New York

Lucas Samaras

Pace Gallery, Pace/Macgill Gallery

Lucas Samaras had three shows open at once. At the Wildenstein Gallery he showed pastels from four decades. Today his pastels from the late ’50s look like the very best of the latest thing, which they actually are in retroactive fact: Samaras was way ahead of the time by being outside it. Spatial isolation is easy; temporal isolation is like magic, and it’s only part of Samaras’ pastel magic. That magic is the modern moves in a time-capsule nutshell, semi-self-buried and now sprouting wildly in the work of Francesco Clemente, Julian Schnabel, a cast of thousands, and himself.

The all-new stuff was at Pace and Pace/MacGill. Pace showed heads and chairs. The heads are black ink wash on paper, the paper chewed into radical shapes with pinking shears, the ink washed into demonic vortical whorls. The faces are like dream-time versions of the faces of the figures that the bomb imprinted on the walls of Hiroshima. But some of them are funny faces—lovable nightmares and devastatingly charming apparitions. They are totemic skulls, some imploding, some dissolving, some disintegrating, some cracking and charring, some blown away. Some are mobile-mounted, looking as vulnerable to magnetism and light as to wind. Some are mounted like photo lights on tripods—lightweight portable totem poles that look like scarecrows for modern devils.

As Peter Schjeldahl has pointed out, Samaras’ pastels were once seen as gorgeous, aberrant footnotes to a career made by more “notorious” work, such as the Polaroids. The “panoramas” shown at Pace/MacGill are a continuation of that notorious work; they just don’t look so notorious anymore. They look like interesting personal fetishes. I don’t find them interesting, except as a way of peeking into the artist’s quarters through an obstacle course. It’s funny that these works now look like footnotes while the former footnotes now look like major treasures.

Samaras has also been making chairs for a long time now. Erosion is a major Samaras concern/technique, and here he seems to have eroded a sculptural metaphor into something like a still, massive, but quite burned-down zen joke. These chairs are like cryptograms; you have to go to all the trouble of decoding them to find out that they aren’t answers but questions, and no trouble.

This triple bill was a bit like a three-ring circus, with tigers, high wire, and clowns. I find Samaras’ pastels among the most beautiful things around, I find his heads arresting, I find his Polaroids something to glance at. I admire that. What bores me in him fascinates others, and vice versa. I’m not saying Samaras can be all things to all people; I am saying that he can be really something to anybody who is anybody.

Glenn O'Brien