An artist‘s obsession with his own image

The reclusive artist immersed in creativity and socially isolated may recall a stereotype from a long-gone century. But one of today’s most prominent contemporary artists could fit this persona. Lucas Samaras lives in his own, self-created universe. His work is seldom discussed separately from his life and personality. It could not be otherwise for Samaras. A Greek-born artist who moved with his family to the US in 1948, he identifies his art with his life and particularly with his self-image. A large retrospective exhibition of Samaras’s work is currently being held at the National Gallery under the subtitle «Adventures of the Ego,» suggesting that art and life are indeed inseparable in the work of this eccentric artist. Organized by the Costopoulos Foundation and designed by curator of the foundation Katerina Koskina, the exhibition is the first retrospective presentation of the artist’s work in Europe. (A large exhibition was previously held at Whitney Museum in 2003, partly funded by the Costopoulos Foundation.) The Athens show includes 450 works that belong to major museum and private collections internationally and traces the entire artist’s works from his student drawings in the 1950s to his latest, digitally processed photographs of the so-called «Photofiction» series. Compared to his famous «Photo-Transformations» pictures of the early 1970s, these recent pictures portray a less aggressive, less self-tormented image of the artist. As in the case in all of his photos, Samaras is shown in the nude. The bearded, sage-like artist appears in strangely colored surroundings – surreal, indeterminate and dreamlike. In «Photofictions,» one senses that the artist is looking back on his own life, assembling his memories into a visual, surreal collage and musing over not just his own life but existence in general. This is perhaps what gives those images a moving and strangely tender quality, and shows Samaras’s capacity in turning what at first appears to be an obsession with his own image into something much bigger than a self-centered, narcissistic world. Samaras began taking Polaroids of himself in the early 1960s. He placed them in Dada-like boxes – another major series and recurring object throughout the artist’s work. In 1968 he filmed «Self,» which showed the artist chewing up family pictures and destroying one of his boxes. Samaras then began his famous and controversial «AutoPolaroids,» a series of works consisting of Polaroids depicting the body of the artist in strange poses or body parts from unusual perspectives. They are all taken in the artist’s home, which is also his studio – a fact that underlines the closed-in, self-referential element of the images. «Photo-Transformations,» which followed in the early ’70s, are tiny pictures charged with an unusual tension. Again, the subject of the pictures is the artist’s body, only this time it is distorted and appears as if it is almost melting – an effect created by colored filters. The fiery reds, greens and yellows give an almost inferno-like atmosphere to these mad, almost nightmarish yet strangely poignant images. With the exception of «Sittings,» in which Samaras photographs his friends and acquaintances from the art world, all of the artist’s photographs are depictions of himself. Yet even in «Sittings,» Samaras appears in the borders of the images. It is likely that Samaras’s early involvement with happenings such as those of his fellow artist Claes Oldenburg familiarized him with the idea of casting himself in roles and rendering his actual physical presence as part of an artwork. Yet even when not present in a literal or obvious way, Samaras’s self-image is still what defines each of his works. The photographs, paintings or drawings – some photo-realist and others not – are the most overt examples. But there are also the boxes – those mysterious and, in certain cases, ominous objects that almost invariably bear his presence whether through an S-shaped form or the personal and symbolic objects they contain. Practically all of Samaras’s art carries the remembrance of his childhood, the memories of his family and the imprints of his self-inhabited world. These vestiges of self invite a psychoanalytic approach to examining his art. The large, colorful patchworks from the mid-1970s, known as the «Reconstructions» series, evoke, for example, the artist’s childhood memories of growing up in a family that was in the fur business. Strangely, Samaras thinks of those patchworks as shrouds for his mother. Again, this is proof of how the artist’s life experiences come into play. Perhaps the most extreme example of Samaras’s tendency at self-portrayal is «Room #1» from 1964, a work which was an actual reconstruction of the artist’s own room in his parents home set in the space of the gallery. Samaras moved all his personal belongings in his room’s facsimile. The work has a symbolic connotation; it was made the year that his family moved back to Greece. Samaras visited in the late 1960s and has not come back to Greece since 1984. The psychoanalytic strand that is so prevalent in the work of Samaras is probably one of the reasons that account for the Dada-like quality of his work. Many of his works resemble paradoxical, surreal-like objects, expressions of the subconscious. His famous «Chair Transformations» – chairs in various shapes or colors – or the boxes resonate with the absurdity and complexity of the kinds of images we see in dreams. They are the expressions of a deeply imaginative artist who has compounded his life and art into one of the most engaging and unusual manifestations in contemporary art. «Lucas Samaras: Retrospective,» at the National Gallery (50 Vassileos Constantinou, tel 210.723.5937) through June 30. A catalogue is available with texts by Katerina Koskina, Kim Levin, Donald Kuspit, Regis Durand, Catherine Francblin, Georges Armaos and Katerina Kafopoulou as well as a detailed chronology written by Marla Prather for the Whitney exhibition.