A recent exhibit at the University of Iowa’s Levitt Gallery, Mauricio Lasansky and the First Generation, commemorated printmaker Mauricio Lasansky and five of the first wave of printmakers to study under him at the University of Iowa between 1945 and 1952: Lee Chesney, Arthur Levine, Janet K. Ruttenberg, Donn Steward and Barbara Fugamalli.
The exhibit — which ran from Aug. 25 through Sept. 11 — showcased work from Lasansky’s early years at Iowa and the prints that his five protégés produced under his supervision alongside their more recent work. Lasansky was among the first modern artists to achieve international success by working solely in the graphic arts.
Lasansky’s legacy is still felt at the University of Iowa today. After all, it was Lasansky who established the university’s printmaking department, initiating the first MFA in printmaking program in the nation. Lasansky put the University of Iowa on the map; not only through his technical expertise, but also his social consciousness which compelled him to address current events through his work. In the exhibit, Lasansky’s influence on his students’ early work is evident, while the more recent artwork by the ‘first generation’ reveals the distinct vision of each artist.
I had the great pleasure of speaking with Arthur Levine who reminisced about his first impressions of Lasansky and his teaching style. Levine said that after leaving Iowa, he came to favor “the sensuality and spontaneity” of painting to the process of printmaking. I asked Levine to talk about his painting methods and his preferred medium, acrylics.
Little Village: What was your first impression of Lasansky? How would you describe his teaching style?
Arthur Levine: Lasansky came to Iowa in 1945 when he was only 31 years old. Remember, that was the year veterans were coming back and some of them were almost as old as he was. But everyone respected him. I never thought about the fact that he was a really young guy until much later on. I spoke with [Lee] Chesney a month ago and he put it as succinctly as anyone. Lasansky had this amazing ability, for a man 31 years old, to focus on each individual and sense who they were. I got into teaching when I was 28, I couldn’t have done that at 68! To be that perceptive!
I can think specifically of a fellow named John Paul Jones, from Iowa, who was well-known in the ’60s for his abstractions. Lasansky was a figurative artist, but he immediately recognized after Jones had done one self-portrait that Jones was happy sitting there with a ruler, making geometric abstractions. Lasansky realized almost instantaneously that that was who Jones was.
Can you share any interesting anecdotes about Lasansky?
Let me preface this first, I grew up drawing from a very early age, since I was four. It never ever occurred to me to draw from life. I drew cowboys, parachuters, soldiers, stagecoaches. Iowa, at that time, was very Modern Art-oriented in the specific Cezanne-Picasso line of the architecture of picture-making. Lasansky started people off generally by asking them to do a self-portrait or sent them over to the museum of natural history to draw an animal. I had never drawn from life, now I do a lot. I didn’t know how to do it and I asked him, ‘How about I just make it up and draw from my imagination?’ He said ok. Now I look back and it’s very Disney-esque, like Bambi! But he sensed something about me, I think, immediately.
What do you think it was that he sensed?
I came to Iowa as a callow youth. I didn’t know anything about art. I’d only had one class at the Art Institute in Chicago and it never crossed my mind that I could go upstairs and look at paintings. I didn’t know who Rembrandt was before I came here. All I knew was Norman Rockwell. But I think Lasansky sensed, he must have, that I was very taken with certain Old Masters like Brueghel and art history in general because it was all new to me. I was suspended between the traditional Renaissance point-of-view on the one hand and Picasso and Max Beckman on the other.
I do want to mention that we lived by a few textbooks at Iowa. The most important one to me was Cezanne’s Compositions by Erie Loran. What Loran did was photograph Cezanne’s landscape motifs and then he showed you, using a gazillion little arrows, how Cezanne made changes, how he lifted things up, how he pushed things this way and that. Ultimately, I saw that if you break things down like that, stroke for stroke, it’s a way of saying that Brueghel and Picasso are basically made of the same atoms. You can get rid of this dichotomy that I had.
I noticed that your recent paintings are almost sculptural, like bas-reliefs. Have you been painting thickly with acrylics since studying with Byron Burford?
I’ve never been able to work with oil paint. I couldn’t bear the drying time. When I was in school here, people were in a hurry. Veterans had lost all these years. We experimented with Duco, an automobile paint. It’s very bad for you, but it dries immediately. We were pre-acrylic acrylic painters. Finally, it must have been in the early 70s, I realized that what I was doing was basically very close to acrylics so I switched.
I work with acrylics now with the same texture and quality that I worked with in lacquer… I’ve been more conscientious lately of grinding the paint off so that it doesn’t get this heaviness. I want to be Van Eyck in terms of clarity. I think that one of the defining or common qualities of great art is clarity. Those guys really saw.
I know I work within limitations. I’m not an abstract artist and I’m not a hyperrealist. That doesn’t interest me. The ideas that are between the two go right back to Iowa. If you look at my work from 1950 and my work from 2013, they are very close, still struggling with the same ideas: Expression, nobility, and monumentality.