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03 Jun 2020

Hans Ulrich Obrist and Kimberly Drew in conversation

On Maria Lassnig, letter writing and new rituals

Since their first meeting in 1985, Maria Lassnig and Hans Ulrich Obrist went on to develop a unique relationship over the course of three decades, punctuated by studio visits and written correspondence, culminating in numerous exhibitions, publications and collaborations. Writer, curator and activist Kimberly Drew connected with Obrist over Skype to talk about Maria Lassnig, the letters they exchanged and the importance of this genre—intimate and slow as it is—as a space for realizing Lassnig’s artistic philosophy and voice. The conversation proposes how to retain letter writing in our digital age, to exist symbiotically with and informed by more instant forms of digital communication. ‘It has a lot to do with this protest against forgetting’, Obrist says, ‘the necessity of making these extraordinary artists more visible and celebrating their practice.’

Kimberly Drew: I feel like my quarantine has just been one long video call. So it’s very funny that we’re on yet another one, but this is very exciting. So shall we dig into questions?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Yeah, let’s begin with the beginning.

KD: You have executed so many interviews in your career. It is very much one of the things that we all know and love you for. I wonder if you could talk about why you’ve published these letters? And why, especially now, you’ve decided to share it?

HUO: Maria Lassnig was one of the first artists I met. When I was 16 or 17 years old, I started to travel in Europe by night train. I would go from city to city and go to artist studios. Vienna was one of the first cities I visited. It’s not so far from Switzerland. I arrived in Maria Lassnig’s studio and we had this amazing conversation about art and literature.

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‘Maria Lassnig Letters to Hans Ulrich Obrist’ is edited by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Peter Pakesch and Hans Werner Poschauko for the Maria Lassnig Foundation. Published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Cologne, 2020

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Maria Lassnig's ‘Untitled’ (1984) etching from Friederike Mayröcker's book of poems, ‘Rosengarten’ (1984)

I actually found the book today which she had just published a year before, and which I read at the time. It’s a book by the poet Friederike Mayröcker, who is a poet that our friend Precious Okoyomon also loves. A poet who is now in her 90s. Friederike wrote this extraordinary poem called ‘Rosengarten’, and Maria illustrated it. I’m going to show you Maria’s illustration.

KD: Oh, I love.

HUO: Yeah, it’s very beautiful. After that, I didn’t see her for a couple of years, and a little bit later we did ‘The Broken Mirror’.

That project has a lot to do with a visit I made to Rosemarie Trockel’s a few months before in Cologne. In Cologne, I visited Rosemarie Trockel. Often, as I was so young, I was a teenager, artists would give me tasks. They would sort of try to, somehow, tell me what I could do, which was amazing. 

Trockel gave me a very important message. She said, ‘There are so many amazing other women artists all over the world. We now know Louise Bourgeois, which is wonderful. But we should really know about all the other artists who deserve recognition. And she said, ‘I’m an artist. I have my own exhibitions. I cannot do this, but you’re just starting as a curator. This would be a very nice task for you. You could go from city to city and you could ask who the Louise Bourgeois is in town? Who is the pioneering artist?’ And that’s what I’ve done ever since.

It’s one of the methodologies I bring when I arrive in a city. That led to many exhibitions that we’ve held at the Serpentine, like Marisa Merz, Lygia Pape from Brazil or more recently, last summer, the show of Faith Ringgold and the show of Luchita Hurtado. Neither of these two artists ever had a big museum show in Europe. It has a lot to do with this protest against forgetting. The necessity of making these extraordinary artists more visible and celebrating their practice.

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Maria Lassnig in her studio, Vienna, 1983 © Maria Lassnig Foundation. Photo: Kurt-Michael Westermann

Maria Lassnig was one of the first times I applied the Rosemarie Trockel methodology, because Rosemarie has just literally told me about it. In the next months when I arrived in Vienna, I would ask younger artists whom I visited, ‘who are artists who inspire you and who are inspiring artists like Louise Bourgeois in town?’ And they would all say ‘Maria Lassnig. You must meet Maria Lassnig.’

So I rang her up and went to her studio, and I visited her. Then a friendship started out of that. Then we did the first exhibition in ’93, ‘The Broken Mirror,’ a show about painting. I curated it with Kasper König in ’93. Kasper and I decided to put Maria at the center of the exhibition. It was almost like a solo show of hers in the group show.

She would paint, and painting was really her life. She lived for painting. But every now and then, she would stop painting and she would write. I felt it would be important to make these texts accessible.

At that time, I realized that she had this amazing writing practice. She had a lot of notes. Actually, there is this book called, ‘the Pen is the Sister of the Brush’ in English. So we tried to get all her collected writings, because I suddenly realized that she would oscillate. She would paint, and painting was really her life. She lived for painting. But every now and then, she would stop painting and she would write. I felt it would be important to make these texts accessible.

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Maria Lassnig’s first letter to Hans Ulrich Obrist, 17 September 1993. Photo: Roland Krauss

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Maria Lassnig’s first letter to Hans Ulrich Obrist, 17 September 1993. Photo: Roland Krauss

Then, a letter exchange started around 1993, where she started to send me these very, very long letters. I was very touched by them because they were basically full of her doubts. She was always doubting. Doubt was almost like a medium for her—a medium to always go further, to go beyond, to transcend.  

‘The camera often goes further than the human eye’, she wrote, ‘on a cable inside the bowels, the stomach, but it cannot see into my mind, not where thoughts are generated because the scientists haven’t located at this place yet.’ So the idea that actually, in a way, is that drawing and writing can go where the camera cannot go. That was very fascinating to me.  

The letters would arrive every couple of weeks or every couple of months, and I would put them in a folder. It would go on from ’93 to the year she died, for more than 20 years. Then,  when Maria passed away in her 90s, I basically got a phone call maybe a few weeks after her passing from her assistant from her collaborator Hans Werner Poschauko. He said that he had found a letter of Maria Lassnig on her table. And that letter was unfinished, but she had somehow made three attempts to start it.

He later sent me the last unfinished letter to complete the archive, and it was that day that I decided we should do a book. Books are often slow. It takes a long time from the idea to find a publisher. So, the process started with the Maria Lassnig Foundation and Peter Pakesch, the director. It took, of course, time, to transcribe the letters. It got very delayed because we tried for a long time to find my letters to her, but they were lost. And so that’s why the book took so long.

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Postcard, ca. 2012. Photo: Roland Krauss

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Maria Lassnig's unsent letter, ca. 11 January 2014. Photo: Roland Krauss

KD: One of the things that I really loved in the exchanges between you and reading them, is that it’s clear there is a generosity that’s extended between both of you. Lassnig would remark on studio visits you had that got her out of a creative rut or thank you for different books and texts that you gave to her. Could you share any instances of things that you sent her that you remember, ones that might have a sentimental story attached?

HUO: Yes. It’s mostly been books. I would always send her books I thought she would be inspired by. In a similar way, she would send me the books of Friederike Mayröcker, her Austrian poet friend. I would send her books on art. I would also send her books I edited. So for example, the collected writings of Gerhard Richter, because I wanted to convince her to publish her own writings.

She would say they’re not good enough. I’d say, ‘Maria, they’re absolutely wonderful, and wonderful as a sort of a parallel reality to your paintings.’ 

But again, she had a lot of doubts. She would say they’re not good enough. I’d say, ‘Maria, they’re absolutely wonderful, and wonderful as a sort of a parallel reality to your paintings.’ For many years, said no. Then I edited the writings of Gerhard Richter about the daily practice of painting. Gerhard was also very reluctant to publish his writings, but once I had convinced him and we published a book, I sent Maria a copy hoping that that might convince her, and it did somehow help. I would also send her books by the poet and writer Robert Walser because I was always fascinated by him.

I remember that actually in the 2000s, I became very passionate about Etel Adnan’s work. I discovered the Leporellos of Etel Adnan, these amazing books. They’re Japanese Leporellos, and Etel would draw, paint and write. She brought together visual art and literature in these little leporellos. They can become very big when you unfold them and then you can fold them again, they become small.

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Drawing in letter, 10 August 1995. Photo: Roland Krauss

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Maria Lassnig, Motorrad im Wald / Motorradfahrer (Motorcycle in the Forest / Motorcyclist), 1987

So, I somehow thought Maria does a similar thing, because in her letters she would often draw. There would be a bird she sees in the countryside or there would be an Easter bunny when she writes for Easter or she would draw a little road, which would lead to her country house. So, very often drawing leads to writing. One goes into the other. In a way, when I saw these Etel Adnan books, it made me think of her. I became friends with Etel. We started to work together and work on an exhibition. So I sent Maria the book of Etel Adnan.

In a way, it was my own books and books I edited of artists I thought she might be interested in, but it was always books. I loved this idea of giving books and sending books to friends. I always buy books every day. I have a ritual to buy a book every day, and I also have a ritual to give a book to a friend every day.

In art history, letter writing has played such a central role—artists writing to artists, artists writing to critics or to curators… I think that in our time, the slowness of this medium has somehow disappeared.

KD: I love that. That’s beautiful. So the collection of letters that are here is nearly all of them. I wonder if you could talk about the selection process for the letters, what was the trimming process like, did you want to make it so that it was all-encompassing, displaying everything? 

There are some letters that are very mundane and just general check-ins. There are others where she’s really thinking through anti-photography or ones where you can see her doubt, as you were talking about, or the incredible weight of the feelings that she had in a moment. I wonder how you compiled all these notes, in the flow.

HUO: Actually, it’s chronology that determined the order because we felt that, very often, the letters are so relayed, and she would sort of write a new chapter. It’s one letter that leads to the next. So we felt that it’s good to do it in chronology. We also tried to keep them as complete as possible. 

I don’t think I ever lost a letter because I was always very attached to these letters and very touched, because they’re also very intimate documents. When I lived in Paris in the ’90s, I would always put them in one folder. Then when I moved to London, I took that folder to London. All the letters that arrived would always go into the folder. At a certain moment, I sent the photos to Vienna and the Foundation scanned them.

So in a way, it is the complete correspondence. It’s just that the answers are there and the questions are missing. One can always have a guess about what I wrote to her, because she responds to it and to the books. We also felt that it’s important to kind of publish the letters as a facsimile because they’re in handwriting.

I think it has to do with something that’s about to be lost or has been lost. In art history, letter writing has played such a central role—artists writing to artists, artists writing to critics or to curators and vice versa, artist writing to poets. Very often, these are very valuable sources for art historians. I think that in our time, the slowness of this medium has somehow disappeared.

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Maria Lassnig and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Stedeljik Museum, Amsterdam, 1994. Photo: Archive of the Maria Lassnig Foundation

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Hans Ulrich Obrist, Stedeljik Museum, Amsterdam, 1994

I mean, writing hasn’t disappeared at all. There are very exciting new forms of writing, and I think there are very exciting new forms of correspondences. The only problem is that it’s much more fragmented. It’d be very difficult to publish these email exchanges and often, they’re lost. I think, in a way, these letters are actually quite robust because of that medium and how it survives. I think the other thing, which is so interesting, is the slowness of it. You very often see that Maria changed from pencil to ink to a ballpoint pen. 

When I was editing the book, I was thinking that it would be interesting to bring this idea of letter writing back to our time, but without nostalgia. In a similar way that, on my Instagram, everyday I try to protest against the disappearance of handwriting and doodling by posting these handwritten doodles or notes by artists. In a similar way, I think it will be interesting to use new technology to somehow bring letter writing back.

I never really knew how to do it. And then during the lockdown now, I actually started to write some longer letters to friends, handwritten letters. I thought it’s actually very easy. I just make a photograph and I email them. So maybe we can bring it back.

KD: I love that idea. I wonder, and this is kind of a smaller question. Since we communicate so much now—DMs, WhatsApp messages, even Skype communications, what do you think is lost when we go into this rapid fire communication, versus the more longer form handwritten note?

HUO: The idea that writings can jump and that one can switch platforms, that’s interesting. And the idea of the recording, particularly now in the last two months, there’s so many more. That’s new—it’s astonishing how few recordings there are previously. There are not many recordings of Maria’s voice, of her generation. There is quite an absence of voice recordings. I think there is certainly something which gets lost when these letters disappear. I think that idea needs addressing in a longer text.

Some of these letters, particularly the longer letters she wrote about photography, they could have been published as texts in their own right. So, I think in a way, I was the pretext for her to write. These are ideas that Maria could write. 

KD: There are parallels between the longer time that she’s taking to pass through these ideas, and the ways in which she was kind of critiquing photography, where she talks about photography as this split second. But with painting, you’re really in a meditative state, spending time with the subject or with an idea that you’re trying to communicate.

Oftentimes, when talking intergenerationally people are like, ‘Oh, well this is how we used to do it and this is how we should move forward.’ But instead, you’re like, ‘What if these things co-existed?’

And that’s something that really parallels the letters, where she’s been thinking about things over time and then she addresses them again. As a millennial, I had pen pals in camp in the ’90s, but I’ve been so much more accustomed to a phone call or text messaging and all that stuff. It’s interesting. 

I appreciate that through the way that you talk about it, it’s clear that you’re not placing an extreme hierarchy on one over the other. But maybe it’s just like an invitation for them all to coexist.

Oftentimes, when talking intergenerationally people say, ‘Oh, well this is how we’re used to doing it and this is how we should move forward.’ But instead, you’re like, ‘What if these things co-existed?’

HUO: That’s really beautiful—what you just said—because that’s exactly what I believe. I think it’s about all these new ways of writing coexisting. I think, in a way, there are new forms of writing we can celebrate, but I think it’s important that we also are aware certain things can be lost. I think it’s good to bring these things back and form a parallel reality.

I also think of how handwritten letters can come back. It’s interesting, of course, that Steve Jobs never wanted a stylus because he wanted basically the devices to be holistic, so that you don’t have a stylo and then the phone. I think it’s interesting that because of that, we didn’t really have a lot of handwriting in the earlier phases of the tablets and the smartphones. Now, I think that’s changing. Handwriting is entering the digital devices, which is interesting.

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@huobrist on Tiktok, ‘The unrealized projects of swans’, 24 May 2020 (still)

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Hans Ulrich Obrist with Barbara Stauffacher Solomon's poster from his home office

KD: Yeah, it is quite interesting. I was talking to a friend yesterday about handwriting. With probably half of my friends, I know what their handwriting looks like, and there’s an intimacy there, as well as being able to read your friend’s touch, which of course is what art is, right? We’re seeing people making gestures and understanding and learning and spending time with them. There’s something interesting in handwriting that gets lost as well, because otherwise it’s just fonts and it’s a little bit impersonal, even if thoughts are there.

HUO: Yeah and things coexist, and there are lots of different rituals. I think rituals are very important because we live in a time where there is a lot of communication with our community, and rituals are a community without communication. As the filmmaker Tarkovsky once said, in a time of crisis, we need rituals even more. He says we need rituals for our time.

I’ve felt that very strongly over the last two months during the lockdown—the need for rituals. So, I kind of tried to re-invent this letter writing ritual by handwriting letters, scanning them or photographing them with the phone and sending them to friends. 

Yet at the same time, I found a new ritual, where I went to the park every day for the one walk we were allowed to do during the lockdown in the UK, and I would encounter all these animals in the park.

That leads us back to Maria because Maria tells us we need to listen to animals. It’s very wonderful when she talks about her conversation with animals when she’s in the countryside. Of course, that’s my biggest regret—that I never visited her in the countryside. She lived in this very remote place. It would have taken a day to get there and was a very complicated route. And I somehow never had the time to go there. There, she had conversations with the farmers. She made a very beautiful book about her conversations with the farmers, and she always told me about her conversations with animals too.

My TikTok account, which has started during the lockdown, is very directly related to Maria Lassnig because I was looking again at her drawings in the book of animals. I was listening to some of the recordings. I recorded her voice six times. One is a film and five are audio recordings because she really didn’t like to give interviews. Over the 20 or 25 years of our friendship, I somehow found a couple of moments where she was comfortable to actually give a recorded interview.

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Still from ‘Maria Lassnig. The Interview. Hans Ulrich Obrist interviews Maria Lassnig’ (2008) by Jacqueline Kaess-Farquet

The best one happened the day after the opening at the Serpentine. She was so happy about the show and the doubts were suddenly gone. Her doubts wanted to cancel the show because the week before the opening, she said, ‘We have to cancel the show because the ceilings are too low. My paintings are not good enough and it’s going to be embarrassing.’

So I had to convince her day and night that we shouldn’t cancel the show. And then she was finally happy. And that’s the day we recorded some of the best conversations. 

So, back to your point. We should not lose these forms of writing, like the writing of long letters. And we should try to reintroduce them because as part of this homogenized globalization, we not only lose species, but we also lose cultural phenomenon in a mass extinction of languages, languages disappear, but we also lose such cultural phenomena like letter writing.

It was always a ritual for me to visit Maria Lassnig, from the moment I landed in Vienna, or the moment I arrived by night train in Vienna.

KD: There’s this really beautiful tenderness in some of the letters. I wonder, on your end, how you felt about being able to keep up this communication and this flow? How did you remain in contact when so many things were shifting and changing?

HUO: Yeah. It was always a ritual for me to visit Maria Lassnig, from the moment I landed in Vienna, or the moment I arrived by night train in Vienna. I would directly go from the railway station or from the airport to her studio. And that happened three or four times a year.

We did have these very, very regular visits. That’s something I’ve always done with artists, that it will be ongoing conversations, ongoing relationships over many, many years. Of course, we wouldn’t see each other in between, and then during these three, four months where we wouldn’t see each other, we would send each other letters. 

Initially, I was a freelance curator. I worked with Kasper König on this exhibition, The Broken Mirror. Then still as a freelance curator, I worked with her on the book of collected writings. Then I had a job in Paris at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. I started to have lots of conversations with her from Paris. That was, of course, very fascinating because together with Arnulf Rainer, the Austrian artist, she visited Paris and she met Benjamin Péret. She was very connected to surrealism. She met artists, poets.

So we had a lot of exchange also of our Paris, and that appears in the letters. She mentioned Benjamin Péret. Then I would move from Paris to London in 2006. I joined The Serpentine. Of course I had realized that Maria was totally unknown in the UK. I thought it would be so important to do a first show for her here and introduce her to the UK.

So we did an exhibition at The Serpentine, a solo show. And a lot of the letters then at that time, of course, have got to do with the preparation of this show. So in a way, because you were asking before about how to choose the letters, we decided to keep this all in. It goes from philosophical letters to more literary letters, to poetic letters, to letters of self-doubt to actually letters which are very practical about installing the show, about transport, about insurance.

The reason why we kept those letters is that I was reading the letters of Thomas Bernhard, the great Austrian poet and writer to his publisher, Siegfried Unseld a few years ago. It was very fascinating that some of these letters would really be about the work but then sometimes you learned a lot about publishing at that time, about the relationship between the publisher and the writer. 

I thought it would be interesting to keep all of the things in, because it has also to do with the exhibition history, it has to do with the fact of how she thought of exhibitions. At the same time, how she thought also about the practical aspects of being an artist.

KD: I think it’s interesting, especially in talking to friends who aren’t as ingrained in the art world. There’s this mysticism that happens, and this lack of understanding that artists are people as well. There’s something about the everyday and very quotidian nature of some of the letters where it’s like, ‘Yes, she is also reading her peers,’ and she is maybe jealous of Louise Bourgeois, and kind of maybe has a beef with Robert Storr that she’s working out because she is a human being.

That’s probably the thing that I love the most about the book— really getting to fall for her beyond the final product of the work—because I think that gets lost sometimes. We just see the final product, you go to see the exhibition, you go home, but there’s so much more vibrancy when you can really tap into correspondence.

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Maria Lassnig in China, 2003. Photo: John Sailer

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Postcard, 22 March 2003

HUO: Sometimes it’s also about things which are not so known, things one could find out about life or about her life. For example, there is this very little-known trip to China. For a long time, I wasn’t sure because Maria sent me this card of her in China. I actually was never really sure if this was a fiction or if it was real. It was only much later that she told me that this journey really happened.

She traveled alone to China very early and also exhibited there. And so it’s also to do with our travels in a way. There are postcards from her trips. Sometimes there were some postcards she would bring back from her trips and would then send. She would also always go on vacation to Greece. She would very frequently go on holidays to Greece and would make watercolors there.

That was actually very moving, because towards the end of her life, I asked her about her unrealized projects, and she said she really had a dream, and the dream would be that her watercolors about Greek mythology would actually be exhibited in Greece. So, we did this exhibition in the museum in Athens, where we got all her work about Greek mythology and about her trips to Greece and brought them to Athens.

Very often, she would then also transpose these mythologies into Austrian landscapes. She would sort of mix them. That was another very unknown aspect of her work that came out of the conversations. That was somehow her unrealized project. So traveling and postcards—there are quite a lot of postcards in the book, which we also reproduced. At the same time, there are also some photographs. Of course, she did also amazing films, and very often played with different roles.

This whole idea, as Etel Adnan says, ‘Identity is shifty. Identity is a child.’ She very often would actually play with many different identities. That also comes out in the book. And, paradoxically, when she plays with these multiple identities, she uses film and photography. So that’s a paradox because she had this polemic against photography, but she would also use it.  

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Installation view, ‘Maria Lassnig’, Serpentine Gallery, London, 2008

KD: There is a note, and I’m forgetting now, but there’s a letter that she sends to you where she’s also sending you photographs for an exhibition, right?

HUO: Yeah.

KD: What was the exhibition and what was the use of the photographs?

HUO: Of course, her paintings have also a very strong performative dimension; they somehow anticipated Vienna Actionism. This performative realm happened within the painting. She made body awareness paintings. She sees transcendence as beginning with the body. It’s based on the relationship between the body and the image.

‘The camera often goes further than the human eye, on a cable inside the bowels, the stomach, etcetera, but it cannot see into my mind. Not where thoughts are generated because the scientists haven’t located this place yet’—Maria Lassnig

And so for Maria, it was never about representing the body, but it was about an awareness. It was a body awareness, which is also why you see so many distortions on her canvas, why you have so many transformations. The paintings have a lot to do with transformations. 

She wrote: ‘The camera often goes further than the human eye, on a cable inside the bowels, the stomach, etcetera, but it cannot see into my mind. Not where thoughts are generated because the scientists haven’t located this place yet. The microworld of the millions of neurons in the brain can of course be photographed, but not their functions. Painting, however, can. The camera cannot go into my nerve track, but I can come out of it.’

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Maria Lassnig, Carinthia, 2001. Photo: Sepp Dreissinger

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Maria Lassnig, Augenmensch (Visual / Eye Person), 1992

This passage is of course very beautiful because she describes that she can go in a direction with painting where a camera could never go. That has to do with the brain. She made amazing drawings about the brain, about neurons. You cannot have a camera document that. At the same time, she also made these amazing works about body awareness very early on, which lasted her whole life. She calls them body awareness paintings.

That’s to do with the fact that it’s not about representing the body, but it’s about how she feels the body, which has a lot to do with transformation. I think that’s something which comes through in these very last works, in these very late works where she uses photography. In photography, she documented performances. They’re almost performances.

She also uses a sort of plastic between the performers, kind of like different materials, which are almost sculptural. Then she would paint these photographs. I remember when she did these paintings, she was almost apologetic saying, ‘Against all odds, I end up using photography.’

KD: Right. It’s like you come right back around and you’re like, ‘Yes, and I find myself here,’ like, ‘I heard what I said, I know what I thought. Also, I’m moving forward with this information.’

HUO: She did a lot of self-portraits and that’s also where she actually used photography earlier. That’s also in the book, because she would frequently send me postcards, but also self-portraits of her. You would see herself next to a mirror or next to a glass or you would see her on a trip or you would see her at an opening. Very often, these are self-portraits. So it’s almost like she takes selfies.

KD: Right. She saw it. Which is awesome. I wanted to ask, and I don’t know if this is a fair question, but in reading the last two letters, when she’s talking about aging, it’s so heartbreaking on one note. But also, there is her last letter to you. And I wonder if you’ve ever thought about what your response to that last letter might’ve been.

The last letter is so moving because, of course, she never sent it. It’s really a letter about the impossibility of living without art. She lived for art. She lived with art and she talks about the fact that it’s not possible for her to live without art. Without art, she’s wilting.

HUO: So the last letter is so moving because, of course, she never sent it. It’s really a letter about the impossibility of living without art. She lived for art. She lived with art and she talks about the fact that it’s not possible for her to live without art. Without art, she’s wilting.

In a way, I think it’s almost impossible to answer that letter because it’s the final letter. And it is about her life without and also about this necessity—that even in very difficult times, we need art. I think I would tell her about my encounter with Helen Levitt, if I would answer her letter. I would tell her that Helen Levitt told me the same thing. She told me something really extraordinary because she was in her 90s, and the great photographer of street photography and of films.

I was in her home. And I will never forget that studio visit because it was a cold winter morning in New York City. It was very chilly in her apartment. The only source of warmth was a lamp right in the middle of her table. So, because he was quite warm, her cat also came to sit there. So it was kind of a trialogue. It was Helen Levitt, her cat and myself talking about photography.

Towards the end of the meeting, Helen Levitt said, ‘It’s so fascinating that we need art. We cannot live without art, without photography, or without film. We particularly need it in difficult times, like in times of precarity and in times of crisis.’ She was friends with Walker Evans, and she wanted to tell me this because I was very young, and she said, ‘it might happen in my life that there will be a moment or moments of great crisis in the world.’ She wanted to tell me that we should not forget what happened in the 1930s during the great depression.

She was telling me about Walker Evans and I wasn’t familiar with what Evans was doing at the time, so I wasn’t familiar with that scheme. And she was telling me about the Roosevelt administration and how Walker Evans and many other photographers were actually employed by the government to document the world publicly. She told me that it was just a very small part of this gigantic governmental art project, where the Roosevelt administration as part of the New Deal employed tens of thousands of artists to make public art and to bring art outside the museum, to bring it out into society. I think this is so important—to create situations.

3 Arten zu sein (3 ways of being)

Maria Lassnig, Drei Arten zu sein (Three Ways of Being), 2004

Kimberly Drew Cover

Kimberly Drew’s book ‘This Is What I Know About Art’ reminds us that the art world has space not just for the elite, but for everyone. Published as part of Pocket Change Collective from Penguin Random House, June 2020

For me, my first encounter with Maria Lassnig’s work was transformative. I always think there’s so many people who don’t encounter art in that way, because they wouldn’t necessarily go to museums. Some years ago, somebody stopped me in front of the Serpentine and asked if I worked there. I said yes. He said he always wanted to talk to someone who works at the Serpentine.

He wanted to tell us the story of his daughter, because they had come on a walk on a Sunday in the park. And all of a sudden, his daughter ran into the pavilion. We have these pavilions in Kensington gardens, which we do every year. The pavilions have no doors. They are there for everyone. You can just walk in. So that’s what happened; the daughter ran in.

He wanted to thank us because his daughter had an epiphany and now wants to become an architect. That was somehow the beginning, because I then asked him if he had visited our exhibitions, and he said ‘no’, they hadn’t visited. And I said, ‘Why?’ And there was a silence in the park. And then he said, ‘Because I don’t think it’s for people like us.’

For me, this was a really important experience. Soon after, we had the exhibition of Arthur Jafa and he said, ‘It’s not enough to have free admission in the park. You need to go into different boroughs. You need to bring my films.’ We took that very seriously. And we started a project in a park in Dagenham with our civic curator. We have artists now in residence, and we’re working on a project there with Sonja Boyce. We are working on a project with Susan Lacey with the community there, trying this idea of taking into account that it’s not enough to just wait until people visit the museum, that need to go and create spaces.

So I told Maria this. I told her about the necessity of being with art. I told her also about the story of Helen Levitt. I told her about my new text. I wrote about the New New Deal, which I wrote last week, which is basically about the necessity for this very precarious moment—in this very big crisis right now, to find a similar program which supports artists. And of course, it will be a different form of public art.

It would also be wall paintings because, of course, wall paintings will always continue to exist. It will also be digital art forms where we will be commissioning public films of public digital works, etc. I feel this whole time brings us very much to your amazing book, which has a lot to do with the necessity of access to art. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

KD: Yes, absolutely. I wrote a book called ‘This is What I Know About Art’. It’s a short memoir-style book. I’m really interested in exactly what you’re talking about. I’ve found in my career, in so many instances, talking to young people especially, who just don’t think that the arts are for them, just don’t think that there’s any pathways towards working in the arts. I wrote the book as a small playbook on some of the steps that I’d taken to hopefully demystify some of it for them. 

Then also, just to be a little bit more transparent about some of the, not necessarily emotional difficulties, but there’s many instances in my work and institutions where I didn’t feel like I could be a fully realized person—that I had to be very good and I had to display effortlessness—and I had to show only the successes and not the hardships. It felt really good to return to some of those harder moments in the book.

HUO: Great. I really love the idea that we can make this about two books, your book, and my book on Maria Lassnig, since both of these books are coming out during the lockdown.

KD: Yes. I see them both as very internal and very vulnerable. There’s something about the format of your book that allows us to better understand each other, and to really spend time learning. Especially in this book, I thought ‘I feel like I know Maria now in a way that I may have never had the curiosity to before.’ And I’m very appreciative of that.

HUO: Great. Thank you so much.

KD: Thank you.

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Hans Ulrich Obrist is a Swiss art curator, critic and art historian, and is Artistic Director at the Serpentine Galleries in London. New title ‘Maria Lassnig Letters to Hans Ulrich Obrist’ is edited by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Peter Pakesch and Hans Werner Poschauko for the Maria Lassnig Foundation, and published by Walther König, Cologne. Obrist’s The Handwriting Project, which protests the disappearance of handwriting, first started in 2013 on his Instagram @hansulrichobrist.

Kimberly Drew is a writer, curator, and activist. During her time studying art history at Smith, she launched the Tumblr blog Black Contemporary Art. Since, Drew’s writing has appeared in Vanity Fair, Elle UK, and Glamour. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and is author of the new book ‘This Is What I Know About Art’ for young adults and forthcoming title ‘Black Futures’, cowritten with Jenna Wortham. Follow Kimberly Drew on Instagram @museummammy.

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