New York

Lucas Samaras

Pace | 32 East 57th Street

Lucas Samaras is one of the more theatrical and prolific artists working today. He’s a combination magician, traveling medicine show, and one-man band, and we’ve come to demand of him what we’d expect of few other artists: that he amaze us every few years with something new and even more marvelous. His latest offering is a series of abstract fabric constructions that have all the unrestrained joy and beauty of a 14th Street yard goods store. Cheap, bright, exuberant colors everywhere. Rayon and polyester. Polka dots, stripes, plaids, checks and herringbones mixed in with gold, silver and copper lamé. But the more I looked at these 12 Reconstructions, as Samaras calls them, the more I realized that they were not haphazard or wild, but very tightly controlled. Even the loud patterns began to look right.

These reconstructions are made of dozens of different patterned fabrics, cut into ribbons and patches, then sewn together into flat, picturelike rectangles varying from 6 by 5 feet to 9 by 10 feet, and finally affixed to supports. I want to call them paintings, because they look like paintings and in all but the technical sense of the word they are. Even Samaras says that although he doesn’t use liquid, “it ends up being painting.”

The reason they do is that they’re concerned with many of the same problems as painting: color, pattern, composition, depth and texture. One of the most impressive things about them is the way they achieve deep pictorial space with a material uncommon in picture-making. Reconstruction #26, with many narrow strips of crisscrossing fabric, is like an aerial view of an incredibly complicated freeway system. In Reconstruction #27, broken forms create a Cubist-like picture with a complex interplay between foreground and background. In Reconstruction #18, strips of fabric pull the eye from the comparatively open areas on the perimeter toward the dense center. At first, these works seem to have an “over-all” look of pattern painting. But as your eye adjusts to the wild colors and patterns, you realize that each one has a unique and carefully worked out center and direction.

Samaras’ art has always been intensely personal. When many artists were making cool paintings and sculptures that looked untouched by human hands, he was distorting his face and body and photographing himself nude in his kitchen. These reconstructions don’t force us to acknowledge his personality as did the auto-Polaroids (in which, incidentally, patterned fabrics often appeared as background), but they are just as personal. His mother, he says, would have loved these gaudy materials, and because he wasn’t with her when she died several years ago he thinks of these new works as “shrouds to wrap her in.” Samaras is able to take a feeling so personal that many people today would consider it mawkish—at least in the United States if not Greece—and transform it into art without a drop of sentiment. And the transformation is so complete that, while it’s interesting to know why he chose this medium—or, at least, one reason why he chose it—it’s not necessary, and the works stand on their own.

Samaras has created an amazingly diverse body of work in his 20 years as an exhibiting artist. His 1972 Whitney retrospective looked almost like a Surrealist group show, and it seemed remarkable that one artist—especially one barely in mid-career—could have done it all. Much of his genius seems to lie in his ability to keep making good and exciting art while working without a style. This is an unabashedly showy and theatrical way to make art: the artist is constantly saying, “Look what else I can do.” It’s a risky enterprise too, and pulling it off requires great control,because the artist is always working with unfamiliar materials that threaten to take over. Samaras began these Reconstructions only a year and a half ago, but they’re already well resolved and very much under his control. And if they seem somewhat more conventional than the boxes, chair transformations, and auto-Polaroids, it’s only because we’re comparing them with work by a very unconventional artist.

Jeffrey Keeffe