Lucas Samaras 1936 —
"Do it first," he says, "or do it best."
"Working in multi-medias and multi modernist styles, Lucas Samaras is both artist and theoretician who regards his life as an art object. In his work, he has combined Performance Art, and many forms of abstraction including post-Dadaism, post-Surrealism, and post-Abstract Expressionism".
Samaras works as he lives - alone, with no assistants, his studio, is a tiny techno aerie more than 30 stories above the city, is just large enough to contain a couple of iMacs, some high-end video equipment, thick rows of draped bead necklaces curtaining one wall, some similarly draped power cords, and a narrow galley kitchen. "The inside part is I have been living devoid of daily contact with, and nightly contact, with people - totally devoid, except for what I see on television. But I think the mind, at whatever age, cannot reject all the stuff that came in with this mind's upbringing. Heads or faces of people are important even if you reject them for 10, 20 years. So I said, 'Fuck it, I'll let them come in, but in this way: They come in, I photograph them, and I work on their faces for hours or a couple of days. And then I'll get to learn more about their faces than I would normally.'" It's not difficult to understand why portraits have a greater significance for a man who lives as an urban hermit than for those used to daily social interaction, nor why so many faces suddenly thrust upon a loner might take on a sinister or gargoyle like cast. Still, although some of the subjects appear devilish or demonic, what unites the disparate images in the series is a sense of theater, of dramatization.
LUCAS SAMARAS (Greek b. 1936 -)
Lucas Samaras studied at Rutgers University on a scholarship, where he met Allan Kaprow and George Segal. While at Rutgers, he joined Gamma Sigma (Rutgers). He participated in Kaprow's "Happenings," and posed for Segal's plaster sculptures. Claes Oldenburg, whose Happenings he also participated in, later referred to Samaras as one of the "New Jersey school," which also included Kaprow, Segal, George Brecht, Robert Whitman, Robert Watts, Geoffrey Hendricks and Roy Lichtenstein. Samaras previously worked in painting, sculpture, and performance art, before beginning work in photography.
He subsequently constructed room environments that contained elements from his own personal history. His "Auto-Interviews" were a series of text works that were "self-investigatory" interviews. The primary subject of his photographic work is his own self-image, generally distorted and mutilated. He has worked with multi-media collages, and by manipulating the wet dyes in Polaroid photographic film to create what he calls "Photo-Transformations".
"Do it first," he says, "or do it best." In the late 1950s and early '60s, he participated in the initial happenings. He made a floor-piece sculpture with interchangeable parts some five years before Carl Andre made his name with one. He created some of the earliest immersive environments. The altered Polaroid self-portraits of his 1973-76 series "Photo-transformations" anticipated many effects later made possible by Photoshop, a tool he embraced immediately. "I feel connected to Photoshop," he says, "because I did stuff of a Photoshop nature 10 years before Photoshop came, so there's a kind of relationship, a family thing." He began shooting digital a decade ago. His prestige is now great enough and his friendship (usually telephonic) sufficiently valued to lure such subjects for "Poses" as David Byrne, Glenn Lowry, Leonard Lauder, Cindy Sherman, Agnes Gund, Evelyn de Rothschild, Chuck Close, and Alex Katz.
Most of us are used to locating all portraits somewhere on a scale between literal likeness and idealization, which in photography tends to involve a lot of airbrushing and such. Samaras - who not coincidentally studied acting with Stella Adler - invites us to consider the fictive, in the form of the theatrical, as the best way to convey psychological truth. His pictures implicitly reject the notion that who we are remains fixed from day to day, that a pose is any less true than whatever the opposite of a pose might be. He does not pretend to offer an objective, unadulterated image, nor is he trying to portray his subjects in their best light; rather he provides a stage for them to act on. Jasper Johns hams it up in five of the pictures. Is the stern Johns, peering over his glasses, his skin a zinc-gray monotone except around the eyes and ears, where it glows radioactively, more real than the benign, faintly grinning, rosy-faced Johns?
In his 1978-80 series of photographic portraits "Sittings," Samaras asked his subjects to strip and present themselves as they wished and then jumped in the frame with them. The dramatic tension came from the ways in which his sitters offered or hid their unclad bodies, as well as from the contrast between the vulnerable naked subject and the clothed artist. The drama in "Poses" results partly from Samaras's directorial ability to elicit a performance from a static subject and partly from the theatrical effects he adds later using Photoshop.
If Samaras's portraits reject the notion of a fixed psychological essence, they implicitly accept physical mutability, the fact that from moment to moment, we never turn the same face to the world. Thus Samaras will not allow in his portraits "certain natural mistakes" like pimples or scratches, both of which might be true to a person's likeness today but not that of yesterday or tomorrow. By not including transient blemishes that might call undue attention to themselves, distracting the viewer, Samaras hopes to impose a kind of seamlessness on the act of viewing. Intrinsic oddities, "a nose too big or a crooked eye or whatever - that's not a problem," he says, "as long as it's aesthetically pleasing to me."
What's important to understand is that Samaras's Photoshop interventions are in the service of neither literal representation nor idealization. He aims for drama and what he defines as nobility. "Any face can give you a variety of psychological roles that it can play," he explains. "But sometimes you want to help them. You don't want to express something that does not enrich them. I don't mind a face resembling a gargoyle as long as it's a grand gargoyle instead of a stupid gargoyle. As long as it's excellent and noble and not pedestrian." He hasn't, for instance, edited out the strands straying from Kim Levin's mop of hair or smoothed away the wrinkles in her neck, yet by placing her against a violet background, highlighting the area around her intently gazing eyes, and emphasizing the ridges on her blouse, he points up her mournful grace.
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View synoptic biography below.
In 1997 Tarek Fahmy obtained an interview with Lucas Samaras.
"This was my first official interview of any type. Naturally, I was feeling a bit nervous and anxious during the weeks preceding my meeting with Lucas Samaras. Some of the books I read mentioned Samaras' introversion and sometimes aggressive nature, which naturally added to my pre-interview jitters. It seems like anyone that was familiar with Samaras told me how hard it would be to interview him, even certain individuals that worked in art galleries and dealt with the artist directly. But I certainly didn't let it get to me.
I arrived at the Pace Gallery, where the interview was to take place, thirty minutes late. My heart was frantically beating. The first thing I saw was a dense mass of white hair surrounding two intense eyes. I took a deep breath, and introduced myself, and apologized for my lateness. We then walked to an office in the back, closed the door, and started the interview.
I had prepared myself for the interview by reading anything that mentioned his name. I then looked at as much of his art as I could; I attended his recent Pace Gallery show numerous times. I also researched Greek History, specifically from WWII to the end of the Civil War that followed, because of the influence it had on his life and art. Samaras, at a very young age, experienced the bombings and atrocities of the Greek Civil War. At age eleven, he moved to America, which was drastically different from Macedonia. This history surely had a profound influence on his artwork.
I had decided not to bring a tape recorder because I wanted to be completely present and absorbed in the conversation. One of the first things I wanted to address was his portraits, specifically the eyes and their intense and sometimes scary gaze. He said that he likes to observe human behavior. Further, he picks out certain weaknesses that are usually defended by an aggressive nature. If those weaknesses threaten him, he'll act accordingly. On the other hand, if those weaknesses are not covered up, he'll accept them and may even crack a joke about them. I feel that his art addresses peoples' numerous social facades or, as I like to call them, their fakes. I asked him, "Are you addressing the divided self or the fakeness of people's social personalities?" He gazed intensely into my eyes for a few seconds that felt more like years. Then he replied that what I was referring to as fakeness, in his view, is defensiveness. "People cover up their weaknesses," he said.
At that moment, I sensed that the conversation was gaining a psychological momentum, so I asked, "So, do you cover up your weaknesses?" I knew that the answer was an obvious "yes," but I wanted to hear him say it. To my dismay, he replied that this question wasn't really suitable. Yet, five seconds later, he posed the same question to me. Samaras evaded many questions, instead turning the attention on me by asking me personal questions. I didn't mind at all, however, because by being open with him, I hoped that he might be open with me. I replied with a resounding "Yes. I do use defensive mechanisms." I also told him that certain times I'd adopt the aggressive city-dweller mask to hide my fears. I was being way to open with him, but I felt that his art, specifically the self-portraits and the photo-transformations, reminded me of those anxious feelings.
The next phase of the conversation dealt with art as a purely subjective or purely objective practice. I perceive Samaras' work as entirely subjective and radically egocentric because it deals with the self and its various roles. I asked him whether he believes that art should be subjective or objective. He said my question was too general and I needed to be more specific. So I asked him directly, "Do you think of your audience while working, or not?" He replied that he is conscious of the audience while working, but he made a point to say that that was not a major priority in his work. "If you are aware of your audience," I returned, "does that mean that money is one of the motivations of your artistic practice?" He seemed a bit concerned and bothered. "Money definitely isn't a motivation," he replied. But then he said that an artist has to be realistic unless he is crazy and paints entirely for himself. He referred to the image of the artist as a loner or hermit. He gave me the impression that the image of the modern artist as an outcast is outdated and not realistic.
I then asked him, "Why do you paint?" He said he paints because he needs to paint. He gave me a Freudian-like example to illustrate his point. He told me that the mother is the symbol of care, love, and true bonding, and the source of motivation for the child. But there comes a time when the child has to break the bond and take care of himself. Further, he must replace those feelings of joy and bliss since the mother is not a valid source anymore. Art replenishes him emotionally and supplies him with those infantile but life supporting feelings. He further stated that he needs these moments monthly, to be exact. "Are you saying that people aren't a reliable source for these feelings?" I asked. Without hesitation, he made me aware that I was getting too personal. It was time for me to focus on a different topic.
I decided to ask him, "Do you have a clear picture in your head before you start painting, or do you depend more on impulse and intuition?" He made it a point that the separation between impulse and thinking is not as black and white as I proposed. Rather, they are more intertwined and complicated. Impulse involves a bit of thinking, and vice versa. He explained that he doesn't have an absolute or final image before he starts to work, but also that his process is not purely instinctual.
I really enjoyed and cherished the interview with Lucas Samaras. Contrary to all previous warnings, he turned out to be very open, helpful, friendly, and articulate. I ended the interview by asking him about the importance of art history. He believes that any artist needs to know the past in order to move to the future. Then I asked him, "Where do you think art is heading?" He looked at me, smiled a bit, and uttered, "What a stupid question." I felt like I needed to defend myself and I told him that my professor had thought this would be a suitable question to ask. He replied, "Tell your professor that I told you that it was a stupid question. If I knew where art was heading, I would be there right now."
This interview, with Mr. Samaras, was published in Visual Opinion Magazine in May, 1997
The Lucas Samaras retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Armerican Art in 2004 was the modernist high-point of many art seasons. Lucas Samaras represented Greece at the 53rd International Art Exhibition, The Venice Biennale (June 7- November 22, 2009) with the multi-installation "PARAXENA" in the Greek Pavilion in the Giardini.
Works by the Artist are in museums in America and Europe and Asia including among many, the Pompideau Centre, Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and San Francisco MOMA Works by Samaras are included in the collections of numerous public art institutions, including The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, the Courtauld Institute of Art (London), the Getty Museum (Los Angeles), the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Modern Art Museum (Fort Worth, Texas), the Museum of Contemporary Art (Los Angeles), the Museum of Modern Art (New York City), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Australia (Canberra), the National Gallery of ArtSmithsonian American Art Museum (Washington D.C.), the Tate Gallery (London), the Walker Art Center (Minnesota), the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York City), and the National Gallery (Athens). (Washington D.C.), the
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