Lucas Samaras had his first one-man show in New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in 1975, having exhibited his first work there aged thirty three in 1969.What began when art class was the only high-school lesson he understood as a Greek speaking twelve-year-old from war torn Kastoria in Northern Greece, has led him to the heights of the New York art world. Now at the age of 68, his work is the subject of a major retrospective at the National Gallery in Athens.
Box #125, 1988
“I had problems settling in here and most of the time I was alone; that’s how drawing became a way to spend my days.”
At present, in New York’s MOMA there is a small painting by the ‘Greek born American artist, Lucas Samaras’. It hangs in a room with some of the giants of late 20th century American art, finding a place after the Abstract Expressionist paintings and later Pop Art creations. Samaras had his first one-man show in the MOMA in 1975, having exhibited his first work there aged thirty three in 1969.What began as the only high-school lesson he understood as a Greek speaking twelve-year-old from war torn Kastoria in Northern Greece has led him to the heights of the New York art world. Now at the age of 68, his work is the subject of a major retrospective at the National Gallery in Athens. The success of his work gives one the impression Samaras is capable of alchemical transformations: turning a childhood scared by war and an adult life as an accented outsider into art recognised in one of the most difficult environments anywhere in the art world. What is it about this artist who made himself the main subject of his work that has attracted so much attention? How does he transform loneliness into art?
“When I arrived in America, I felt a total intruder. I didn’t speak English and nevertheless they threw me into a public school, and my only means of survival was art – there, I didn’t need to speak because I could draw. At that point, I developed the habit of working intensely, something that was probably my own way of compensating for the fact that I didn’t know anyone.”
Samaras’ early work (the show includes pieces from his high school days) heralds some of the themes he developed later on: notably self-portraits and a colourful geometric abstraction. Lucas Samaras’ talent was recognised early and he had the good fortune of studying under Allan Kaprow (one of the main creators of the happening) at Rutgers University. Whilst studying under Kaprow, Samaras’ work grew and though he continued to use pastels to draw expressive self-portraits, he introduced sculptural forms and found objects into some of his work. His work in 1960-61 ranged from an experimental floor piece that is acknowledged to precede some of the innovations of Minimalism to a humorous if disturbing self-portrait on a plate with a spoon. Samaras work was and has remained extremely varied in scale, medium and approach.
Self-Portrait, June 6, 1996
He is perhaps best known for his ‘Autopolaroids’ that he began making in the early 1970’s in which he photographed the most intimate parts of his body. He then played with the dyes and chemicals on the photos, sometimes transforming the images into swirling masses of flesh and other times altering a photo’s background through nothing more sophisticated than painted pink dots. These images, like profane Byzantine icons for to a psychedelic saint, retain the tiny scale of standard Polaroid photos and, gathered together and displayed as they are in the National Gallery, display Samaras’ colourful humour and fastidious attention to aesthetic detail. His fascination in reworking images of his own (ageing) body continue up to the present. Samaras’ presence in his works has been explored through different types of art: his body has been both a still life and a landscape, surrealist dream object and edgy observer, Byzantine icon and x-rayed skeleton, and even in his sculptural and abstract pieces, it is hard not see autobiographical references.
“…more evidence of my split personality. Greece is my prehistory, my pre-professional past, my subconscious, my imagination. America is my history, my conscious, adult life, reality.”
This focus on himself, Samaras’ narcissism as it is often called, points to an uneasiness in the world. Many of his poses are of himself in his small studio apartments in Manhattan: an isolated ship with a single traveller protected from the outside by numerous objects and just enough space to construct more art. His distance from the outside only serves to highlight the feeling that this relentless self-examination reveals an even greater mystery, that of the artist’s self. By turning his art into a mirror, Samaras has to hold both his own presence, and the distance from which to observe it, within himself.
Panorama, February 27, 1983
“I exchanged a grandmother, my childhood and a country for a golden opportunity, a father and an acceptable excuse to be unconventional. I became an immigrant.”
It does not seem to be too great a jump to attribute some of this to his own history as a child immigrant, a personality split during its development and, like Aristophanes’ hermaphrodites, forever in search of its other half, playfully transforming its exterior image to see if the next image fills the gap. Samaras, however, is shrewd enough to know that this wont happen completely– after all it’s art and not therapy that he is creating. Nonetheless, his images have a compelling incompleteness about them.
“How do you feel?
- When I’m making art, well; otherwise not.
Don’t you have a life outside of art?
Samaras’ images do not deal with emigration in a direct manner. References to the Greek language, music and iconography are apparent in many of his works but in forms unlike those of his contemporaries inside Greece and moreover, they do not form an explicit theme of his work. Ironically, it is something about his almost monomaniacal focus on himself that points to this displacement. If his own image had ever become truly familiar to himself, surely he would have stopped re-creating it. Perhaps his secret and that of the success of his images is that they manage to contain both extreme intimacy and continued estrangement in a tension that gives his work its depth and excitement.
The J.F. Costopoulos Foundation organized retrospective of the Greek-American artist Lucas Samaras is at the National Gallery of Greece – Alexandros Soutzos Museum in Athens
from April 7 to June 30, 2005 (Opening: 6 April, 2005).
The Samaras quotations used in this article were taken from various pieces of the artists writings and interviews in the exhibition catalogue curated by Katerina Koskina.