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Thursday, January 15, 2004


Ecce Ego

Unrepentant Ego: The Self-Portraits of Lucas Samaras, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, November 13, 2003-February 8, 2004; Lucas Samaras: Photofictions, PaceWildenstein, New York City, November 11, 2003-January 17, 2004.

Inevitably, in talking about the art of Lucas Samaras, we must make use of psychological terms such as narcissism, which may be said to broadly define the artist’s outlook and production. Obsessed with himself, the Greek-born artist, who now lives and works in midtown Manhattan, has offered self-portraits made with Polaroid cameras at the Whitney Museum and photographs at the PaceWildenstein gallery; these images, while remarkable for their technical virtuosity, play and replay the same notes from an artist who has retreated into autobiographical statements as a way of protecting himself from the outside world. We must remember that, growing up in Greece during a time of civil war, Samaras lived through times of great stress. That trauma has occasioned in him a vivid, if also limited, awareness of self that repetitively turns to the one subject he can actually be sure of: himself. In his manipulations of the emulsion of his Polaroid images, Samaras journeys toward an ever-present, but also continually receding, identity, which enables him to offer pictures that take their author as the basis for a communication about the necessary and arbitrary presentation of self that has occupied him since the AutoPolaroids series, begun in 1969.

As Donald Kuspit makes clear in his Whitney catalogue essay, Samaras is an artist wounded by the double history of his country and family; his self-portraits attempt to shore up, against the intimate vicissitudes of the other, a sense of self that would maintain itself in the face of hostilities, no matter where they might come from. This is a tall order, for narcissism not only defends the self from onslaught, it also confines it within an increasingly narrow container. Samaras cannot have it both ways; that is, he cannot solely refer to himself unapologetically as his main theme without losing some of the very generosity he hopes his art will have. Narcissism is finally a weakened treatment of the subject, for it presumes that the real world cannot dent the self-sufficiency of the artist, when in fact the artistic statement is made weaker by an art that lives only within and for itself. Samaras is an artist of remarkable resolve, and even inspiration, but as the title of the show, Unrepentant Ego: The Self-Portraits of Lucas Samaras, points out, the sense of rebellion accompanying his works is finally a confined expression, for it refuses to imagine the other as real. No matter the roots of such a stance, Samaras cannot easily develop the shared communication that characterizes good and great art in its attempt to transcend the gap of silence between the artist and his or her audience. At the same time, however, the viewer must recognize that Samaras’s technical ability, which is considerable, makes his art interesting even as we note its limitations. Samaras’s unrepentant ego may stifle the atmosphere of his creativity, but his inventiveness genuinely argues for expressiveness of manner.

I think it comes down to what it is possible to bear. Can we tolerate the self-obsession of an artist whose sensibility is perhaps best seen in his large mirrored structure, Mirror Corner (1990), a kind of intellectual funhouse in which reflections become not only a means but an end? Or does his physical skill result in so compelling a display of artifice and artistry that the work becomes not a dead-end but its own end, a tour de force of self-reflexiveness? Samaras is the kind of artist who occasions strong opinions: one feels obliged to love him or leave him because of the unrepentant nature of his obsessiveness. But even the most disgruntled viewer would have to acknowledge the sheer intelligence and inventiveness of his art, which, at its best, does appear to transcend the insecurities of its origins. Samaras is most successful when he transforms his self-love into remarkable puzzles of self, which, after all, may be seen on some level as the basis of creativity and assertion. The problem is that a heavily psychoanalytical treatment of his art, as evidenced in the essay by Donald Kuspit, does not open up so much as it reduces the work to a series of infantilized assertions, in which aggression trades place with a genuinely exploratory approach to art. Despite the weaknesses of Samaras’s art, I think that his sensibility is finally open, a result of the myriad means of presentation he offers, indeed often overwhelms his audience with. It is the result of a tunnel vision whose chief attribute is intensity.

Even the formal issues that Samaras occasions—the idea of a permanent, if also injured, sense of self taking over all formal expressiveness, as well as a serial repetitiveness intended to transform his bumpy narcissism into something smoother, more flowing—are reflective of a nearly manic resolve to struggle against forces of entropy, on both a personal and public level. Here, the psychoanalytical may be transformed into something less analytical and more chthonic, closer to the ground in the sense that while analysis may be an intelligent way to describe him, at least on a superficial level, an intuitive approach to the experience of his art is actually closer to the way Samaras really works: the origins and consequences of his art may be psychologically inclined, but the processes he uses are free of such constraints, making him an artist of devoted, and liberated, eccentricity, an attitude not so far from wonder. Samaras’s careful serial repetitions offer the equally careful viewer an opening into an intricate imagination, just as his nakedness in many of the Polaroid images switches over into metaphor, becoming innocent in the eyes of the beholder.

It may be that, above all else, Samaras is searching for a radical innocence tough enough to withstand the very real aggressions of history he has experienced. Art becomes a defensive effort meant to engage the demands of the world in a way that does no harm. In an odd way, a purely psychological reading of the artist’s output may be a huge mistake, in the sense that it becomes clear, on looking at his massive output, that behind the rigidity of many of the images is a determined attempt to survive and then communicate. What is art, good art especially, but a way of discussing the premises of self and the outside world? Surely Samaras is inventive enough to transform, even if only momentarily, the implications of his art into a language of intuitive intelligence and contemporary force, both of which are extremely difficult to do in what must be called his figurative manner. Samaras, more than most artists working today, may be said to be free of irony, that catch-all attitude that inevitably undermines the language of our desire and belief. He has the good sense to remain exploratory, both thematically and technically, rather than be sardonic in his implications.

Samaras has devoted himself, in addition to drawing and photographs, to the construction of boxes. Although, generally speaking, the boxes are similar to the work of Joseph Cornell, they have a dazzle of their own; working with nails, photos, and such ungainly objects as a large needle, Samaras makes a statement bordering on morbidity. Box #61 (1967) is a masterful exercise in colors: the box opens up to a plane of colorful dots painted on a white ground and another ground of tiny dots over which two thin sticks cross over, their ends sharpened and covered with red pigment. Inside the top of the box is a close-up of the artist’s mustache and left cheek—pins follow the outlines of the facial hair and of the cheekbone. It is a strangely disturbing panorama that communicates disquiet and even menace, qualities found in the other boxes and works as well. Boxes, as we know from Pandora’s times, are capable of containing evil, and there is something of a classical recognition of that point in the case of Samaras’s closed structures, which play off the idea of knowing and not knowing what might lie inside. Indeed, the boxes trade on mystery and surprise, springing into life when opened but remaining unknowable while closed; they are the physical representation of a secret, which in the case of Samaras has to do with the promulgation of a threat of some unspecified kind.

The twelve AutoPolaroids of 1969-71 show a naked Samaras in odd physical positions, often holding flowers. Additionally, he has drawn patterns with ink onto the photographs, so that he often looks as if he were inhabiting a psychedelic space of whorls and whirling lines. In the case of the AutoPolaroids, there are so many of them that one becomes numb in the face of so much art; but it is with these works that Samaras advances his claim that his identity is both integral to and separate from obsessive self-reflexiveness; in fact, in these works and the Photo-Transformations of 1976, there is something, even seemingly naive, about the way he devotes himself to picturing himself. Nakedness is a major component of these small images—if Samaras is given over to vanity, it is egotism of an unreconstructed sort, in which he trusts in a rather one-sided intimacy in order to make a connection with his audience. In one piece, created July 16, 1976, the artist stands before us in his kitchen, utterly naked and seemingly pierced by nails. In another work, done on the same day and place, Samaras looks as though he is raising a robe up with his arms and partially covering his nudity; his pose almost feels as though it were a magician’s gesture.

Perhaps Samaras is an alchemist of self, intent on transforming the dross of self-consciousness into the gold of radiant communication. As he is his own biggest subject, his is a theme of infinite repetition. In Untitled #20, an eloquent drawing, Samaras shows us a sense of mystery in a self-portrait, done in dark colors, in which he presents himself as bearded, with a triangle of yellow and red color placed between the eyes. Random letters decorate his face and shoulders, and the background consists of numerous gray lines. In another series of works done in colored pencil, Head Transformation (Untitled #1-12) (1982), the artist has drawn a dozen near-caricatures of his face against gray grounds, sometimes reducing his head’s components to rounded organic shapes. And in some ink-on-paper works from 1985, we can see the artist continue the obsessive work dominating his theme; there is a heroic work, dated October 28, 1985, in which the right side of his face and body is reduced to hundreds of stipple marks. Another piece, done on November 23, 1985, shows a disturbed Samaras making a large oval with his mouth; this pose is accentuated by the hatchmarks done as a ground, which crowd around and intensify the image of the head.

In the most recent photographic work, entitled Photofictions, Samaras uses the computer for the first time, demonstrating that he is open to new techniques and strategies. In one piece from 2002, Untitled (Head-Chest Liquid), he stands wild-haired and bearded in the left of the image, the front of his lower body and left arm amorphously swirling about as if a reflection in moving water. In another work, Untitled (Long Beard Seated #92), the image shows Samaras’s head dwarfed by his shoulders and arms, his long gray beard looking positively prophetic. Around his body are twisted gray shapes, the result of morphing on the computer. In the show at PaceWildenstein, Samaras goes outdoors and reports in color, often including his naked form in the imagery he has shot. This work has the crazy-quilt energy of a psychedelic trip; sometimes the effects are too erratic to be completely successful, for they look like the visual play of an adolescent still in thrall to computer games. But, at the same time, it must be said that there is a fertile imagination at work, one that doesn’t worry about optical and thematic strangeness to make its point.

Samaras is an artist of infinite variation within a subject matter that is really quite narrow; he is a master of photographic techniques, whose effects result in art of startling originality. As an artist who passes on to his audience the work of an “unrepentant ego,” he skirts the difficulty inherent in fully appreciating art that is so self-absorbed. Self-portraiture is, I think, one of the harder tasks in contemporary art; it requires some degree of objectivity—that is, a bit of esthetic distance—to be fully successful. It is my feeling that, for Samaras, the esthetic distance is purchased by his use of techniques that transpose his sense of self into something more fluid and moving. If it is true that good art communicates more than just a sense of self, Samaras has come up with visionary tactics that begin in selfhood but move on to tie together an adventuresome sense of strategy with an obsessive regard for his own sensibility. In doing so, the artist, who presses us constantly with his image, may effect a turnaround, in which all the guardedness we associate with his pictures suddenly becomes vulnerable and clear. In that case, we can say that Samaras’s communications are not only fantastic and self-referential, they are also genuine pieces of art, and they demand the involved awareness of an audience that will remain unfazed by the repetitions of self with which it is presented. Somewhere, beyond the rebelliousness, there is also a vulnerability that makes Samaras’s art memorable.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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