MORGAN LIBRARY & MUSEUM/CRAIG F. STARR GALLERY, NEW YORK
TWO CONCURRENT EXHIBITIONS devoted to the early work of Lucas Samaras underscore the artist’s adoption of mediums often perceived as odd, even marginal, when compared to the more familiar tropes of easel painting. Born in Greece in 1936 and enduring a war-ravaged childhood, Samaras arrived in the United States in 1948. His ceaseless drawing as a boy presaged an output whose quixotic estrangements are perhaps traceable to his immigrant experience. While a scholarship student at Rutgers University in New Jersey in the late 1950s, he fell in with a troupe of artists exploring the expressionist reach of what would come to be called Pop art: These artistsGeorge Segal and Claes Oldenburg among themwere central to the Happenings then being invented at the school by Allan Kaprow. The immersive, counterproscenium events of repetitive bodily movements and isolated sound briefly managed to displace the pretensions of a plot-driven, realist theaterat least for an underground audience up for Fluxus-tinged distraction.
In the ’60s, Samaras began making boxes reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell. Hallucinogenic accumulations of straight pins, gaudy spangles, and images of body parts, these works embodied a distinctly fetishistic eroticism; Surrealism is the source, despite the artist’s frequent and implausible statements to the contrary.This vein continues through Samaras’s important “AutoPolaroids,” 1969–71, a series comprising thousands of black-and-white and color Polaroids, sixty-three examples of which were recently on view at Craig F. Starr Gallery. Among these, the Surrealist influence was clearest in an unnerving pair that show the artist’s head bound by twine, the images bringing to mind similar photographs taken by Man Ray, Hans Bellmer, or the gender-ambiguous Claude Cahun.
In the black-and-white “AutoPolaroids,” colored passages are added by hand in the form of exquisite ink stippling, conveying an intense sense of constricted auto-eroticism. This is further stressed by an obsessive paralleling of fingerprint-like trails that silhouette the artist’s hands, feet, buttocksbody parts all revealed in the artist’s theatrically Mannerist posesnot to speak of his nicely hung (it is absurd to pretend not to notice) genitals. Samaras’s “AutoPolaroids” would shortly be followed by the artist’s better-known “Photo-Transformations,” 1973–76, for which the actual chemical surfaces of the Polaroid’s colored layers were dragged, tugged, and smudged, thus further deforming the artist’s own bodily features. The formal import and interpretive possibilities of both series far overshadow, at least for me, Samaras’s airless, techno-digital work of recent years. That said, what has been sustained for decades now is the artist’s adamant compartmentalization of work germane to a particular medium and/or techniquein this case, the now-defunct Polaroid itself. Yet Samaras is not privileging the formal possibilities particular to the Polaroidthese works are not about the “picture plane” or “post-painterly abstraction,” to mention once potent, now dated, critical memesrather, he is insisting on the primacy of the artist’s will in the creative process. The artist is a surrogate Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s literary embodiment of the autonomy of art. Thus Samaras’s work is also situated at a sharp angle to the advertising-derived, declarative range of Pop (think Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein), however much it has been pressed into the Pop fold.
AT THE MORGAN LIBRARY & MUSEUM, meanwhile, curator Isabelle Dervaux organized an exhibition of forty-eight of Samara’s pastels. Created between 1958 and 1983, these worksa recent gift to the institutionshare an expressionist terrain with contemporaneous pastels by Segal. Segal, however, tended to favor the hulking female form, whereas Samaras, as noted, is drawn to details of his own face or to bodily particularities. Occasionally, these representations are tinged with ecclesiastical references: the uprisen finger in a work from 1965, with its invocations of John the Baptist; a buffed fingernail shaped like a bishop’s miter in a piece from the same year; or the floating Odilon Redon–ish eyes in works from the early ’80s. Others are executed in a more factitious, naive modeUntitled, 1958, on red construction paper, for example, or the generic abstract subdivisions of 1974. Largely stripped of the simpering hues conveyed by the adjective pastel, these works are often bright and strongly patterned, speaking to a catch-as-catch-can chromatics derived from Henri Matisse and Edvard Munch.
To be sure, pastel is in itself an iffy medium, reliant on sticks of crumbly pigment held together by sheer pressure and simple binders: The title of the Morgan exhibition, “Dreams in Dust,” says it all. While the works on view in that show spanned a quarter century, the Starr exhibition showcased only three years of production. This focuscoupled with the intrinsic immediacy of the photographic medium as opposed to the messiness of pastelallowed for a far greater punch and sting.
With regard to the sheer ambiguity of Samaras’s oeuvre, it is significant that the medium of pastel was once largely the province of “women’s art,” thanks, in part, to the prestige of the accomplished Venetian pastelist Rosalba Carriera (1675–1757); in time, she became the medium’s patron saint, admired by the flourishing societies of pastelists during the late nineteenth century, which had a disproportionately female membership. That Samarashowever much his efforts would have struck these genteel ladies as unadulterated devilrycreated the representative modern achievements in this obdurate medium is astonishing. Then again, as so much of his work occupies a gender-bending zone of insinuation, perhaps not.
Robert Pincus-Witten is a contributing editor of Artforum.