JTF (just the facts): A total of 6 slide shows shown on video screens, and 41 black and white and color photographs, framed and hung against white walls, in a series of gallery spaces on the third floor of the gallery building.
The following works are included in the show:
- 6 slide shows, 2022, dimensions variable, unique
- 2 color photographs, n.d., each roughly 12×12 inches (in office area)
- 10 color Polaroid photographs, 1980, sized 10×8 inches, unique
- 5 black and white Polaroid photographs, 1969-1971, each sized roughly 4×3 inches (or the reverse), unique
- 1 set of 6 dye diffusion transfer prints (Polaroid), 1969-1971, each sized roughly 3×4 inches, unique
- 20 internal dye diffusion transfer prints (Polaroid SX-70), 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, sized roughly 3×3 inches, unique
(Installation shots and still frames below.)
Comments/Context: In the years since the digital revolution transformed the medium of photography, Lucas Samaras has been one of the old guard artist/photographers who has most enthusiastically embraced the possibilities of software-driven computational image making. More than a decade ago now, Samaras started showing his digitally manipulated photographs and renderings, and now into his 80s, he shows no signs of slowing down his adoption of new technologies.
The centerpiece of this exhibit is a selection of six albums of digital imagery, each shown as a slide show of hundreds of individual compositions displayed sequentially on a video screen (the exact number of pictures in any one album wasn’t provided). Samaras made his first album back in 1971, but that presentation idea stayed dormant for a number of decades, before being resuscitated in 2015, with what was called “Album 2” (reviewed here); this show dramatically expands from that baseline, adding in Albums 3 through 8.
While each of the albums is made up of distinct imagery, the editing of the albums isn’t done in a way where subject matter themes or aesthetic motifs are overtly gathered into clearly identifiable sets; ideas are introduced, evolved, and iterated, before doubling back to other ideas or reintroducing themes that then lead off in alternate directions. Digital textures and geometries are twisted and warped, with Samaras intermingling imagery from flea markets, walks in the park or in the streets of the city, and the rooms of his own home, using the digital effects to transform and re-interpret whatever photographs might be at hand. In a sense, the photographs feel like the raw material starting point for a deeper dive into the realms of digital creation that happens on the computer.
If there is one consistent theme in the imagery in the new albums, it is a restless (and almost incessant) return to self-portraiture. In some cases, Samaras digs up older pictures of himself, scavenged from prior artworks or family albums, which he then surrounds with digital embellishments or layers into entirely new interpretations. More often, he starts with a straight-on close-up selfie, with his long white hair and beard providing ample compositional possibilities, especially when tweaked in color and shape by the software. Samaras has long played with process and lighting to create visual distortions, and he now seems enthralled by the breadth of the distortion capabilities now available at his fingertips. He doubles and mirrors his face, flares and inverts the colors, pixelizes the textures, adds in impossible backgrounds, and loses himself in swirls and torrents of crazy hair, creating a parade of alternate selves. And while it’s been some fifty years since his first self-portrait efforts, his own face seems to offer Samaras an endless stream of inspiration, especially now as aging continues to change his visage.
To contextualize the imagery in the albums, the rest of this show reaches back into the early days of Samaras’ artistic career, offering examples from various projects that highlight his experimental impulses. The earliest works on view go back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Samaras was using black and white Polaroids to document the extreme contortions of his body. He pulls at his belly, twists his arms, wraps his face in rubber bands, and generally pushes his body to its visual limits, in search of formal angles and bodily abstractions. (A fuller sampler of this early body of work was seen in a 2016 gallery show, reviewed here.)
The show then moves on to Samaras’ well known “Photo-Transformation” project from the mid 1970s, in which the artist intervened in the development process of SX-70 Polaroid self-portraits, creating a surreal set of visual deformations. Many of these works began with a nude Samaras posed in his kitchen and bathed in colored light, which he then wholly re-imagined (and often obscured to the point of showing just an open mouth or single eye) through his active gestural interruptions. In some of Samaras’ recent digital works, he has repurposed these patterns and interventions, amplifying and rebuilding them in new ways.
By the early 1980s, Samaras had adapted his format a bit to allow for photographing other friends and acquaintances in the nude, keeping the colored lights and the sparse single chair setup, but adding more patterned fabric backdrops and often himself lurking in the background. In these “Sittings”, he continued to evolve the ways he was playing with color, light, and pose, searching for new ways a body might bend or the light might create an unexpected effect. Again in the context of the new work, these pictures show Samaras as a constant tinkerer, experimenting again and agin within a fixed set of constraints.
While Samaras’ new albums do faithfully replicate the digital experience of a feed or a scroll through imagery, and as native digital constructions, the images themselves take advantage of the sharp backlit reality of a video screen, it’s hard not to feel a bit overwhelmed by the flood of imagery Samaras has presented. Is such a stream of pictures and improvisations immersive or simply too loosely edited? I tend to come out on the side of wondering why Samaras hasn’t tightened up his filter, organized the images into more coherent themes, and walloped us with his exuberant expressiveness, instead of wandering around hoping we might figure it out ourselves from the onslaught of everything.
What is clear is that Samaras continues to spin, his prodigious output evidence of a mind unwilling to slow down or give up on solving artistic problems. These new albums feel obsessive, in a “just one more” kind of logic that never finds a satisfying endpoint. Cut the hundreds (or maybe even thousands) back to twenty or thirty images, print them large and force us to actually look at them for more than two seconds, and maybe then there is some durable insight to be gleaned from his experiments; but as presented, the work feels like the equivalent of quickly paging through Samaras’ daily digital sketchbooks, searching for the threads that potentially tie all the roving inspiration together.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $12000 (for some of the vintage Polaroids) to $250000 (for each of the albums). Samaras’ work has only been sporadically available in the secondary markets in recent years. Aside from the Polaroid sale several years ago, where a new record was set for Samaras’ work ($194500) and many of his other vintage images sold for strong five figure prices, recent prices have ranged between roughly $4000 and $40000.