Magazine article Artforum International

Lucas Samaras: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Magazine article Artforum International

Lucas Samaras: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Article excerpt

"Unrepentant Ego: The Self-Portraits of Lucas Samaras" wasted no time and exercised suitably little restraint in announcing its larger-than-life subject/object, emblazoning the entrance to the exhibition with a colossal photograph of the artist's face. Of course, Samaras's career-long project of relentless self-scrutiny has always had theatrical power to spare. Over the last five decades, the Greek-born New Yorker has deployed performative nerve, killer technique, and sheer obsessive force of will to produce what is among the most vivid personal documentary programs in the history of artmaking. A Narcissus who fell into his own reflection and began happily splashing away, he's made a spectacle not only of himself but of the self, as few others have.

Underlying the show's marquee treatment of its star were real scope and substance: Curator Marla Prather's strategic orchestration of the survey's four-hundred-odd objects brought the ripening of Samaras's extravagant self-involvement to life. Harbingers could be found among the exhibition's earliest works. In the last two frames of a quartet of untitled ink-on-paper pieces from 1962 and 1963, for example, ribbons of rainbow-colored lettering spell out the message LUCAS LOVES/LUCAS--a beautifully simple, characteristically candid linguistic elaboration of the solipsistic feedback loop that would come to power Samaras's entire enterprise.

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The exhibition reflected the artist's diversity, including sturdy pastels and expert cut-paper pieces, as well as extraordinary work from the mid-'60s that addresses interiority via skeletal physiology (in the form of both exquisite drawings and x-ray images modified with celestial arrays of silver pushpins.) These same pins show up in a number of Samaras's signature multimedia boxes on view throughout the galleries. Messier and more dynamic than the Cornell works that they superficially recall, the boxes function like the three-dimensional organs of Samaras's corpus; meanwhile, the hundreds of photographs that dominated the show are a kind of skin, a porous membrane that encourages viewers to pass into the various states of mind and body they depict.

Samaras first picked up a Polaroid camera in 1969--his AutoPolaroids of 1969-71 are characterized by a giddy fascination with the technology's immediacy and its ability to multiply the body. In pictures from this period, Samaras is all feet and hands and gut and ass: Like a latter-day Pierre Molinier with a less pronounced kinky streak, he pokes and prods himself in the privacy of his rooms, one moment coquettishly disguising his nakedness with a bouquet of flowers, the next cheerfully photograping his penis bobbing in the bathwater. Two AutoPolaroid suites that involve rudimentary costuming read like a preemptive parody of Cindy Sherman, but Samaras's burgeoning self-reimaginings rarely involve conventional disguises. Instead they emerge in the form of hand-applied multicolored ink dots that create a kind of pointillist miasma in which his figure floats; these deformations are a bridge between the perforations of the artist's early work and the wholesale distortions of his unparalleled Photo-Transformations of the years to follow. Taking advantage of the new Polaroid SX-70 (the first to output photographs that developed in plain view), Samaras began in 1973 to manipulate his emulsions, producing the compositionally destabilized images for which he is best known. …

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