I, Narcissist

Artist Lucas Samaras Peers into the Looking Glass and Sees Himself Over and Over Again

Isn't everything Lucas Samaras has ever done a self-portrait of sorts? That's the point of an exhibition of some 350 of his dazzling works that opens at the Whitney Museum in November. Depicting himself as a young nude satyr in an early painting, he gazes not at us but at himself. His face peeks out from within pin- and yarn-encrusted boxes and elaborately patterned pastels of the '60s, Auto-Polaroids and PhotoTransformations of the '70s, and cut paper drawings and ink studies of the '80s. In the '90s he is still scrutinizing himself in startling photographs, only time has turned him into a gray-bearded wizard. Even when he seems absent from his work, symbols, monograms, vacant chairs, or mirrored containers that multiply his reflection serve as surrogates. And on the rare occasions when other people appear in his pictures, as in the Sittings, the artist lurks in each photograph, staring back at the camera. Since virtually his whole gloriously narcissistic oeuvre, from the '50s to now, consists of mutations of himself, his visage, his body, and his name, this exhibition—while focusing on anything that has to do with his persona—can certainly be called a retrospective. In fact, "Unrepentant Ego: The Self-Portraits of Lucas Samaras" (November 13-February 8), is his first full-blown retrospective in the city since 1972, before the current crop of young artists was even born.

No one would mistake Samaras for a new kid on the block, despite the fact that he exhibited his cluttered bedroom at Green Gallery in 1964, eons before the teenage bedroom shows and accumulative aesthetic of small works that have proliferated lately. He's been around since the days when he acted in early Happenings. But his contrary, mercurial, prolific work has been such a ubiquitous presence, never quite fitting the mold of whatever was going on, that some tended to relegate him to the status of eccentric loner, ignoring his innovations and, yes, perennial influence. Let's not forget that in the 1960s and '70s his dazzlingly protean and excessive art offered alternatives to Minimal and Conceptual severity, or that he was sewing, pinning, and using scissors and glue before women's lib burst on the scene. Or that he elevated craft materials and amateur techniques back when they were major taboos. But his greatest, and least acknowledged, contribution has been in the area of photography. He was snapping himself in various guises, with wigs and with guile, a decade before Cindy Sherman came along with her movie stills. He was morphing his image by warping the emulsion on Polaroid film long before anyone dreamed of digital manipulation or Photoshop. In fact, the history of photography's acceptance as art is inextricably tied up with his radical use of an instant film technology meant for laymen.

Having started out with the first TP-X camera in 1969, before Polaroid's scientists had figured out how to set the emulsion, Samaras's photographs progressed along with the technology. In 1973 he began using the SX-70. By the late '70s he was experimenting with oversize Polaroid cameras and film: 8x10, 20x24, room size. In the mid '80s he did Panoramas. And now, for the past year or so, he has been working with computers. "When I began using Photoshop and a Leica digital, I was so thrilled I was beside myself," he says. "I started going to Central Park, it was wintertime, and I fell in love with the ducks. While I was doing that I sort of discovered the park. The camera, it's almost like a magical thing. It likes or it doesn't like. At this stage I didn't think I was going to photograph myself again nude but the camera liked it." And so there he is, a shrunken green sprite lurking in the foliage. A disembodied genie, a melting gnome, a doubling hermit, or a flock of cloned creatures in digital works that recall everything he has ever done while reinventing the bandshell, the 86th Street transverse police building, Bethesda fountain, and a columned bathroom into phantasmagorical settings for his virtual likeness. In one, appearing as a centaur-like duck, the artist is about to take a dip. A dozen or so of these new photo-fictions will be at the Whitney. A couple more will be in his solo show in November at PaceWildenstein.


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"Unrepentant Ego: The Self-Portraits of Lucas Samaras," November 13-February 8, Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, 212-570-3633. TBA title, November 11-January 17, PaceWildenstein, 32 East 57th Street, 212-421-3292.

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October 10-November 15
GORNEY BRAVIN + LEE, 534 WEST 26TH STREET, 212.352.8372

Stockholder asked 30 fellow artists to contribute works for this solo show, and she plans to absorb them all into her own improvised installation, using works by Peter Halley, Joe Scanlan, Tim Davis, Cindy Sherman, and a bunch of others as readymade art materials. Is this collaboration, cannibalism, or multiple vision?

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