New York

Lucas Samaras

Whitney Museum of American Art

“Unrepentant Ego: The Self-Portraits of Lucas Samaras” wasted no time and exercised suitably little restraint in announcing its larger-than-life subject/object, emblazoning the entrance to the exhibition with a colossal photograph of the artist’s face. Of course, Samaras’s career-long project of relentless self-scrutiny has always had theatrical power to spare. Over the last five decades, the Greek-born New Yorker has deployed performative nerve, killer technique, and sheer obsessive force of will to produce what is among the most vivid personal documentary programs in the history of artmaking. A Narcissus who fell into his own reflection and began happily splashing away, he’s made a spectacle not only of himself but of the self, as few others have.

Underlying the show’s marquee treatment of its star were real scope and substance: Curator Marla Prather’s strategic orchestration of the survey’s four-hundred-odd objects brought the ripening of Samaras’s extravagant self-involvement to life. Harbingers could be found among the exhibition’s earliest works. In the last two frames of a quartet of untitled ink-on-paper pieces from 1962 and 1963, for example, ribbons of rainbow-colored lettering spell out the message LUCAS LOVES / LUCAS—a beautifully simple, characteristically candid linguistic elaboration of the solipsistic feedback loop that would come to power Samaras’s entire enterprise.

The exhibition reflected the artist’s diversity, including sturdy pastels and expert cut-paper pieces, as well as extraordinary work from the mid-’60s that addresses interiority via skeletal physiology (in the form of both exquisite drawings and x-ray images modified with celestial arrays of silver pushpins.) These same pins show up in a number of Samaras’s signature multimedia boxes on view throughout the galleries. Messier and more dynamic than the Cornell works that they superficially recall, the boxes function like the three-dimensional organs of Samaras’s corpus; meanwhile, the hundreds of photographs that dominated the show are a kind of skin, a porous membrane that encourages viewers to pass into the various states of mind and body they depict.

Samaras first picked up a Polaroid camera in 1969—his AutoPolaroids of 1969–71 are characterized by a giddy fascination with the technology’s immediacy and its ability to multiply the body. In pictures from this period, Samaras is all feet and hands and gut and ass: Like a latter-day Pierre Molinier with a less pronounced kinky streak, he pokes and prods himself in the privacy of his rooms, one moment coquettishly disguising his nakedness with a bouquet of flowers, the next cheerfully photograping his penis bobbing in the bathwater. Two AutoPolaroid suites that involve rudimentary costuming read like a preemptive parody of Cindy Sherman, but Samaras’s burgeoning self-reimaginings rarely involve conventional disguises. Instead they emerge in the form of hand-applied multicolored ink dots that create a kind of pointillist miasma in which his figure floats; these deformations are a bridge between the perforations of the artist’s early work and the wholesale distortions of his unparalleled Photo-Transformations of the years to follow. Taking advantage of the new Polaroid SX-70 (the first to output photographs that developed in plain view), Samaras began in 1973 to manipulate his emul- sions, producing the compositionally destabilized images for which he is best known. Often shot in his apartment amid scrims and lighted set pieces and finished with gestural smears and warping squiggles, these works have a claustrophobic intensity that sometimes seems to draw on classic masterworks—the screeching maw of one image suggesting Bacon; the radiating “wounds” of another like some Renaissance Saint Sebastian.

In the years following the Photo-Transformations, Samaras’s stylistic evolution continued to track technological developments. The larger-format Polaroid film he used in the late ’70s and early ’80s allowed for visually playful “Where’s Lucas?” games in the strategically cluttered environments of his Still Life series and for the comically creepy Sitting works, formal portraits of friends in various stages of undress that, along with Self (1969), a charmingly anarchic twenty-three-minute cinematic self-portrait Samaras made with critic Kim Levin, provide the show’s only evidence of life on earth outside its protagonist’s bubble. Samaras’s Panoramas, collaged photo strips that dominate the ’80s, give way in the ’90s to increasing use of computer manipulation, resulting in works that seem uncharacteristically distanced from the hand. Yet there are moments of genuine grace: A self-portrait from 1996 shows Samaras in all his autumnal glory, his still-lithe body in a pose that has more than a whiff of finely aged beefcake about it.

In one of the show’s wall texts, Samaras acknowledges a desire to be “my own critic, my own exciter, my own director, my own audience.” If “Unrepentant Ego” confirmed that this closed-circuit system of self-reference is operative throughout the artist’s production, it also made clear his allied impulse toward exteriority and openness, his engagement not just with his own identity but with the nature of identity itself, concretized in a manner that implicitly suggests a supplementary, externalized audience. Indeed, the artist’s observation, foregrounded as a sort of epigraph for the show, that “professional self-investigation—which is what a good self portrait is—is as noble a search as any other” would also seem to signal an awareness of his project’s situation within the social world and a recognition that no matter how hermetic the conditions of their creation, sufficiently penetrating forms of self-expression have the power to communicate meaningfully beyond the context of the individual.

“I am a natural body,” Samaras told Barbara Rose in 1978, echoing, intentionally or not, another idiosyncratic New Yorker who likewise grew gray and bearded before his audience, who a century and a half ago also sang the vibrant self, with its many pleasures and terrors. “Urge and urge and urge / Always the procreant urge of the world,” wrote Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself,” a blast of self-actualization whose bracing textures provide a kind of music against which to set Samaras’s wondrous investigations into what it means to be. “Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex, / Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.”

Jeffrey Kastner is a New York–based critic.