No, But if You Insist, Yes: The Art and Fetishes of Lucas Samaras

By Alexios Tsigkas, Anthropology

“The manner in which art objects are made are erotic gestures … in the presence of an artistic creation there is a seeming merging of the self with a highly erotic reality called beauty … The eroticism isn’t connected with life and death or with a partner’s changing moods; it is continuous. AUTOEROTIC. Narcissism is making one’s body into art.”
-Lucas Samaras (1971)

Lucas Samaras’ apartment, which serves both as his studio and living space, is located in a tall skyscraper in midtown Manhattan. Height keeps him distanced and isolated from the outer world and, at the same time, offers him the privilege of observation. During an interview with the artist in his house, Martin Friedman made the following observation: despite a spectacular view of the New York City skyline, the real panorama is located inside Samaras’s house. Filled with his art and work in progress –and consequently by his fetishized image- Samaras’ apartment is a stunning reflection of the artist himself.

In his commentary on Samaras’s 1966 show at the Pace Gallery, John Canaday wrote in the New York Times: “Nothing could much better symbolize the complete autonomy of the artist today: he serves only himself, talks only about himself, preens himself for himself, is for himself the central fact of the universe superior to all other facts, suppositions, myths, theories or conditions of the

universe” (1966, quoted in Prather, 2003).

Since his very first artistic attempts in the late fifties, Samaras has focused on his favorite subject, that is, himself. As Jean Lipman has argued, “everything Lucas Samaras has created is to a degree a self-portrait” (Samaras, 1971). In 1964 Samaras exhibited his bedroom at the Green Gallery, full of objects reflecting his life and fragments of his art. Thomas McEvilley observes about the Room #1: “Perhaps because of his early wartime experiences, Samaras knew that before one can integrate art and life one must first locate the self in which they can coexist. It is the elusiveness, the shatterdness, of this self on which his bedroom installation focused” (Samaras, 1988:14).

It is difficult to interpret Samaras’s work in psychological terms, for there lies the siginificant danger of speculation. Nevertheless, the artist’s own words may operate as a tool with which we can partly decode his art. In his 1971 work Samaras Album, he “exhibited” a three-part autobiography. In a brilliant mix of psychoanalytical observations and biographical confessions, Samaras offers a narrative of his childhood years in Greece. In the often borderline Freudian confessions, the reader learns about the artist’s parents (and his adulthood obsession with them), his upbringing by the female members of his family, memories from his interaction with other children, and even his sexuality. One can hardly ignore the psychological implications of his writings, especially when he states that “when he makes art he is making a father” (Samaras, 1971). Additionally, Samaras has undoubtedly incorporated these experiences into his art. The attempt to approach Samara’s work in terms of fetishes must be seen in this psychoanalytical and self-referencing context.

Interestingly, Samaras was planning to study psychology before he was repelled by its scientific modalities and statistical nature. Artistic creation proved to be a more effective and satisfying way for the achievement of self-awareness. In addition, he spent one year in therapy, a period when: “I was deprived of the communication I had had with my friends. I lived with my parents. There was no self-analysis anymore. We analyzed ourselves, everybody else, the world, life” (Cummings, 1979).

The Self
The greatest part of Samaras’ work is an obsessive engagement with one issue, his self as noted above, what he calls the “ego” or his “autobiographical obsessions.” Samaras offers a self-interpretation of this obsessive self-love: “When I did fall in love with somebody, I invariably discovered that I did not receive from them what my education and fantasy required. As a result, I shifted myself to myself.” This repetitive and performative shift of the self to the self is expressed and refracted in his work through an endless attempt to deconstruct and then reconstruct the Self, to auto-analyze the ego (his Autopolaroids and Autointerviews explicitly demonstrate this desire) or, in his own words, to “discover unknown territories of my surface self.” The self, and in this case the embodied self, is a fetish for Lucas Samaras. Robert Doty, curator of Samara’s first retrospective exhibition in 1972 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, managed to efficiently characterize Samara’s self-centered art in the following quote, where he argues about his “[…] consistent use of devices such as the container, (box, room, body), and the mirror (including the photograph)” (Samaras, 1972). Using this binary between the container and the mirror (and, accordingly, the recurring themes and materialities of the box, the body and the photograph) as a guide, and by focusing more specifically on Samaras’s Boxes and Photographs, I attempt to approach his work through the concept of the “fetish.” In what ways the use of fetish objects and themes has shaped Samaras’s work? What can be drawn on from this obsessive use of fetishized patterns that will inform our comprehension of his work? What are the contextual and conceptual connotations of the fetishization of the body and the self per se? And finally, how can we relate these procedures on the creative level, with Samaras ‘biography’ in terms of his multiple identities and identifications –namely, as a Greek, as an artist, as an American, as a traumatized ego or as a fragmented self (fragments explored through his photographic self-portraits)?

“When I say I, more than one person stands up to be counted.”
-Samaras (1971)

In his autobiography in the Samaras Album, Lucas Samaras wonders whether there is more than one way to skin a memory, and the use of the word “skin” here can hardly be accidental (1971). Samaras has dedicated a significant part of his career to one specific project: through a diverse variety of photographic methods, he has tried to capture his embodied self. Quoting Samaras himself is probably the safest way to understand his work: “Other than being an autobiographical postulate of some of my present attitudes or a complicated gift to others, these photographs are a way of studying my pictured self as an abstraction or translation for aesthetic speculation, psychological perspicacity, sensual subtlety and warm embarrassment” (Samaras, 1971, quoted in Samaras, 1972).

The discovery of Polaroid was experienced by Samaras as an artistic revelation, a precious gift. The automated photographic procedure provided by the Polaroid camera would serve Samaras’ project perfectly: he could remain isolated, within his personal space, working alone, conveniently and impatiently reproducing multiple images of his fetishized body –in brief, exploring his ego. Furthermore, the Polaroids would give him the opportunity to “play” and experiment with their temporarily liquid surface and alter the visual outcome. That meant that Samaras could transform his very own image, his skin, and create innumerable versions of himself, leading to the unique, self-eroticizing Photo-Transformations, or what Samaras has called his “polaroided self” (Samaras, 1971).

Lucas Samaras has largely experimented with Polaroids throughout his career in a variety of different projects that share a common topic, the artist’s self. The range of his photographic work includes series such as the Autopolaroids, his aforementioned Photo-Transformations, the large compositions called Panoramas, and finally his Sittings, and Still Lifes, in which the artist decided to marginalize his presence, but at the same time, render himself significantly present.

The connecting factor of Samaras’s diverse photographic innovations is his obsession with his body: I italicize the phrase ‘his body’ to emphasize that Samaras is not concerned with the formal dimensions of the body in general, but through the use of his body as a fetish, he is trying to discover himself. In the Samaras Album, the artist offers a detailed description of every single part of his body, revealing the memories that they evoke and associating them with specific incidents or members of his family. All these experiences and memories that Samaras included in his autobiographical narratives are embodied, leading to a fetishized body subject to the artist’s conquests and experimentations.

As Robert Doty has argued, the photograph represents the mirror, in front of which, Lucas Samaras poses, discovers and analyzes his embodied self (1972). In the Autopolaroids, Samaras exposes his nude body in various poses; he deals with his sexuality or dresses up as woman (or a transvestite to use his own words). He multiplies his image and captures different facial expressions. In the Photo-Transformations he creates surreal, distorted or dreamlike reflections of his figure. In the Panoramas, he composes fragments (cut stripes) of his photographs to create an extended, elongated representation of his body –expanding the boundaries of the self. Finally, between 1978 and 1980 Samaras persuades a number of friends to pose in the nude for him for the Sittings series. Unsurprisingly, he would always appear in the Polaroids, somewhere in the corner, dim lighted and unexpectedly, fully clothed. Additionally, in his Still Lifes (Polaroids of his studio), among various objects referring to him, Samaras includes images of his face. Even when his subject shifts form his own image, Samaras’s self remains his ongoing project, even from the perspective of the observer.

“Rather than saying I am a sculptor I could have said I was a boxer.”
“The Greek word for box is kouti which also means stupid.”
-Samaras (1971)

Samara’s early boxes are covered with various sharp materials, such as knives, scissors, razor blades and pins. The artist claims that the choice of sharp materials was an unconscious act. “I just happened to pick them because they must have meant something. I have translated what these things mean, but I don’t know if that is what they mean” (Cummings, 1979).

One may see the boxes and the whole range of his photographic oeuvre as part of the same project. By arguing that, I don’t suggest merely his attempt for self-analysis. As the photos caption the surface of the self, the external body, or even the skin (essentially, the visual self), the boxes serve as “peepholes,” offering a glimpse of the inside of the body: the internal self, Samaras’ peculiar universe. As Thomas McEvilley argues, the boxes challenge the boundaries between the inside and the outside, allowing the viewer to access the artist’s symbolic inner world, but at the same time defining the boundaries of accessibility through their sharp or disturbing exteriors (1988).

The box is the container; like the body, it contains the internal self, the ego. Samaras says that “we are conceived by boxes with boxes in boxes. We live in boxes, see and eat with boxes, travel in boxes, and even our days and nights are boxes. Box is a lovely principle that carries a lot of symbolic meanings” (Samaras, 1971, quoted in Samaras, 1972). Inside the boxes Samaras, gathers different fetish objects that are related in multiple ways to his life, his memories, his childhood in Kastoria, Greece or his family. He repeatedly mentions his upbringing by the female members of his family and recalls their odors, the fabric of their clothes, the food they cooked and various other “things” (Samaras prefers the term “thing” rather than “object”) that illustrated his childhood years in Greece. The beads he incorporates in the boxes somehow reflect the orthodox church he would visit as a child, or otherwise, in his own words, his “childhood years, when people used to wear necklaces and worry-beads” (Prather, 2003). Commenting on the birds that “decorate” some of his boxes: “My earliest childhood experience, other than some swallows that had nests below our balcony at home, was in school. I remenber in our little story books there was one bird that was a teacher bird” (Cummings, 1979). It is worth noting that in one box he made in 1965, Samaras used his mother’s real hair. Additionally, inside the boxes, he often embeds various “things” he discovered and picked from his parents’ house in New Jersey, such as forks and knives, or pins that his mother would use.

The main recurring topics Samaras addresses in his art are reflected in the objects-fetishes he chooses to include in his boxes: his family, his sexuality, his body, his childhood in Greece. Accordingly, objects one may find inside (or outside) the boxes include images of body parts and organs, condoms, small figures of couples used in wedding-cakes and so forth –it is impossible to categorize of classify the objects he uses. Needless to say, Lucas Samaras’ figure can be located somewhere inside the box in the majority of his creations. As in his pictures, his image will always observe the “event,” the conditions of the artist’s internal world. As Glimcher notes: “In the boxes it is a joy to lose oneself in order to rediscover relics of past experiences as well as scraps of memory” (2009).

Where were you born?
In Macedonia.
Where is that?
In Greek and Byzantine history.
What does that mean?
I think it says enough.
Samaras, Lucas. (Autointerview). 1971

Attempting to trace Samaras’ “Greekness” through his work is an intriguing but difficult task. References to his homeland seem to be ubiquitous, both in his own writings and in the numerous commentaries of his work. Critics, curators and various members of the art world tend to attribute imagined Greek qualities to his work and to Lucas Samaras himself. Mythological or historical tropes such as the myth of Narcissus and Pandora’s box or historical figures form Ancient Macedonia are often mobilized to describe both the “artist” and his creations. Paul Cummings traces “Byzantine colors and memories of incense-laden religious rites he experienced as a child” in his art (Cummings, 1979), whereas Martin Friedman argues that Samaras’ “…portrait by Chuck Close resembles Christ Pantocrator gazing from above” –obviously referring to Orthodox wall-paintings (Friedman, 2005).

At the same time, Lucas Samaras won’t disappoint the art world’s hunger for classification and labeling. He repeatedly cites his Greco-Byzantine origins in various ways and he frequently uses Greek terms (often not accurately) while discussing his works. The open Boxes may resemble Plato’s Cave and the materials inside are compared to the decorative objects found in Byzantine and Roman ruins. His Greek origin therefore seems to constitute another sort of fetish for the art of Lucas Samaras, constantly recurring in his work and discourse.

What constitute this Greekness in Samaras art though? Is it a conscious artistic quality of his work, or a biased interpretation of his work imposed by curators and art critics –and used in Samaras’s writings and statements in an ironic, mysterious or ‘trickster’ way?

It is worth quoting Lucas Samaras in length as this might illuminate us on the issue of his Greekness: “I was Greek and that meant Zeus, Theseus, Hermes, Athena, Hercules, Themistocles, Hero and Leander, Persia, nudity, wisdom, white marble and love. I was Macedonian and that was Alexander, the mysterious sparkle of Byzantium, Christ and paradise, Turkey, murder and resurrection. I was Kastorian … I was Samaras … I was Lucas… I was pleasantly unpleasantly related to all these previous names but somewhere prominently, I was me. My body, my pains and pleasures, my awareness of everything, my world” (Samaras Album, 1971). Samaras lists, and (ironically?) identifies with, a number of stereotypical historical images associated with Greece, but this identification concludes with him being “himself.”

Even though his experiences and memories from his early years in Greece have powerful aesthetic qualities, they are neither “artistic,” nor historic. Samaras’ Greece has nothing to do with antiquity, classicism or an imagined ethnic origin. On the contrary, Greece represents his childhood, his family and his first experiences. Accordingly, Greece exists in Samaras’ art through the use of fetish objects, materials and concepts that are related to his “aesthetic memories” from Greece –fabrics, beads, photographs, objects found in his parent’s house, even his relatives, but also his very own body as ‘used’ in his photography. Abiding to his self-analytical project, Samaras uses Greek references to the extent that they reflect, and comment on, his autobiographical adventure. In his own words: “Greece is my prehistory, my preliterate past, my unconscious my fantasy. America is my history, my consciousness, my adult life, my reality” (Samaras, 1971). Trying to relate therefore the representational, formal and visual aspects of his art with ancient Greece, classical art or even Greek history, will probably fail to capture the effect of Samaras’ art. Art critic Barbara Rose, has successfully described Samaras artistic positioning between his two homelands: “…[A] sensibility as distanced from the ancient forms of his native Greek civilization as it was from popular imagery and the experience of his adopted American culture. Rather than reject either, however, he continued throughout his career to draw on both to create a highly personal art … adding the additional requirement for psychological empathy” (Samaras, 1998). Greekness represents Samaras traumatic childhood, and as such, it is inevitably apparent in his work and discourse –as it would be in every psychoanalytical procedure, artistic or not.

The political implications of Samaras’ art and self-absorption can only be examined within the specific context of his personality and artistic figure. As hard as it may be to locate Lucas Samaras in a wider artistic and cultural context, it is equally difficult to identify his political statement  – if there is any. In lieu of a typical conclusion, I aim to interpret Samaras diverse volume of work in terms of a possible critique towards the art world.

Samaras’ unique stance towards art cannot be seen as a rejection of the art world and its discontents. He fully identifies himself within his art and often makes statements of doubtful modesty. Additionally, he is a rather prestigious and successful member of the New York art world, with participations that range from well-established galleries to the MoMA and Whitney museum. It is worth noting that while negotiating his collaboration with the PaceWildenstein Gallery (his long time representative) he mentioned: “I felt immediately a professional artist.”

In addition, in one of the Autointerviews for the Samaras Album, he asks himself whether he is political and he responds that he is only in terms of art (Samaras, 1971); and he goes on: “Why?” he wonders: “Regular society is out of my line.” In his recent interview with Arne Glimcher for the Interview Magazine, he maintains the same attitude, which consists of a combination of distanced criticism and self-praise: “Well, the danger is that you begin to reject things that happen outside of you. You don’t control that. Whether it’s political stuff happening around you, or social stuff, you have no control, unless you’re in a position of power to control the aesthetics of the country at some point, or you have the financial [means]” (Glimcher, 2009). He continues: “For me, it’s always the same routine. I do something and if it’s no good, it’s no good, and I go on to something else. I achieve something that I think is fantastic and then I wait for the gallery to make their visit and say, ‘Ooh, that’s fantastic. Let’s show it.’ And then they show it, and they have the catalog, and people come to see it, and it’s either lauded or not lauded. And then I go on to something else” (Glimcher, 2009). Lucas Samaras demonstrates a reserved concern for the commercialization of the art world and the extended financial mechanism that supports the artists, but avoids self-criticism by simply stating: “the art world does not understand [him]” (Glimcher, 2009).

Samaras engages himself in the politics of the self. His project of self-analysis does not involve any form of social criticism – Samaras has repeatedly expressed his rejection of the outside world. The artist seems comfortable in the mysterious public persona he has built over the years, as well as with his positioning within the art world. We may therefore assume that this internalization is more of a personal conquest than a political statement –remaining political at the same time.
List of Illustrations

Cover: Self Portraits #5, 1994
Page 2: Photo-Transformation, May 30, 1976
Page 5: Photo-Transformation, July 6, 1976 – Photo-Transformation, 1973
Page 6: Photo-Transformation, 1974
Page 9: Box #10, May 1963 – Box #124, 1988
Page 11: Self Portraits #3, 1994

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