The path to the Lucas Samaras exhibition, Offerings from a Restless Soul, at the Metropolitan Museum proved to be a fortuitous one. It led me though the Greek and Roman Galleries, filled with remnants of classical art, works that undoubtedly inspired Samaras, a Greek-born artist who came to America in 1948.
Two works stayed with me as I made my way to the Samaras show: the marble head of a youth, attributed to the Greek sculptor Polykleitos, with its strong muscular face, aquiline nose, and locks of hair carved carefully in the stone, and a statue of a kouros (youth), ca 590-580 BC, said to be one of the earliest marble statues of a human figure, which marked the grave of a young Athenian aristocrat. Chuck Close’s painting of Lucas Samaras, Lucas I (1986-7), in the intervening contemporary gallery, 915, created a good link between the two galleries hosting Samaras’ show.
Samaras and Marla Prather, Curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, have installed sixty works for Offerings, mostly drawn from the museum’s collection, though seventeen pieces were newly gifted by the artist. The show came to being as a collaboration between the artist and the curator and Samaras’ influence is apparent in many of the curatorial decisions.
Lucas Samaras, Untitled, Drawing, 1963; Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art
The show’s title, Offerings from a Restless Soul, came from Samaras who is clearly a man of literary inclination. He prefers the word “offerings” to “exhibit,” which creates a sense that this show is less structured and more personal. Is this modesty on his part or rather a political statement, a criticism of the formality of many art exhibitions?
Although the show might be understood as a retrospective, with work representing different moments and styles in the artist’s long career, it is not organized chronologically. Rather, works are grouped by types: charcoal drawings, pin art, dot drawings, photo-transformations, self-portraits, and constructions—an extraordinary diversity, however uneven, from a man who was also an actor and writer.
Samaras was very engaged in the installation. He not only helped install the work but also designed the walls in the spaces. Gallery 914 is wallpapered in a design taken from one of his pastel drawings and in Gallery 916 striking colored arches frame the walls. The wallpaper is particularly effective, creating another layer or complex background for the pastels hanging on it.
Undoubtedly, the most impressive part of the exhibit is Samaras’ small pastels, or “colored dust” as he calls them. These are intricate and often surreal works, where geometric motifs are occasionally interlaced with nude bodies. There is a powerful tension between the chalky medium and Samaras’ geometric grids, lines, squiggles, and shapes, distinguishing these drawings. In the wall text accompanying the pastels, we learn that Samaras drew on sheets of paper in his lap, completing several compositions in one sitting: “Then,” he wrote, his “mind and hand would have absorbed too much color, too much chalk,” and he would stop. The description of his process seems to fit these free-association works which feel as if they were completed rapidly.
These early pastels from the 1960s (he also returned to work in pastels in 1974 and in 1981) are so dense with color that they resemble fabric woven of artful dots and lines. Samaras repeats sequences of colors in patterns, often subtly altering the shapes of the objects.
In Untitled Drawing (1974) his palette moves through a succession of colors, with grey on the outside edge of the square and dark blue in the center, but if you look carefully, the centers vary in shape and size. This is Samaras playing tricks with what we see, creating repetitions that are not quite repetitions.
In Untitled Drawing from August 7, 1961, a man peers into a red device, much like an x-ray machine, where we see red stuff inside a body that suggests internal organs. Samaras’ use of dabs of color, red and orange in the lower half of the work, contrast markedly with the squiggles of white, green, and blue. Here, as in all of his works, the human form is muscular, reminiscent of the marble head sculpted by Polykleitos.
Other works in the show are clever but lack, somehow, the power of the pastels. Two Chair Transformations, sculptural pieces from 1969-1970, stand in the middle of Gallery 914. For Samaras, whose name in Greek means “saddle maker,” the form of chairs clearly holds a personal appeal. One chair in the exhibit, fabricated in 1969, was originally covered with cotton batting which became soiled over time. The artist’s response, a decade later, was to strip the chair down to its original frame and to marbleize its surface with white on black paint, a new work of art.
Family history, too, plays an important role in Samaras’ work. After learning that his mother had a miscarriage before he was born, Samaras began his Wound paintings. One of them, Wound #18, hangs on its own wall in Gallery 916, a thickly textured acrylic, with a deeply riveting, red wound.
A gift of Sculp-metal, a clay-like material, resulted in the artist creating wall-mounted reliefs, several with razor blades, pins, and mangled cutlery. These works are not Samaras at his best and although he wrote that he was interested in the tension between the Sculp-metal surface and “the pricking intrusion,” that tension is not apparent. Despite the blade and the sharp objects, these works do not have the raw power of his Wound painting.
Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Remnants from 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, 1959; Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art
The last piece in the show is a canvas with black vertical stripes and circles by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg that was rescued by Samaras from Allan Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1959) at the Reuben Gallery in the East Village. Although he participated in many of Kaprow’s Happenings, Samaras did not contribute to this work. We are left wondering why end with this piece?
On balance, Samaras has offered us a thought provoking show, one that reveals much about the artist even when it seems to conceal.
(Image on top: Lucas Samaras, Installation view; Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)