New York

Lucas Samaras

Pace | 32 East 57th Street

At one time or another, Lucas Samaras has played Svengali to almost every currently fashionable art practice. His Polaroid images predate the reconstructed narcissism of the current but not-so-new school of photo self-portraitists; his psychedelic, quiltlike “Reconstructions” of the mid ’70s were putting in “more love hours than can ever be repaid,” a decade before Mike Kelly; and the legacy of his particular brand of scato-fetishism can be felt in just about every project that comes under the all-purpose umbrella of “installation art”—whether phobic, abject, or sexually transgressive. Yet despite, or perhaps because of this history of stylistic deviancy, Samaras still seems to elicit caution rather than respect, skepticism rather than canonization. Three decades of work marked by an unholy alliance of the seraphic and the manipulative has too often been dismissed as adulteration rather than subversion—the reflection of a talent more fickle than protean.

Contrary as ever, Samaras’ recent work might be mistaken for an attempt to resurrect Minimalism at its most formalist. Made up of three separate parts, the show consisted of 28 cubes, 14 trapezoids, and 24 small bronze sculptures called “Pragmata,” 1993, each subtitled with a letter of the Greek alphabet, and all seemingly at odds with the antiformal impulse of his previous work. One foot square and three feet tall, each Formica-clad “cube” explored a set of geometric permutations in much the same way that Walter de Maria’s “5-7-9,” codified a series of mathematical progressions. Distributed across the floor space like morphemes, the “Cubes,” 1994, seemed to await syntactical arrangement by some errant child schooled in manipulating Rubric’s own. Taking the Minimalist block to be both mental and linguistic, Samaras extrapolates a stunningly improbable series of interiors and projections from its basic incarnation. Architectural forms—pyramids, ziggurats, meanders, cross beams, and slashes—violate the cube’s volumetric uniformity to project negative space. The white cube fetishized by reductionist formalism is wittily and irreverently turned in on itself; sharp edges and splintering cuts carved out by the tungsten carbide of the router blade hint at the quasi-pornographic injunction to look but not touch.

This is certainly not the Samaras of rhinestone and razor blades. Cool and restrained, the “Cubes,” like the “Trapezoids,” 1994, play elegant games with the languages of high Modernism—of geometric form and monochrome painting. Painted indentations in three-by-two-foot Formica panels, the “Trapezoids” are made of the same mute gray-browns as the “Cubes”—all based on the Nevamar Formica that seems, by turns, blankly corporate and almost wistfully expressive. Hard edges dissolve in the play of light, and surfaces that initially seemed to reflect light start to absorb it. Ironic asides, the skewed angles and wonky forms suggest a deflated language that marks nothing but an exhausted legacy.

Against this cool formal language, Samaras places the hotter forms of the “Pragmata.” Here, bronze, the dung of high art, is manipulated into a form that cries out to be touched. The third element in this tripartite glossary of the cube, the “Pragmata” series, provides an interesting twist. Samaras seems to suggest that the language of art—stuck, as if in some perpetually anal phase—is simply an exercise in control carried out with elegance and precision, and aimed at little more than the formalization of history’s excretia.

Neville Wakefield