Sometimes, if we're lucky, we encounter an artist who reminds us of things outside the scope of our everyday lives. Sometimes its their work, or its their life as an artist that makes us catch our breath and we are surprised, shocked or stupefied into awe at what they say with their work, and how they do what they do. Such is the man, artist and teacher known as Mauricio Lasansky.
Before I embark upon the biography of this amazing man, I want to relate some thoughts. I will confess that I dreaded the day would come when the famed and highly esteemed printmaker/teacher Mauricio Lasansky would leave this world for a better place. I mourned his passing as though my own grandfather had died, because I felt in fact he was my artistic and spiritual ancestor. At least, that's what I came to feel having studied with one of his students, Robert Wolfe, at Miami University(OH).
Wolfe's stories of having studied at the US printmaking mecca in the 1950s was all about teaching us 'print newbies' the history of this medium and the noble merits of one's blood, sweat and toil on a piece of metal plate; to create a message that will burn itself into the viewer's memory, or at least tell a story. One of his first year graduate student tales related to one's fear of the initial mark, diving into the abyss not knowing what the image will be but going at it headlong with no restraint. He told us that all first year graduate students had to first do a self-portrait engraving on a full sheet of copper. After they completed that phase of the project, they were told to completely scrape down the image as though it never existed. Wolfe always brought out examples of that first endeavor for us to admire, then he carefully taught us how to use the tools to make our own self-portrait engraving. One felt the meticulousness of his[Wolfe's] teaching method was handed down from the Master, and we all aspired to do well with our own project. It was inherently understood that not only our professor, but Lasansky himself was watching what we were doing. I digress, but I think you understand, that was the way it was done, and the Only way it should be done. The connection to him, albeit through his students, was so strong that we felt as though we were taught by Lasansky himself. One can see it is a great testament to his influence and contributions to the medium. Now for the real article....
Mauricio Leib Lasansky (1914-2012) was an Argentine-American graphic artist and printmaker. He chose to focus his artistic energies on the development of printmaking and drawing, thus making him one of a few Modern era artists to do so. The result is a life full of experimentation and dedication to his craft. Lasansky is widely considered to be one of the pioneers in the graphic arts evolution and making the art world look at the medium as critically as any other field. He will forever be enshrined as one of the first and best generations of artists who have defined and guided printmaking in the United States. He is revered as one of the true "Fathers of 20th Century American Printmaking."
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Lasansky’s parents were Eastern European Jews; his Lithuanian-born father, who had made his way to Argentina via North America, had worked as a printer and engraver at the US Mint in Philadelphia. As a talented and ambitious young man of 22, Lasansky became Director of the Free Fine Arts School, in Villa Maria, Cordoba, Argentina. Six years later, he was honored with the first of five highly coveted Guggenheim Fellowships, and he went to the United States to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to study their print collection, which numbers well over 100,000! While there, he learned the history of printmaking and networked with other artists who had also moved to the states.
After Mauricio married Emilia Barragan in 1937, he began to exhibit his work, regularly winning awards and prizes, and in the 1940s he and many other artists began to work in printmaking through the WPA graphic arts workshops. Several printmaking studios were established and Lasansky chose to work at the famous Atelier 17, which was established by British artist Stanley William Hayter. Atelier 17 was the first independent American workshop devoted to the Intaglio printmaking process and it developed an international reputation. The artists from this era , like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, who also worked at Atelier 17, are now referred to as the New York School and their Abstract Expressionist method of working changed intaglio printmaking in America. Many of these artists’ experiments in intaglio printmaking lead to them being invited to organize printmaking departments in universities all across the country.
In 1945, Lasansky was invited to direct and teach the printmaking program at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, IA. The program became one of the premiere places to study printmaking in the US, producing hundred and hundreds of artists/teachers. At the time of his death, Lasansky was recognized as the Virgil M. Hancher Professor Emeritus, head of Printmaking in the School of Art and Art History, where he had taught for more than forty years.
Many of Lasansky's former students went on to teach at reputable universities to spread the word about printmaking. Some of those former students include Keith Achepohl, Glen Alps, Lee Chesney, David Driesbach, John Ilhe, John Paul Jones, and Robert Wolfe. The passing of the printmaking torch from generations of teachers to students is what marks the legacy of Atelier 17, Hayter and Lasansky.
Lasansky’s art is known for his large scale prints (some being four by eight feet in length), utilizing multiple plates (up to 60) and in full color. He even designed a specially-milled French paper for his prints so they would withstand a large amount of printing which often combined etching, drypoint, aquatint and engraving intaglio techniques. Throughout his career, he preferred figurative subjects, seeing them as important as the technical side of his work.
Lasansky is internationally known for a series that marked a departure from his beloved intaglio method, The Nazi Drawings, This series speaks in a most raw and scathing manner about the brutality of Nazi Germany upon its victims. He worked six years on the project, which consists of thirty individual life-sized pieces and one triptych. Their effect upon the viewer is shock and horror. His figures are like ghosts passing through Hell, and he shows them living through their fears in a nightmare that disgustingly was real. Surprisingly, the drawings were created primarily with lead pencil on common commercial paper. "I wanted them to be done with a tool used by everyone everywhere. From the cradle to the grave, meaning the pencil." And speaking of his inspiration, he said…“The Hitler years were in my belly, and I tried many times to do the drawings,” he said. “But then I decided, the hell with it. Why don’t I just put down what I feel? The fact is that people were killed — how cool can you play that?” The Nazi Drawings was one of the first exhibits ever shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art and have been exhibited in many prominent art museums. They can now be seen at University of Iowa Museum of Art.
In closing, Mauricio Lasansky created some of the most powerful images in contemporary art. He has contributed significantly to printmaking being considered a critical and serious art form of the 20th century and for that our [printmakers] debt to his commitment cannot be repaid.
Awards and Honors:
*Five Guggenheim Fellowships!
*Six honorary Doctorate of Arts degrees
*His work is represented in more than one hundred public collections including virtually EVERY major museum in the United States i.e. the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC., the Art Institute of Chicago and the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
*Internationally recognized, he has been exhibited throughout North and South America, Europe and Russia.
*Became a US citizen in 1952