New York

Lucas Samaras

Pace Wildenstein

Self-proclaimed “urban hermit” Lucas Samaras is well known for his innumerable self-portraits. Some of these are photographs, most are paintings, but perhaps the most famous is his series “Photo Transformations,” 1973–76, which was made by manipulating the emulsion of Polaroid photographs as they self-developed. The strategy evokes the “desire to interfere” that Salvador Dalí proposed as a key element of Surrealism. It also extends Max Ernst’s frottage technique into new, hallucinatory territory. Further, it is an example of what André Breton called “paranoiac-critical activity,” a “spontaneous method of ‘irrational knowledge’ ” involving “delirious associations.”

Samaras has been making faces at himself in the chemical mirror of the photographic surface ever since. He is playfully modernist in his reckless contortion of the medium. It is almost as though he is rebelling against the comfortable flatness that it has long since settled into. The artist’s recent exhibition consisted of a selection of Photoshop-manipulated photographs from the series “Vertiginous,” 2007–2008; Samaras’s own grandiose person has here, it seems, gone underground, where every good surrealist disappears in search of inspiration.

Chairs, as he notes in the exhibition catalogue, have always been an inspiration for Samaras. Over the years he has sought them out and transformed them into art in a variety of delirious, uncanny ways. Those shown at PaceWildenstein are milder than their predecessors in “Chair Transformations,” 1969–70, and have been more simplistically aestheticized, with slick, easygoing color, but Samaras still has some magic left up his sleeve. He may declare that he is through with “transformation, distortion . . . gruesomeness, the German element . . . assault,” but his new chairs, while less distorted, gruesome, and Germanic than before, are the subjects of transformation nonetheless.

Samaras appears to have relaxed of late; he feels more tenderly toward objects and is more comfortable with himself. The chairs, all found on the city’s streets—the artist is hardly as reclusive as he pretends to be—may be used, abused, and discarded, but they are also performers in a kind of street theater. Further, they are self-symbols— Samaras spends a lot of time sitting at his computer—and mythopoetic personifications of his emergent goodwill (remember the macabre nastiness of his early paintings of critics, dealers, and artists, projections of necrophilia onto art-world “types”?). But they are also memento mori, some of them marking moments in his personal history. The bicycle and upturned chair in Vertiginous 2326, 2007, for example, allude to an accident he had while riding in Central Park, and the plaster cast of a Greek statue in Vertiginous 2672, 2007, reminds us of his nationality.

In a poem that concludes the catalogue, Samaras notes that “Kuspit stopped by,” as I irregularly do. “He was looking for distortions and jolt,” the artist erroneously continues, projecting his unconscious longing for them onto me. He may feel he’s losing his creative powers—that they’ve become superficial coloring on the bare-bones existence he pretends to live (symbolized by the skeleton-like chair)—but his work retains a subjective depth. His whimsical new philosophicality suggests that he remains as full of rambling self-absorption as ever, but his increasing fascination with street junk (“crummy kitsch”) signals that he can see beyond himself. He avoids the fate of Narcissus by investing himself in external reality, suggesting that he knew all along he was constructing a theatrical artifice rather than a self he could truly call his own.

Donald Kuspit