THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
FEBRUARY 24 – SEPTEMBER 1, 2014
Lucas Samaras: Offerings from a Restless Soul is a sophisticated multimedia exhibition by a reclusive artist that features more than 60 works drawn from the Metropolitan Museum’s large contemporary collection. Organized by Marla Prather, the Met’s curator of modern and contemporary art, with Samaras’s close collaboration, the exhibition includes abstract works, sculpture, pastel drawings, and digital photography from more recent decades, including a new gift of 17 objects donated by the artist and a video installation (“How To Do It,” 2006) featuring Samaras at work on a pointillist self-portrait. The show is surreally biographical, nonlinear, and poetically illustrated by a master artist preparing diligently for his immortality.
Born in Greece in 1936, Samaras’s childhood coincided with World War II and the Greek Civil War; he moved with his family to U.S. as a teenager. Attracted to New York’s avant-garde scene, he took part in a show organized by Allan Kaprow, his professor at Rutgers, called “18 Happenings in 6 Parts” (1959); it was a seminal, fleeting neo-Dada moment of artistic freedom that sought to blur the line between dream, art, and life. According to contemporary accounts, Samaras participated by standing on a chair, impersonating a patent medicine salesman, and popping balloons.
A painted canvas from that event (“Untitled,” 1959) is on display here. An incidental collaborative artwork, it includes Jasper Johns’s vertical gestural black stripes and black stain circles left by a paint can wielded by Robert Rauschenberg on the reverse side. Each participant could keep a prop created during the event as a memento; Samaras kept this painted canvas. He would later participate in many important Happenings held at the Reuben Gallery in the East Village, including those initiated by Claes Oldenburg and Jim Dine, which proved to be the launch pad for Samaras’s wide-ranging experimental output.
Samaras’s artistic personality is implicit in the exhibition design. The main walls of the first gallery are framed in several layers of paint, with dark brown, white, and light green delineating only the corners. He created a fraction of a frame, giving an illusion of depth, a 3-D effect. The other gallery is papered with wallpaper designed by the artist, a matrix pattern based on one of his pastel drawings, “Untitled,” 1962, also on view. Along the way we learn that the artist’s name in Greek means “saddle maker,” from which he drew inspiration for “Chair Transformations” (1969 – 1970 – 1980): two sculptures and nine drawings of surrealist chairs in various sculpted shapes.
A series of drawings and collages are based on X-rays of Samaras’s skull and hand. His cousin, a dressmaker, provided him with the profuse threads, yarn, and pins that ornament the artist’s promotional black-and-white headshot in an untitled work with gelatin silver paint and pins on masonite (1963). In a slightly sadomasochistic turn, the portrait—which he had used for auditions while a student at the Adler Conservatory of Acting—is studded with pins, extending the photo into three dimensions. These pins also appear on a skull drawing and on “Box #10” (1963), an antique sectioned jewelry box, in which each compartment is filled with small ball bearings, stones, springs, and glass. Familiar actor headshots are glued to the inside cover. As the curator explained, if one were to reach inside and play with the beige stones or ball bearings, one might uncover Samaras’s visage buried under these “treasures” at the bottom of the container.
Having previously introduced the hypodermic needle as a sculptural element in his boxes, Samaras later used it as a drawing tool to inject ink into wet paper. In the early 1970s, Samaras introduced series of text paintings that spell out punchy, iconic words such as: WORK, EXIT, DEAD, here represented by “DRAW-Untitled #17” (1975). After receiving Sculp-Metal in a can as a gift in 1955, Samaras used the claylike material to make proto-minimalist, floor-based objects as well as several wall-mounted reliefs that encase disquieting objects such as an exposed double-edge razorblade, an undone safety-pin, and mangled cutlery (here a teaspoon). These works, the artist himself has noted, betray a “curious struggle between the rough undulating Sculp-Metal surface and the prickling intrusion” of the embedded objects. These sculptural paintings are grouped in the corner of the gallery in a small showcase.
The 29 works in the second gallery include two sculptures and a selection of small pastels chosen from a series of hundreds of drawings—pastels that Samaras described as “colored dust.” The artist drew on sheets of paper in his lap, completing several compositions in one sitting. The pastels from the early ’60s include fantastic still-lives, anatomical close-ups, bejeweled domestic interiors, couples, and hermaphroditic nudes. Samaras returned several times to this medium in 1974 and in 1981, when he drew more than 200 intense self-portraits.
My favorite is “Untitled #7” (1962), an early drawing enhanced with pink, yellow, and red yarn, depicting the artist sitting on the toilet, head in hands, pants down. It is a realistic scene surreally executed. The artist watches himself in a bathroom mirror, demonstrating a propensity for childlike exhibitionism.
Given his early exposure to erotica, as emblazoned on ancient Greek vases depicting explicit sexual positions, it’s no surprise that Samaras repeatedly returns to female nudes and passionate embraces. A small, sensual untitled pastel on paper from 1962 features three standing female nudes, while another from 1974 depicts a naked couple making love on a rainbow background with the moon reflected on water as seen through the window. Both works are expressionistic, folkloric, and a bit Van Gogh-ish.
Another important work, “Wound #18” (2000), pays homage to Samaras’s miscarried brother in a wall-size gold monochrome painting punctuated by a bloody-red gush, a meditational faux-altarpiece for his never-born sibling. Samaras later expanded the “Wound” format in a series of abstract paintings dedicated to victims of 9/11. This allowed Samaras to, in his words, “mutate depression into creativity.”
Samaras also became known for his innovative work with Polaroid cameras. For the series, “Fotofictions” (2003), using a Leica digital camera and Adobe Photoshop, he photographed himself in a studio and then inserted his self-portraits into a variety of New York cityscapes. In “Conflict 22” (2003) he appears naked on a blanket, surrounded by trees, stones, and falling autumn leaves. In “Conflict 23” (2003), Samaras is a surreal creature—half-man, half-bird—sitting by the shore of a lake during late fall. According to the artist, the digital Leica allowed him to “translate the outside world into [his] own world.” A passionate spectator of the self, Samaras superimposes his sensory delight onto his solitary self-images, endlessly journeying through his own gifted imagination.
In the Met exhibition, Samaras, still elusive as a public persona, proves to be one of the most experimental artists of his generation. Multimedia maker, avant-gardist, and theoretician, he is a post-Dada, post-Surrealist, post-Abstract Expressionist. Fascination with the self is a through-line that unites Samaras’s protean and multifarious artistic career, which has ranged from avant-garde happenings to painting to digital photography. As Prather notes, while “innumerable precedents exist in the genre of self-portraiture … Samaras’s devotion to his own image is an obsession born of profound narcissism, for which he makes no apology.” Her book, Unrepented Ego: The Self-Portraits of Lucas Samaras (2003), opens with the artist’s observation: “Professional self-investigation—which is what a good self-portrait is—is as noble a search as any other, and I have always shared what I have learned with the public.” In a conversation with Pace Gallery founder Arne Glimcher, published in Interview magazine in 2008, Samaras—not unfavorably—likened his self-portraiture to masturbation, which he called narcissism’s “most pure form.”
In his recent work, Samaras relishes rediscovering himself through the narcissistic observations of aging as he relentlessly sheds his younger selves and personas, mutating and reconstructing his own image and likeness. To casually dismiss Samaras as a “narcissist” is to overlook a career of intrepid self-investigation. At the Met, narcissistic introspection becomes self-historization and, ultimately, a valuable archive of an artistic life.