Although Lucas Samaras has been producing and exhibiting photographs, drawings, paintings, constructions, room-sized installations, and artists’ books in astonishing numbers and with frightening regularity since 1959, he remains a cult artist. Almost famous, never exactly popular, Samaras has cultivated his outsider status virtually from the beginning and maintained it despite nearly 40 years in the stable of the Pace (now PaceWildenstein) Gallery, one of New York’s blue-chip powerhouses. If “Unrepentant Ego,” his second retrospective at the Whitney (the first was in 1972), is unlikely to change any of this, it’s certainly not for lack of trying. The show, with nearly 400 works spanning his entire career, is smart, focused, and almost dizzyingly spectacular. Even if viewers are likely to overdose halfway through, I can’t imagine anyone not being excited and inspired by it.
Like most artists, Samaras is too self-absorbed to be truly ingratiating, but he’s a shameless entertainer and a born provocateur. “Secretly I wanted to become a movie actor,” he has confessed in print. (He settled for vivid appearances in Claes Oldenburg and Allan Kaprow’s Happenings, and recycled his unused head shots in countless assemblages.) “I wanted to speak only with my body.” In his photographs, Samaras does exactly that; his body is one of the most eloquent and unguarded in art history. From the beginning, his work involved an alarming level of self-consciousness. Photographic portraits, some going back to his childhood, peer out from his obsessively embellished box constructions and decorate the handles of a velvet-encased carving set. Although his body is often fragmented in the early work—reduced to no more than a thumb, a foot, an eye, or the implicit memory of a mirror—Samaras is everywhere, haunting the Whitney with a presence at once sinister and comic.
That presence is made vivaciously explicit in Samaras’s first photographs, a series of nude Polaroids taken between 1969 and 1971 that show no signs of aging. Anybody with a new instant camera is bound to get naked and start snapping away. But Samaras turns this intimate exhibitionism into a brilliantly sustained tour de force—a portrait of the artist as the ultimate imp of the perverse. Before they were exhibited anywhere, a portfolio of these “AutoPolaroids” was published in Art in America with a brief introduction by Samaras. “[T]hese photographs are a way of studying my polaroided self as an abstraction or translation for esthetic speculation, psychological perspicacity, sensual subtlety and warm embarrassment,” he wrote. Taken late at night and early in the morning in the privacy of his Upper West Side studio apartment, the photos allowed him to be “my own critic, my own exciter, my own director, my own audience.”
The sheer inventiveness of the Polaroid work is stunning. Samaras, who had never studied photography, didn’t just master the instant camera, he practically performed miracles with it. Working in color and in black- and-white, he improvised a whole repertoire of theatrical staging and lighting effects and pulled out all his trademark props: knives, nails, scissors, mirrors, razor blades, bubble bath, colored yarn, a bed of nails, and his own infinitely malleable flesh. What Samaras couldn’t create in camera, he painted in on the finished print. But when Polaroid introduced a self-developing color film whose emulsions could be manipulated before they were fixed, he was able to experiment with the print itself and create swirling, explosive distortions that mix psychedelia and psychology with gleeful audacity. An eye, a fist, a screaming mouth, or Samaras’s nude, foreshortened body emerge from a furious storm of strokes or a snow of colored dots. Standing in his kitchen, the artist melts, stretches, divides in half, and marches ghostlike alongside three other selves.
Echoing (perhaps unintentionally) Hans Bellmer and Pierre Molinier and anticipating Cindy Sherman, John Coplans, John O’Reilly, Francesca Woodman, Matthias Herrmann, and a slew of artists who’ve investigated identity, gender, and the body in the past two decades, Samaras’s Polaroids are self-portraiture at its most revealing. Like the boxes encrusted with fake jewels and bristling with pins, they’ve also got a tantalizing attraction/repulsion thing going on. Samaras always seems to be screaming “Love me! Love me!” and muttering “Fuck you” under his breath. But if the artist is a mess of contradictions, the work is self-contained, sophisticated, and relentlessly experimental. The photos that follow the two ’70s Polaroid series explore portraiture and self-portraiture with staggering doggedness—slicing, layering, double-exposing, and, in the most recent series, digitally morphing the image. There’s no question that Samaras, especially in his current grand wizard incarnation, is a riveting subject. Unfortunately, his new “PhotoFictions,” many more of which are at PaceWildenstein (32 East 57th Street, through January 17), look like the sort of gee-whiz surrealism any maniac with Adobe Photoshop would concoct: marbleized flowers, freakish metamorphoses, wacky inversions of scale, doubling, displacement, dreck. There are some genuine knockouts in this series, but it’s hard to believe the artist who transformed the humble Polaroid into a dream machine is only fitfully successful with a computer program. No matter. Even if Samaras ends with a whimper, his bang reverberates endlessly.