Lucas Samaras, Autopolaroid, Lucas with Hand, 1976 © Lucas Samaras


The World According to Samaras

by Philip Tsiaras

Reproduced with permission from the Colby College Museum of Art. Forthcoming in Act of Sight: The Tsiaras Family Photography Collection.

All great things must first wear terrifying and monstrous masks in order to inscribe themselves on the hearts of humanity.


To comprehend such a monolithic, obsessive-compulsive preoccupation with photography of the Self, as in Lucas Samaras, one has to understand the many masks that the artist portrays as his.

André Gide and other French Symbolist writers were highly involved in restoring the concept of the Mask in turn-of-the-century French theater. In Gide’s lecture in 1904 at the Société de la Libre Esthétique, in Brussels, he writes, “Where is the mask? In the audience or on the stage? In the theatre or in life?” Igor Stravinsky’s deep bow as well to Neoclassicism is replete with an interest in the revival of Greek myths through what Maureen Carr calls the “multiplicity of Stravinsky’s Masks”.

The idea of the Self, or the unmasking of the Self—as in the self-portrait—is prevalent in the history of art. The self-portrait is essentially a universal impulse, attempted by many to discover what is always there, the imaginary other. Undoubtedly, the most notable and prolific self-portraitists were da Vinci, Rembrandt, Goya, van Gogh, and Frida Kahlo. However, even the many attempts by Courbet, as in the angst-ridden version of The Desperate Man, fall short of the Narcissistic gravity of Samaras’s self-orbit. Never in history has an entire career been so devoted to observing every aspect of one's self. Never has the vision been so myopic and conversely so telescopic.

As Richard Bellamy suggests, “he has turned neuroticism in his behavior to such conscious perfection that it is something quite other than bizarreness. He has made a consistent fabric of his personality; it’s quite seamless.”

Understanding Lucas

To understand Samaras, one needs to go back, as they say in hypnosis, farther back to where it all began. Born in 1936 in Kastoria, Greece—a merchant furrier town mirrored by a giant lake—Lucas Samaras was to be the beloved child of his mother and two adoring aunts. The experience of Samaras's incubated world of female adulation, the innocence and wonder of his sacred childhood so impacted his youth, that it would appear Samaras's whole devotion to himself an attempt, albeit futile, to find such unconditional, nurturing love in the real world. Artworks like Lucas Loves, Lucas Lost, Lucas is Crying, and Lucas is Dying are the proverbial leitmotifs that resonate through his works.

In contradistinction to the sorrow of Samaras, is the anger of Lucas, the Phoenix rising from the flames. This prickly, irascible, manufactured character was naturally created by Samaras to protect the tortured, lonely artist behind the eyes of presumed fearlessness. As Donald Kuspit observes, “the eyes are clearly the nucleus of his Narcissism, epitomizing his sense of himself as a Monstre Sacré”

As monstrous as the Samaras Mask would like you to believe, there is also a panoply of extreme beauty in his work. The romantic diversity in Samaras’s imagery is unparalleled in contemporary art. Samaras has the unique ability to tap into the decorative in an efflorescence that would make minimalists hyperventilate. He has an incorrigible zeal for creating unnatural patterns, hyperbolic colors with particularly elegant form. Yet, what we seem to remember most, what we are riveted to, as in a horror film, is the pointed tip of his probing, molten spear, while we hang onto our seats waiting for the sweaty ending.

In Samaras, there are shields, images stuck with shards of glass and nails, an avalanche of pins, razors and needles jutting out at the viewer from books, and boxes so sharpened that they insist on “No Entrance”. These personal fantasies are often, according to the artist, fueled by his dreams. (Samaras is known to record dreams and memory as metadata for his image making).

In his pastels and drawings there are disemboweled figures, poems where he cannibalizes his grandmother, chairs that puncture the sitter, mirrors that cause vertigo in the viewer, monstrous portraits of art dealers, artists, spectators, and so on.

In fact, Samaras, a modern-day Nosferatu, made such a tangibly fearful mask of himself through his untouchable imagery, that it translated to the character itself, and in so doing made the avant-garde art world love him from afar, and fear him from anear. So too then, would it seem logical and natural that photography of the Self would become the default norm for Lucas Samaras.

If I were to cast Samaras in a role on the basis of his self- portraits, I would cast him as Mephistopheles.

Donald Kuspit

Samaras and Photography

As a student of acting, in classes with the renowned Stella Adler, Samaras was unable to cry on command, and by his own admission understood that his acting dream was over. When challenged with the option of performing in the Happenings or studying acting with Adler, he chose the Happenings of the early 60s and quit Adler. When asked why, his comment was, “she was a Diva, I want to be a Divo”

This departure from a formulated acting methodology allowed Samaras to perform with greater ease and bravura in the Happenings of Kaprow, Whitman, and Oldenburg. In reality, what Adler did was to release Samaras from the distraction of rigid theater and send him with full force into the private world of his indigenous self. Now he would be preoccupied with nothing more than creating, and compensating for, his new character, all staged in the intimacy of his humble home and viewed by no one. It was photography that liberated Samaras totally.

In the early Polaroids, those that are not manipulated, Samaras acts out every possible fantasy available to a man or woman, he is everyone and everything: grotesque, beautiful, childlike, archaic, neoclassical, drag queen, and dandy. In tortured black and white imagery of loss and sadness, Samaras will show them all, a mad and crazy actor sporting the Mask that they will never know who, what, or which to believe.

When Samaras discovered the SX-70 Polaroid, a new germination of his character evolved. Utilizing the immigrant’s special gift of common sense, Samaras heated the Polaroid film in a toaster oven, freeing its stratified layers of color to be manipulated by his innate diabolism. Now with modulated color and sleight of hand, Samaras was able to delve even deeper, to reach the photographic soul of his mask. With the immediacy of the SX-70 Polaroid, Samaras traversed an entire universe in a 3-by-3-inch photograph, smaller than a post card yet more phantasmagorical than a banquet of horror films. Here he can love himself, hate himself, even kill himself, manipulate and mutilate himself, disgrace and aggrandize himself; here he is the King, the masked man who bleeds ink.


Lucas Samaras, Autopolaroid, Double self, 1976 © Lucas Samaras

The subsequent bodies of photographic work by Samaras, from the late 70s on, evolve even out of the use of himself as the primary figure. For a decade or more he continued to experiment with the Polaroid, but now in much larger formats of 8-by-10-inch and 20-by-20-inch Polaroids, requiring at times a special camera often half the size of his living room. In the series “Sittings” Samaras takes lustrous portraits with colored gel lights of naked bodies placed before a kaleidoscope of fabric designs. In these luminous, svelte images, in the grotto of his darkened living room, Samaras gives us the honesty of an Atget portrait, coupled with an eccentric Arbus sensibility, and completed with the incongruity that only Samaras can give to a sensual portrait. The figures are suffused in liquid color, yet the artist remains hidden, now in a tiny portion of the photograph, peeping in, as if to say, “I am a voyeur but still the main character”.

The five Samaras images included in the Tsiaras collection at the Colby College Museum of Art, express a wide range of the artist’s historic work. A “still life” with orbs, glass, and a dotted background (1978); a signature SX-70 AutoPolaroid, Samaras’s extended hand with a diffused, impressionist background (1976); and an SX-70 portrait of himself reconfigured with his child face projected onto his adult backside (1976). Then there are two portraits made thirty years later of computer generated, psychedelically altered depictions of Jasper Johns (2010) and Jaqueline de Looz (2010), from the Poses series (1983–2010).

Modern technology has gifted Samaras with the ability to work into later life. Having become completely enamored of digital imagery and the magic of photoshop, Samaras now into his 80’s is still able to work with compulsive ritual on his computer daily. No one else in the contemporary art world has manipulated this technology with such inexorable efficacy.

The cutting and pasting of thousands of his own images, resewn in a myriad of layers, permits Samaras now to employ his electronic Mask, the computing machine, creating bodies and forms that would make Dr. Frankenstein proud. When asked, “Lucas what are you working on now?” He replies, “Egrets, so many egrets, they are just wonderful.”

Philip Tsiaras
New York City

  • Essays — Philip Tsiaras on Lucas Samaras, Feb 4, 2020