided with a chance visit by then-director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Francis Henry Taylor, who recommended Lasansky for a Guggenheim Fellowship.
When his first fellowship expired, Lasansky was given a second. The school he headed in Argentina, however, refused to extend his leave of absence, and that led to a nasty open letter to Argentinian strongman Juan Peron that was published in Argentinian newspapers. Since then, Lasansky has made his home in Iowa.
Not surprisingly, freedom has taken on additional importance for the son of Lithuanian Jews.
"Freedom is what I have to sell. I believe very strongly in my freedom, of being the center of where I am. I've been here [at the University of Iowa] 40 years and have quit six times over my freedom. Society expects artists to be free. They project themselves onto the freedom of artists."
That spirit of freedom led to Lasansky's most widely known, and quite likely most important work, "The Nazi Drawings."
The drawings were completed in 1966, but their antecedents were 20 years in the past. Says Lasansky:
"In 1943, I made a set of plates called 'An Eye for an Eye' that was based on the Nazis. But I was using the subject. I wanted to say these were a bunch of bastards and sons of bitches. Maybe I just couldn't work it up I was too young or my technique was too immature, but I just couldn't find a way to say it.
"Then I woke up one day and saw it so clearly. You can't rationalize what they did. They were inhuman."
From that point on, Lasansky ceased trying to capture the grand-scale implications of the Holocaust.
Each of the 38 "Nazi Drawings" recounts a small tragedy, each is an escalation of the previous work: the effect is cumulative. Taken as a whole, they capture not so much the brutality but rather the irrevocable erosion of humanity that the Nazis represent.
And so, the older devil succeeded where the younger devil failed.
"AS I was working on the drawings, I invited four couples from very different circumstances to look at the work to see the effect on them." Lasansky said in an interview a few weeks before his official Jan. 1 resignation, "I'd just watch their reactions. It was very consistent, very emotional. That emotional reaction from the people around me is what helped me keep the mood for the five or six years I was working on the drawings."
The drawings traveled widely throughout the country, but not without some controversy.
"I was told I would have to change the name or I'd never be able to exhibit the work. I said no. (The title came at home. My wife would ask me, 'How are the Nazi drawings going?,' and it just stuck.)
"The exhibition opened in Philadelphia, but when it went to New York, a group of Jews marched in front of the Whitney Museum to protest 'The Nazi Drawings.' I told them if they didn't like the drawings, that's OK, but we invited them to come in and look at the work first. When they did see it, many started to cry.
"People say to me, 'You weren't there, how could you know?' But to me, it's a human thing. The best crucifixion paintings are from the 12th century. You see?"
Lasansky rather bravely tackled the subject again in the 1970s with a series entitled "Kaddish" the Jewish prayer for the dead this time with the perspective of an old devil who is, maybe, a little less troubled.
"With 'The Nazi Drawings,' I was a young man trying to come to grips with the idea anyone can be killed. 'Kaddish' is the work of an older man getting more pragmatic. I have tried to use it in a more positive way. (There is a dove of peace in each work.) In spite of everything that is wrong, I still like people."
Despite the more constructive quality of "Kaddish" or maybe because of it the series doesn't have the impact of "The Nazi Drawings." That is somewhat ironic Lasansky feels that the medium of printmaking suits him best.
"Throughout history there have always been two kinds of artists: those who work for beauty and those who use art as a means of revenge for life.
"With painting, a color can be beautiful and the work doesn't have to go any further. But with printmaking, you can only go all the way."
THAT'S THE KIND of logic that a printmaker but perhaps no one else can understand.
"Printmaking fits me as an idea," Lasansky said. "One characteristic of my work is that I am never intimidated by the plate. For me, there is a very sexy dialogue between an artist and a plate.
"When you feel the resistance of the material . . . it's like taming a lion. Materials give you a sense of limitation. You need to know a lot of technique to understand the limitations.
"Printmakers have to be clever. They have to be one step ahead and see in reverse. It's not calculation; it's just intelligence."
Lasansky will work his copper plates for years and stick with a subject until it ceases to be fertile." Then, he says, "once it is done, it's like a good old friend that's dead. You have to learn to walk away from it like a love affair."
There is a strange dichotomy in Lasansky's work. There is one body of work that is tender and somewhat sentimental and one that is haunting and troublesome.
The sentimental works take as their subjects his wife and their six children (all of whom are themselves now artists) and historical figures whom he admires, like Freud, Lincoln, Verdi and, most recently, Einstein people who changed the world.
These works are sentimental, he explains, because that is how he relates to the subject. Otherwise he would be guilty of simply using his subject.
The more-troubling work, which to the critical eye must be considered the more important body of work, currently is manifesting itself in the form of an as-yet-unnamed series of Argentinian drawings. This body of work a body with a conscience, if you will includes the Nazi series. They are Lasansky's revenge on life.
Reprinted from The Des Moines Register,
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