Maria Lassnig: "Living with art stops one wilting!"

Letters from the late Austrian artist

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: Eleanor Roosevelt’s daily routine.

Maria Lassnig (1919–2014)

Last month, I received a recent book of letters from the late Austrian artist Maria Lassnig to the Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. The pair met in 1985, when Obrist was a precocious 17-year-old who would take the night train from Zurich to Vienna to visit the city’s artists in their studios. Years later, Obrist co-organized a group exhibition that featured Lassnig’s work, and the two struck up a correspondence that lasted two decades. Obrist’s letters have been lost, but Lassnig’s are reproduced here alongside transcripts in German and English.

Like so many artists’ letters, Lassnig’s are not exactly a meditation on the beauty of creativity or the steady forward progress of her work; rather, the dominant notes are self-questioning and self-doubt. As Obrist writes in the book’s introduction, “In Lassnig’s letters there is still always an undertone of dissatisfaction, not one that tormented her, not a moody kind of weariness, but as a constantly recurring reflection on her art, its self-contradictory and imponderable facets.”

There are also some beautiful and lyrical moments, like when Lassnig describes her country house in southern Austria: “It is tremendously quiet, only bees and occasionally cow bells within earshot, nothing but forest and good smells.” Perhaps the book’s most resonant phrase is one of its last, from an unfinished letter found on Lassnig’s desk at the time of her death. “Dear Hans Ulrich Obrist,” she begins. “Living with art stops one wilting!”

Maria Lassnig at an exhibition of her work in 2009. Photo: Sepp Dreissinger via Hauser & Wirth

But my very favorite passage may be this one from November 2005, in which Lassnig, then 86, addresses the realities of aging:

For a couple of years I’ve been experiencing, which I never expected, that I naturally have to think about old age and, curiously, I always find the right book, one that’s been lying there unnoticed for a long time. It lands in my hands: Italo Svevo, he wrote that “old age is the world where illness and health intermingle and blur, they become indistinguishable from one another, like vitality and neurosis.”

Which is why people also say to somebody older than themselves that they “are in good shape” without knowing what they are saying. In fact, this older person has to fight hard for their good, effective time and has to mix this together with the appalling weak times to make a palatable broth for themselves and others to look at.

A palatable broth! Such a wonderful description, which I think captures the state of quasi-equilibrium that many of us, regardless of our age, fight to achieve on a daily basis.

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If you’re not familiar with Lassnig’s work—or if you are!—this short film from Hauser & Wirth is very much worth watching.


D. T. Max’s 2014 profile of Hans Ulrich Obrist is uniformly fascinating, but of course I was most drawn to the section describing the supercurator’s superroutine:

He has never made a cup of coffee, and tried cooking only once; the phone rang and he forgot the saucepan, which caught fire.

Sleep has always seemed extraneous to Obrist. During the early nineties, he tried Balzac’s caffeine regime, drinking dozens of cups of coffee a day. Then he switched to the Da Vinci method, limiting himself to a fifteen-minute nap every three hours. Now he tries to get four or five hours every night. He has an assistant who comes to his apartment at midnight to help him with his interviews and books. “That way, when I’m out, I know it’s time to go home,” he said. Obrist sleeps while the assistant works, then wakes up and takes over. He still likes to meet people at dawn for conversation: in 2006, he founded the Brutally Early Club, which meets at 6:30 a.m., at various sites around London.

This reminds me of the late New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers, whose four assistants worked staggered shifts to cover his epic work schedule (12 hours a day, 7 days a week); and also of the great cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, who, as I wrote in Daily Rituals, liked to schedule breakfast dates with young colleagues for 5:00 a.m.; and of the married art critics Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz, who similarly never cook or make their own coffee.


Hurley Winkler’s Lonely Victories is one of my favorite newsletters on the writing process, so I was happy to answer some questions from her about finding a work-life balance as a writer, if indeed such a thing is possible. I also tried to cobble together my top tips for writers looking to claim more time and space for their writing—read the whole thing here.


I’m devoting the last newsletter of each month to an advice column. Send me your creative dilemmas and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into great minds’ work habits.

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(Read my past advice here.)

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