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Art: Menaced Skin

6 minute read
Robert Hughes

When Lucas Samaras was a small boy in Macedonia, his father was the village furrier. “I spent a couple of summers in the business to find out what it was all about,” he recalls. “Part of it was to stretch wet skins, fur down, on a board and pin the edges down. Later, when the skin is dry, you remove the pins and the skin is hard.” In some ways this fragment of memory suggests the works of art Samaras was to make in adulthood: the pins, the textures, the extreme sensual contrasts (soft hair against the stink of tanning and death), the transformation from moist pliability to crackly parchment.

But today the skin is not an animal’s; it is, so to speak, his own. Samaras’ retrospective, which opens this week at Manhattan’s Whitney Museum, is a singular and fascinating record of anxious self-inspection.

Samaras’ physical context is that of American art. He is not a “Greek” artist. He moved to New York in 1948, after a childhood spent in the atmosphere of war and civil war in Greece. He was only eleven and, as he remembers it, a “trembling, mother-clutching neurotic.” But in his birthplace, he says, “I built up whatever was necessary for my unconscious. Greece became like my dreams, my sleep. America is what I am when I’m awake. My art is a curious mixture of this.” With Samaras the image becomes, almost literally, an “embodiment” of his sense of self and a menacing world; the condition of being in a universe which looks at the same time disjointed, visually exotic, but ultimately perverse.

Boxes figure large in his work; and each box, with its lid and compartments and sliding drawers, is a microcosm. At first one is seduced by the greeny blue, aquarium-like interior of Box 17 (Box C). Then the eye discerns the contents, wavering amid their reflections from the walls: a glass goblet filled with a bouquet not of flowers but of vicious glass shards; a morbified pink foot; a small geometrical plastic construction, reclining like a tiny fakir on a bed of nails.

Samaras’ sense of texture is acute, and he uses it to produce visual effects that are almost physically painful. His boxes bristle with pins and blades and wires; a pocket edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy gapes and a pair of scissors holding a double-edged Gillette razor snicks out of it; a stuffed bird. Box 55, nestles in a bed composed not of twigs but of thousands upon thousands of sharp glass fragments. The textures, in short, are not to be touched; they are real enough to wound, but they do not pertain to the “real” world. Samaras brings such contradictions to an excruciating pitch by, among other devices, his use of color—brilliant loops and stripes of rainbow-dyed wool, confetti patterns of dots and painted flecks, drawerfuls of costume-jewelry sequins, crusts of rhinestone and glitter.

Some of his boxes are so perverse in their tawdriness that they resemble a makeup case for Medusa. Every object is overloaded to bursting with visual acerbity, mocking the very idea of everyday use. There is no way of using any of the Chair Transformations that Samaras made in 1969-70; one cannot sit on a cage of plastic flowers, or a chair of white formica which, halfway, turns into a mess of varicolored wool, or a seat with a five-inch spike rising from its exact center.

Manic as Samaras’ “transformations” are, they still possess a system and a history; his subverted objects have a common ancestor in Meret Oppenheim’s surrealist icon of 1936, the fur-covered cup, saucer and spoon. Yet they are not mere footnotes to Surrealism. Samaras has a way of undercutting, or predicting, his more “mainstream” contemporaries; in 1961, for instance, he laid 16 square textured tiles flat on the ground, four by four, as a sculpture. In the Whitney, it looks like a waggish parody of Carl Andre’s floor pieces—until you remember Andre’s sculptures were made years later.

Samaras is not the most easily approachable of men. His efforts seem governed by Gide’s famous plea, “Do not understand me too quickly.” Compared with many other New York artists his age (36), he is almost a hermit. He shuns the art-world circuit, living and working in a cluttered container of a brownstone apartment in Manhattan which, in its contents, resembles one of his own boxes. An ironic reclusiveness directs his talk. Conversations are apt to falter and go brown under that sharp gaze. This is part of a strategy common to Samaras’ art as well. “People go about,” he says, “being nice or un-nice, talking to you with monotonous expectations until you do something to make them stop; then you wait for them to get their balance and you watch them reconsidering you. It’s implied that you know something about them—otherwise you couldn’t know how to go against the grain. The surprises may not always be beneficial, but I find that I need to give to others a sharp kick in their head’s ass.”

Epic of Narcissism. One reason—perhaps the main reason—why Samaras has been such an upsetting presence in New York is that his privacy alter nates with moments of obsessive, and for some people embarrassing self-display. Thus in 1964 he took the whole contents of the room he had occupied in his parents’ house and exhibited them at the Green Gallery (“In my mind I was giving myself the honor of making my living space as important as any thing else, before posterity had the chance to do it or not do it”), giving his mess the dignity of a historical style, like a period room at the Metropolitan. Part of his Whitney retrospective is devoted to Autophotographs—Polaroid snapshots Samaras made of his own body. Bizarre, candid and mostly unreproducible (by now, Samaras must have the most lavishly documented penis in Western art), they constitute a veritable epic of narcissism. “I could tune up or tone down emotion. I could move a little to the left or shift this and that and be my own critic, my own exciter, my own director, my own audience.”

A closed system indeed: the hope of Samaras’ work is to be self-fertilizing, like the mythical hermaphrodite. Everything in it returns, sooner or later, upon the self. The body becomes an artifact and in turn generates more ground on which art can claim a similarity to organism.

It seems only fitting that Samaras, whose every work alludes in some way or another to his body—by photography and metaphor, by testing it with textures and pains and memory—should have made a narcissist’s mausoleum in the form of his Mirror Room: a twelve-foot cube lined with reflecting surfaces, an endless labyrinth in three dimensions. One imagines the artist at home in it, lying perfectly at ease on the crystal floor, his image multiplied to a gratifying infinity.

∎ Robert Hughes

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