Hans Ulrich Obrist and Kimberly Drew in conversation

On Maria Lassnig, letter writing and new rituals

  • Jun 3, 2020

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.

‘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

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.

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.

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

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.

Postcard, ca. 2012. Photo: Roland Krauss

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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