Greeting visitors to Lucas Samaras’s new show at Pace Gallery in New York are uncanny photographs that summon the bleary, smeary weirdness of walking around the city and mistaking sights for sounds, sounds for smells, smells for signs of touch, and so on in the extrasensory circumambulations of the overstimulated urban animal. A picture of a street scene with a red car and yellow cabs looks plain enough—until it turns strange as the eye migrates toward the top, where all that falls below twists into a mirror image turned upside-down. An image of a supermarket window has a cartoon dinosaur with an extended neck streaking across the horizontal plane, a promotional gambit of some eons-scrambling kind. (What might a dinosaur have to do with commerce?) Many of the photos are digitally processed. Others are seemingly untouched, like one of a series of storefront signs bearing workaday mundanities but also the eerie words “The Dead Poet.” Another from the front of the New York Public Library focuses on a lion sculpture staring steely-eyed at the photographer in its sight—and, by extension, the viewer on the other side.
All of this pageant of peculiarity is but one small segment of just one section in Samaras’s latest show, the latest in a line of them tracing back to the artist’s beginnings in the 1950s. Along with photographs in the introductory section titled “Streets” are similarly formatted works organized as “Birds” (ducks and such in the city), “Screens” (heavily textured self-portraits and still lifes), “Beds” (unpopulated, unmade), “Constructions” (worksites in progress), “Tables” (from flea markets), and “Kastorian Inveiglements” (kaleidoscopic wonders).
The 184 photographs in the show were selected and assembled at Samaras’s home-studio space in Midtown Manhattan, where work was winding down several weeks ago in advance of the exhibition. The mid-September opening was still a ways off, but realization of its arrival had settled in. “There’s a kind of panic,” Samaras said, in front of two large computer monitors with what appeared to be dozens of windows open on each. “When you work with yourself for one or two years and you don’t see anybody really, and then there’s the possibility that people can see it—there’s a panic. What am I saying? How will it be represented? How will it be understood? Who’s going to try to kill me?”
It was clear that the killing of which he spoke was not the murderous kind, but an air of drama suffused the surroundings all the same, with the 81-year-old artist alone in a space that incubates his status as an “urban hermit”—a self-characterization cited in an essay by Donald Kuspit in the recent publication Samaras: Album 2. Issued this spring, the book relates to a 2015 Pace Gallery show that featured more than 700 photographs, most of them self-portraits. The current show, which remains on view through October 21, features a wider variety of subjects, in seven different rooms, all under the title “New York City, No-Name, Re-Do, Seductions.”
“I want to be shocked and seduced by an image,” Samaras said of the last part of that title; about the second: “I’m sick and tired of finding titles.”
So seduction reigns—“that situation where you see something and can’t believe how wonderful it is,” in Samaras’s words. The phenomenon can arise from an obviously beautiful or striking scene spotted out in the wild—the kind of occurrence any photographer might like—but then also bizarre blips or besotted arrangements seemingly ill-suited for memorialization. “His photographs are a kind of happening, or a record of a staged happening,” Kuspit suggests in his essay, relating Samaras’s recent photographic practice to his involvement around the inception of Allan Kaprow’s “Happenings” in the ’50s and ’60s. Indeed, one has the odd sense that the scenes that catch Samaras’s eye owe at least a little something to his presence in their midst. In the section of the current show labeled “Tables,” pictures of bric-a-brac laid out in flea-market stalls abound. “Those tables with all the junk they have from yesterday or the ’20s or ’30s, objects all from different periods—for me it’s more interesting than a museum because you jump from world to world,” Samaras said of his pictures’ aged toys, erotic ashtrays, taxidermy alligator heads, and so on. “None of them are pretentious. Plus, it insults the jerks who spend their life just looking at things that are exquisite and nothing else.”
The section of the new work presented as “Kastorian Inveiglements” trains that same eye on total abstraction. “Millions of people are making art by putting something on a wall,” Samaras offered as the rationale behind his kaleidoscopic visual arrays. “I say to myself, ‘What happened to beauty?’ You have to open that part of your brain.”
The Kastorian designation refers to Samaras’s heritage in Kastoria, Greece, and he said he likes the impishness and deviousness suggested by the word “inveigle,” pulling up its dictionary definition on his monitor to make the meaning clear: “/ɪnˈviːɡ(ə)l/, verb: Persuade (someone) to do something by means of deception or flattery.”
The swirling, blotched, fractal-like patterns in the inveigled images resonate in certain ways with many hundreds of beaded necklaces hanging on one of Samaras’s studio walls, all of them together forming a sort of sculptural mass. Some of the necklaces, the artist explained, are examples of millefiori, an Italian way of making works of decorative glass (the word translates as “a thousand flowers”). Though none of them serve as necklaces, exactly. “I put one on one evening but hated it, so I don’t wear them,” Samaras said. “But I love them there, for the same reason I love seeing the [flea-market] tables with different characters from different periods.”
Jewelry of his own making, functional or otherwise, figures in another New York gallery show now in New York: “Lucas Samaras: Gold” at Salon 94 Design, on the Upper East Side. The works there—some 25 pieces of gold chicken-wire jewelry plus bronze sculptures and paintings—signal different aspects of Samaras’s activity. “Gold as a material is so loaded with meaning and history,” said Sam Zients, Salon 94’s director of design. “It’s luxurious but also practical as a form of currency. Bringing different bodies of work together under those shared properties represents something mystical or almost shamanistic about Lucas’s work.”
As they relate to his work with photography, those ritual characteristics take on an earthy, searching quality as nurtured by an artist who, for all his “urban hermit” identification, is actively out roaming and surveying all he sees—a sort of self-isolating eye as he moves through the city.
“It’s not like I go out to photograph a car,” Samaras said of a particular “Streets” picture that seems to turn a vehicular vision into a sort of otherworldly vessel. “You photograph and then you find out what kind of fish you caught—and whether you’re going to make dinner with what you caught or not.”
As to what can happen in the act of shooting and then during all the processing and arranging and schematizing after, he has left himself to wonder. “It’s not enough to take a nice photograph,” he said. And so a question immediately arises: “How do you make it better?”