Lucas Samaras, "i Movies," Sept. 12-Oct. 7, 2006, at PaceWildenstein, 534 West 25th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001
Lucas Samaras, a self-proclaimed narcissist -- a narcissist in a long line of avant-garde narcissists -- but one who, like all narcissistic flashers, needs a public to acknowledge the importance of his existence (and especially his body), has come up, in his latest tour de force iFilm Ecdysiast, with the perfect audience: other artists (Jasper Johns and Claus Oldenburg among them) and art people (critics and museum people) and, of course, his long-time dealer Arne Glimcher. They all once posed nude for him (Sittings, 1978-81), and in Ecdysiast he turns the tables on them: on one wall of the installation we see him on a video screen, taking off his clothes in excruciatingly slow motion, and on the opposite wall, we see the faces of the audience, each framed on a video screen of its own -- they’re clearly an exclusive club, but they’re all very individualistic, not to say incommensurate egomaniacs, which is why each needs a space of his or her own (like Samaras, who can only relate to them from a distance and by using them in his art) -- watching Samaras do his strip tease. The faces are solemn and sober, full of fake and impatient interest, none cracking a smile until the end, probably more out of relief that the 5½-minute ordeal was over than in amusement at Samaras’ antics.
For he doesn’t just strip naked, he changes form -- a not unfamiliar tactic in his art -- until he finally becomes, if not exactly Kafka’s bug, a sort of bloated roly-poly, or, if one wants, an oversized baby, grotesque but lovable. Metamorphosis -- the more bizarre the better -- is the name of Samaras’ game, and it is played to show that there is no one-and-only "real" Samaras, but many Samarases, and none real. Like the great god Proteus, Samaras is in perpetual process, a sort of Heracleitean mirror in which one can’t find the same person twice, a permanently transient presence, unstable and unpredictable -- one never knows what new shape he’ll change into -- however permanent a few features seem to be. Samaras’ endless self-presentation is long-term proof that there is no self: The narcissist is a phantom -- a figment of his own imagination.
This would be tragic if it wasn’t comic: The art cognoscenti don’t seem to get the joke -- certainly not that it’s on them. All the more so because they hardly have what can be called a close relationship with Samaras: They’re on one side of the great divide of gallery space, he’s on the other. Nor is it a balanced relationship between equals: They’re nothing but heads; he’s a head and a body, growing more complicated by the minute. They’re passive onlookers, he’s a hyperactive performer -- a manic actor in complete control of his audience. The opposites never harmoniously meet. (Robert Pincus-Witten’s momentarily shifty eyes suggest his resentment at being forced to witness Samaras’ performance. He clearly can’t wait to leave Samaras’ studio. It would have been interesting if all 24 art witnesses were together in it at the same time -- forced to interact, however nominally. How long would their politeness hold up?)
It’s a rather one-sided relationship: The witnesses may be part of the performance, but they seem more physically than emotionally present. Do they really mirror Samaras’ emotions, let alone appreciate his performance, the way a mother -- her face is everyone’s first audience -- should mirror and appreciate her baby’s emotions and behavior, thus confirming that its existence is significant and valuable, that she’s happy to have brought it into the world? No self can form without such reciprocity -- without having a very good object as its cornerstone.
I am thinking of Heinz Kohut’s mirror transference, an emotional necessity for self-integration: Is Samaras fragmented into numerous part-selves because he was never adequately mirrored? Kohut argues that no one can exist without self-objects -- objects that are part of one’s self -- the way no one can exist without oxygen. Has Samaras made a poor choice of self-objects? Perhaps this explains why he became an actor -- an actor whose only role was himself, that is, who made himself his object, and who has never been convinced that he played it well, which is why he plays it over and over, with a compulsive dexterity that masks his self-uncertainty. It as though Samaras has to repeatedly stage himself to have a secure sense of self, that is, what John Bowlby called a secure base or foundation -- at least as long as he is acting. (What security is there in being an artist? Is art a secure foundation for life? Is the urge to become an artist, especially a performance artist, an unwitting way of admitting one’s insecurity, sometimes in the disguise of hubris? Is there any good avant-garde artist -- and Samaras is one of the best -- without an emotional Achilles heel?)
Now 70, Samaras has never stopped acting -- acting out via art? -- since he participated in the first happenings in the ‘60s. Allan Kaprow was his mentor at Rutgers University, and he studied acting at Lee Strassberg’s school. Did Samaras think that his performances would spontaneously generate a caring, indeed, loving audience -- an ideal mirror? (Other artists are certainly a bad choice of audience. Are Johns and Oldenburg seriously interested in the work of Samaras -- of any living artist? They seem to be busy trying to hold the attention of their old audience -- living off the capital of their past achievements. History moves on: All that’s left is the hope for a posthumous audience, and it will always perceive you in its own terms. Chuck Close’s portrait of Samaras shows him flamboyantly fragmented -- fried and skewed on a grid, made all the more hot by reason of its blazing colors. Close uses his standard divide-and-conquer mechanism -- which is my no doubt peculiar way of seeing his grid + labored impressionism technique -- in his numerous portraits of artists, which are no doubt meant to be glorifying, but unwittingly reveal the emotional truth about them -- the damage behind their grandiosity.)
"Ecdysiast" -- an ironical term coined by H.L. Mencken in 1940 -- is about failed relationships, which is why Samaras ends up relating only to himself, as the 24 other iFilms (some new, most old) in the exhibition show. They’re all peep shows -- watching them, we’re voyeurs. Exhibitionism and voyeurism are indeed the major expressions of subjectivity in the postmodern world of specious spectacle. We see Samaras in his apartment, arranging gorgeous flowers -- "gorgeous" is his word -- perched in front of one of his grimacing portraits of art-world people (artists, critics, dealers, Samaras’ ambivalence toward them evident in the clash between the lush colors in which they are painted and their monstrous deaths-head faces). Then we see Samaras cutting the flowers -- the familiar malevolent Samaras of the early box works, with their razors, nails and other pointy objects. Again and again we see Samaras preparing food -- cutting a roasted chicken and placing the pieces on a plate, chopping up salad and placing the pieces alongside the chicken. It’s all very domestic, and perverse.
A computer Wizard of Oz (of is it of Odd?), Samaras sometimes creates a double vision of himself, no doubt the mirror trick that gives him consummate narcissistic gratification. But for all their narcissistic fantasy, often suggesting that destructiveness can be creative fun, what jumps out at one from Samaras’ films is their rich color. It is the big sensuous tease in Samaras’ works -- it coats and informs everything, sometimes voluptuously and densely, sometimes with a light, flickering touch. Like the romantic background music that accompanies the iFilms -- music is his constant companion -- its pulsing rhythms save his redundant performances from becoming tedious. Samaras’ color mysticism -- its origins can be traced to Impressionism’s "vibrating sensations" and Post-Impressionism color symbolism -- is the saving grace of his works, all the more so because they offer the viewer an ecstatic escape from his cannibalizing self-absorption.
He once told me that his body was just a trope. Perhaps, but it distracts from the colors, which consistently perform better than he does, for he often seems to be going through the motions, while the color is always alive, indeed, sometimes seems to have more inner life -- innate vitality -- than he does. Perhaps he should go back to the intensity of his photo-paintings, with their dramatic expressionistic surfaces, and moody pastels, their exquisite surfaces, fraught with impacted energy -- his fame securely rests on them -- where he shows his uncanny ability to fuse color and bodily form seamlessly and effortlessly. They are great works of art -- unequivocally great. The iFilms do not add to Samaras’ greatness, only the greatness of his oeuvre as a whole, even as they show his remarkable capacity for self-analysis -- suggesting that he after all has a grip on himself (a better grip than self-love affords) -- and with that, the uncanniness, if also problematic character, of the self at its deepest and most unrepresentable.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.