New York

Lucas Samaras

Lucas Samaras is not widely conceded to be the figure of importance that I take him to be. It seemed to me that much of the tactile diversity and desultory palette of coloristic or pictorial sculpture of the last two years had learned from his example. When last I wrote about Samaras’s work I was concerned with situating the artist in an historical situation which was still part of late Surrealism as it had arrived on our shores as an emigré art in the late 1930s. I thought particularly of the Breton poème objet as realized not only in the work of that great theorist but also in the assemblages of Yves Tanguy as well as Salvador Dali (the only creditable work to have been done by the Spaniard since the late 1930s). Conversation with Samaras apprised me of the degree to which this historicizing “take” offended him although I will not withdraw my views on the matter. In fact, I am persuaded that the present exhibition, “Chair Transformation,” takes even more cue than before from the idiom of late Surrealist assemblage and, as a result, my admiration for Samaras’s work has diminished.

The problem for me (if not for the artist) is what I take to be Samaras’s subjugation to an essentially literary thrust and reiterative self-imitating tactic, his dependence upon a noun, in the present instance, “chair.” Although chairs appeared earlier in the artist’s production and many of the ideas of the present show date back to 1964, the first concern at present is merely to inform this noun with the familiar spread of Samaras’s colorist staples––colored yarns, mirrors, straight pins, pointillist passages, jigsaw patterns and oneiric carpentry of all kinds. Naturally the effect will be startling since our unconscious preconceptions regarding the object are constantly under unanticipated barrage. But this is classical Surrealist theory. The nouveau frisson becomes more an intellectual achievement than an emotional one. It is the dandy in us, rather than the artist, that Samaras seems to be addressing. Granting both the literary focus and the artist’s self-evident technical expertise, he can never make a mistake. And where there can be no failure so, too, is there an absence of ambition. Hard work, yes; laborious effort, yes; emotional aperture, no. That tenuous border beyond which art becomes sheer taste, and chichi taste at that, has been crossed.

Robert Pincus-Witten