The artist Mauricio Lasansky (1914-2012) and his wife Emilia (1917-2009) assembled a large and important collection of African and Pre-Columbian sculpture over the course of roughly fifty years. Being their grandson I had the privilege of growing up with this impressive collection and over time have familiarized myself with its history, which up to this point has been largely undocumented. Doing so has shed light on a fascinating story that involves some of the 20th century’s most influential artists, scholars, and dealers of traditional non-Western art. 

                                          Mauricio and Emilia Lasansky in the late 1940s

The story begins in the early 1940’s when my grandfather had his first and most notable encounters with Sub-Saharan African art. He was in New York at the time, as a Guggenheim Fellow from his native Argentina, working on a series of engravings at a communal printmaking workshop known as Atelier 17.[1] This facility, which was run by an English émigré artist named William Stanley Hayter, had emerged in those years as an important meeting ground for young American artists and avant-garde Europeans who had been displaced by the upheavals of World War II. My grandfather would often reminisce about his experiences at the Atelier and how he worked alongside such luminaries as Jackson Pollock, Adolph Gottlieb, Marc Chagall, Roberto Matta, and Joan Miró. These stories would often include an anecdote or two about his good friend Jacques Lipchitz, the Cubist sculptor and noted collector of African art who fled from Paris in 1943. It was through Lipchitz that my grandfather first began to develop an interest in the aesthetic qualities of so-called Primitive art. The two artists would apparently, on occasion, have lengthy discussion about patina and non-Western carving techniques, using objects from Lipchitz’s collection as examples.

In 1945 the Lasansky’s moved from New York to Iowa City so that Mauricio could organize a printmaking program and workshop at what was then called The State University of Iowa (University of Iowa as of 1964). The workshop, with Lasansky at the helm, quickly emerged as a focal point for advanced intaglio printmaking in the United States. One of Lasansky’s first students was a young Wisconsinite named Roy Sieber (1923-2001) who enrolled in 1949 as an aspiring artist. He studied printmaking and painting for a year before taking a greater interest in African art history, a discipline, which at that point in time, did not formally exist in American academic institutions. Lasansky, the teacher, encouraged Sieber’s shift in focus recognizing early on that his passion for this new and undeveloped field surpassed his passion for the studio arts. It was at this time that the two began a lifelong friendship.

                                         Mauricio Lasansky with his print "Quetzalcoatl"

In 1953 Mauricio was awarded the fourth of his five Guggenheim Fellowships.[2] He traveled with his family for a year through France and Spain in order to survey important public collections of Old Master prints and drawings.[3] He was particularly interested in the archives at the Prado and spent several months in Madrid. It was here at a curio shop just a short distance from the museum where my grandparents discovered their exquisite Fang harp and first became involved in the world of collecting non-Western sculpture.

Lasansky spent time with Lipchitz in New York prior to his departure overseas. The sculptor encouraged Lasansky to meet with his friend Picasso while he was abroad. He wrote this short but rather poetic letter of introduction:

10 July 1953

My dear Pablo,

First of all, a fraternal salute from my far-away retreat. The reason I am writing you is to ask you to welcome Mauricio Lasansky who is, in spite of his surname, from Argentina, but not a friend of Peron, needless to say. He is a printmaker with his own style and a great admirer of your work. I tell you in confidence: he is burning with desire to meet you. Please do your best to see him, you would do me a favor.

As for myself, I am still getting organized after the terrible misfortune I had one-and-a-half years ago. I don’t know if you are aware of it but one day my studio and everything inside it was lost to the flames. That was a bad blow and still haunts me, day and night.

With hugs, your faithful

Lipchitz

The harp was shown publicly for the first time in the summer of 1956. It was featured in an important exhibition organized by Sieber at the University of Iowa entitled African Sculpture. This was Sieber’s first exhibition and one of the very earliest in an American University to show African art as art. The success of the exhibition convinced Lester Longman, the director of the art department, to allow Sieber to pursue a doctorate on the topic of African Art History.[4] The following year, in 1957, his dissertation entitled African Tribal Sculpture was accepted and Sieber was awarded a PhD, becoming the first official African Art Historian in the United States.

                                               Mauricio Lasansky in his studio, 1959

Sieber invited Margret Plass and William Fagg, Keeper of Ethnology at the British Museum, to lecture at the University in conjunction with the exhibition. After seeing the harp, both Fagg and Plass became interested in acquiring it. A series of letters written by the latter, while the show was still in progress, were found tucked away in a drawer of my grandfather’s desk. In these letters Plass attempts to negotiate an acquisition of the harp and references a number of objects in the collection of the British Museum that she would be willing to trade for it.[5] Lasansky politely declined the offer.

The Lasanskys began to seriously collect non-Western art in the wake of the important African Sculpture exhibition. Sieber, in these early years, played an important role in the process acting as a liaison between Mauricio and the many prominent dealers in New York and Europe who had sent objects to Iowa for the show. Lasansky’s Dan mask [lot 271], for instance, was acquired in the mid-60’s from J.J. Klejman in New York shortly after he purchased an important group of Baule figures – including lot 281—from Vérité in Paris.

                                        Emilia Lasansky at Tula, Mexico, early 1960s

It was around this time, in the late 1950’s, when my grandparents started making their firsts trips to Mexico to experience the culture and visit ancient ruins.[6] It was during these trips that they developed an interest in Pre-Columbian sculpture and mythology, which gave rise to an approximately decade long period of collecting Mesoamerican antiquities.[7] Two of their more important acquisitions were the Teotihuacan Tecali mask [lot], which was acquired from archeologist and collector Byron Knoblock and the pair of large standing Nayarit figures [lot] that came through the dealer Everett Rassiga.   

Quetzalcoatl, which was produced over the course of three years (1970-1973), was Lasansky’s largest and most technically complex color intaglio print. This portrait of an ancient Mesoamerican deity is a manifestation of the artist’s interest and familiarity with Pre-Columbian mythology and art.

                  Letter from Jacques Lipchitz introducing Mauricio Lasansky to Pablo Picasso

By the turn of the century my grandparent’s collection had more or less taken its present form. Hundreds of objects had been acquired, all of which were neatly arranged for display in their Iowa City home. In the spring of 2001 Sieber approached my grandfather with the idea of organizing an exhibition and book that would explore the collection as a whole and its relationship to his work. He told Lasansky that he had learned from years of experience developing and cataloguing prominent collections that those assembled by artists typically have a unique and important story to tell. Not because they are necessarily assembled from the best or most valuable objects but rather, because they reveal a significant dimension of the artist’s own aesthetic sensibility. Unfortunately, later that same year, Sieber unexpectedly passed away. The project, which was only in the early stages of development, came to a halt. About two years later the University of Iowa who had committed to sponsor this joint effort contacted Lasansky to see if he was still interested in continuing on. My grandfather’s response was that it was never about publishing his collection, but rather about making a book with his old friend.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

 

[1] The workshop, which officially opened in 1927, was in Hayter’s studio at 51, rue du Moulin Vert. Roughly twelve years later when the artist fled Paris the workshop was located near Montparnasse at 17, rue Campagne-Premier, the address number from which Atelier 17 derived its name.

 

 

[2] Lasansky was the recipient of five Guggenheim Fellowships, more than any individual in any discipline. The grants were awarded in 1943, 1944, 1945, 1953, and 1964. After his fifth grant Lasansky was invited to join the Guggenheim committee as an adjudicator.

 

 

[3] The Lasanskys developed a passion for collecting Old Master prints in the early 1940’s when they arrived in the United States. Mauricio was particularly fond of Goya and assembled a large and impressive archive of his etchings.

 

 

[4] Doran H. Ross, “Interview With Roy Sieber,” African Arts 25 no. 4 (1992): 36.

 

 

[5] Margaret F. Plass, “letter to” Mauricio Lasansky, 23 Jul. 1956. TS.

 

 

[6] The Lasanskys would often travel to the east coast to spend time at their summer studio in Vinalhaven, a small island off the coast of Maine. Eliot Elisofon also had a home on the island. He became close with Mauricio shortly after his and William Fagg’s book Sculpture of Africa was published.  

 

 

[7] In the late 60’s Lasansky made the decision to stop collecting Pre-Columbian art. This was due in large part to the new laws that were being considered at the time that would make it illegal to transport antiquities from Mexico.