New York

Lucas Samaras

Pace | 508 W 25th Street

I’ve long thought that I’d like to see a show of latter-day Surrealist-tinged American art in conjunction with orthodox European Surrealism: Lucas Samaras, Arshile Gorky, Edward Kienholz, Marisol, John Graham, Joseph Cornell and so on, next to Tanguy, Ernst, Dali, Masson and company. Oldenburg, in his drawings, could even be our Magritte. It would be an edifying exhibition, stirring whatever drops of jingoist blood may be flowing in my veins.

The recent Samaras show at Pace showed clearly both his amazing technical range and his main limitation. The limitation is one of scale. Samaras is basically a miniaturist, and I say this hesitantly since the word usually carries a heavy pejorative weight I don’t mean it to have. He is a miniaturist in the sense Klee or Cornell are miniaturists. The tip-off in Samaras’s current show was his environmental room. The red walls and green painted-aluminum cutouts do not generate the obsessive pressure of the smaller works, and for an obvious reason. Samaras’s characteristic strategy is to construct a smallish object—box, pastel, relief or whatever—out of seemingly thousands of constituent parts—pins, colored yarn, beads, etc.—creating enormous obsessive energy. The .object sits there, internally claustrophobic and potentially explosive, like a tool-chest holding a thousand miniature dynamite sticks, ready to go off. One is tempted to look but not touch.

Samaras’s environmental room was too large and spare; the green cutout silhouette heads and hands were distributed elegantly here and there on the walls at fairly wide intervals. Samaras relied on the optical pressure of green and red to supply his characteristic energy, but it just wasn’t enough. Had the room been one third its size, the effect might have been powerful. His 1966 mirror room worked because it was dense and claustrophobic, splitting the occupant’s image into an infinity of reflected versions. The ratio of myriad parts to smallish whole was perfectly maintained.

Samaras is the archetype of the artist as magician. I remember from childhood seeing Blackstone the Great at the Capitol Theater in Wheeling. He had marvelous props: little tables covered with glittering fabric; mysterious boxes with secret compartments; nubile attendants in spangled costumes, hoops and wands and platforms and screens embellished with unknown symbols. There were puffs of smoke and flashing lights, a kind of Satanic theater that Samaras always conjures up for me. Even though he works quite directly, Samaras ends up concealing his methods by magical sleight of hand. A group of small, rectangular reliefs were done by pouring plaster into a previously formed tinfoil sheet, containing the relief impressions of coins, tools, medals and so on. Then the dry plaster was painted in iridescent, strange colors. The result lies somewhere between painting and sculpture, between trompe l’oeil and hard fact.

Samaras is one of those artists who doesn’t have influences; he has sources, which go into his hat and come out something else. His drawings of hands and plaques and drafting tools in variously colored metallic pencils on black paper seem to be in a new medium known only to Samaras, until one recalls a possible source: Marisol’s last show of drawings, featuring hands, on black paper. But Samaras has pulled out a different rabbit, and one is surprised.

He called his exhibition a group show, because of the many different media and types of objects present. The relationship of artist to medium is an interesting one. If one does no more than describe Ronald Bladen as a creator of monumental sculptures, or James Brooks as a painterly painter, a good deal of information has been conveyed. But the terms have to be shifted away from media words in dealing with artists like Samaras. One uses words like fetishist or obsessional collagist. At the center of his art is not a medium or an image, but his finely honed, stilettolike sensibility as it transforms photography or drawing or any object whatever.

Budd Hopkins