Lucas Samaras

The first thought that came into my head at the Lucas Samaras exhibition at PaceWildenstein uptown last November was, “Why isn’t he having this retrospective in a New York museum?” After all, the last Gotham-grown one for him was way back in 1972, at the Whitney; the one after that was organized way out in Denver in 1988, and the most recent, in 1991, took place in Japan. Given the conventional appreciation of Samaras as our best dissenting stylistic loner during the heyday of Minimalism, you’d think that someone other than the artist’s gallery—as prestigious as it may be—would have staged this show.

Samaras’ problem may have something to do with the two ways you can regard him (in terms of recent art history, at least) as a singular artist. The more attractive interpretation sees Samaras essentially as an outsider artist, with just enough slickness to attract the attention of Arne Glimcher. You know, the magnetic animal just barely couth enough to put on a tux and make a whole cocktail party swoon because he’s so, well, different. The somewhat less attractive view (toward which I am inclined) sees an adroit, thoroughly art-world-educated-artist with just enough native eccentricity and capriciousness to keep him from getting bogged down in a school, or movement. Samaras’ biography certainly bears out this interpretation: only twelve years old when he came to America from Macedonia, he did four years as a student at Rutgers, landed a 1959 solo show at the (pardon the pun) happenin’ Reuben Gallery at age twenty-three, and went back for a stint at Columbia that got him a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship for art history. We’re talking erudition and caginess here, not naive genius.

All of which, of course, has little or nothing to do with how good the work is. Samaras’ famously variegated art—paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, boxes, slanting chairs, encrusted objects—reveals his artistic talent to be a collection of dexterities. He’s a whiz at pastel. He can do colored-pencil Surrealism as well as any underground comics cover artist. His delicate assemblage has the touch of one who can put ships in bottles. Incidentally, his quasi-performance-art photography displays an amazing body for a guy who’s sixty. (It’s neither collapsing nor obsessively gym-buffed, just supple.) Most of these talents converge, express or implied, in his Polaroid “Photo-Transformations,” 1973–76, the subject of the simultaneous show at PaceWildenstein downtown. (Samaras seized upon the fact that Polaroids, fresh out of the camera, stay gooey for a while, and can be physically manipulated.) By confining himself in this series not only to a single medium, but also to a 3-by-3-inch format (especially in the way the Polaroids are hung in an austere frieze all the way around the gallery), Samaras makes the “Photo-Transformations” into the best vehicle for the artist’s distinct blend of navel-gazing and voguing.

But, taken as a whole, Samaras’ work labors under a specter of effeteness. There are just a little too many concocted instances of bright-on-black (you can almost hear Samaras saying “jewel-like” to himself), too many toujours gai strands of spectral yarn, too many fallings back to “quilt” as a compositional fail-safe. And with the abjectified body popping up everywhere in popular culture, Samaras’ arty notion of Gothic sexuality comes off as somewhat stuffy, even academic. Samaras certainly reminds you of parts of a hell of a lot of other people: Alfonso Ossorio, Richard Merkin, Robert Hudson, Donald Lipski, Jean Dubuffet, Saul Steinberg, and others. So it’s really the meld of resemblances that give Samaras his artistic personality, rather than some claim to aesthetic virgin birth.

In the end, Samaras looks better in the pages of the catalogue than on the walls of the gallery. The catalogue for the dual exhibition (the “Kiss Kill,” “Perverted Geometry,” “Inedibles,” and “Self-Absorption” mix uptown and the “Photo-Transformations” downtown) boasts the same kind of size (medium-small), form (as much like a box as a book), and complexity (a French window cover, spiral binding both left and right, and different kinds of paper) as a Samaras original. What ostensibly distinguishes it from a work of art—its mechanically produced nature and the fact that all its images are “reproductions”—actually makes it better. Samaras is not a genuinely confessional artist. He exposes himself, but he never admits anything. He likes being framed, under glass, enclosed in a vitrine, more than he wants to be live, onstage. He needs a layer of transparent insulation between himself and his public. This elegant little catalogue—a kind of budget version of Duchamp’s Boîte-en-Valise, 1936–41—gives it to him. So if you missed the show, try to get a copy of the catalogue. It’ll just about compensate.

Peter Plagens is a painter and the art critic for Newsweek magazine.