Lucas Samaras: AutoPolaroids, 1969-1971 @Craig F. Starr

JTF (just the facts): A total of 58 single images and 5 multi-image sets of black and white and color photographs, framed in cream and matted, and hung against light grey walls in the three connecting rooms of the gallery. All of the works were taken using Polaroid Type 107 3000 and Type 108 75 films, alternately yielding gelatin silver transfer and dye diffusion transfer prints, made between 1969 and 1971. Each print is sized roughly 4×3 (or reverse) and is unique. Some have additional hand applied ink. A small catalog of the show has been published by the gallery and is available for $40. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Lucas Samaras made his first AutoPolaroid in 1969, a black and white image of himself standing naked and turned away, his reflection captured in a mirror hanging on the back of a door in his apartment. On its own, as experimental first steps go, the photograph isn’t particularly original or risky, but the picture marks the beginning of a groundbreaking self investigation project that would envelop Samaras for the next two years.

Limiting himself to his own body and the few props found in his small apartment, Samaras creatively explored the edges of performative self-portraiture in this series (with a few formal still lifes thrown in for good measure), defining and then extending the genre in bold iterative steps. Inside the echo chamber of his controlled artistic environment, he generated images of remarkable vitality and innovation, their freshness and intelligence largely undiminished by the passing of decades and the imitations of others who would come later.

With so few variables at his disposal, most of Samaras’ AutoPolaroids were thoughtful constructions and exercises testing the interaction between camera and body, with heads and faces as the logical starting point. Simple backlit profiles led to half-frame split heads, combining front and back and opposing profiles into strange hybrids. More domestic scenes found him pretending to be asleep, floating ear-deep in the tub, holding a fork and spoon covering his eyes, or peeking out from behind glass jars of utensils. And links to the rougher treatment of the Viennese Actionists came in the form of Samaras’ head tied with tight strings until the skin became twisted and distorted, or wrapped in crinkled tinfoil like makeshift chainmail.

The shapes of his own hands and feet provided Samaras with a selection of alternate formal and conceptual options. Isolated hands were used to grip pencils and balls, light matches, tug at belly skin, or grasp at emptiness like gentle caresses or tension-filled claws. Single fingers or thumbs (it’s hard to tell) were set amid rainbow lights, blurred into shadowy surreal mounds. And feet were placed against black backdrops, highlighting elemental flexed angles, or shot from underneath, with oversized soles pushing out in the foreground.

Samaras’ full body compositions were the most sculptural of the series, his naked body the raw material for increasingly complex poses. We see him dramatically draped over a chair (like Marat in the tub), climbing up a ladder, doubled over with hyper twisted interlocked limbs, or standing on one leg on a pedestal like a jaunty statue. His bent over backside is seen again and again, his rear end the featured body part in set-ups standing in the bathtub, glimpsed through narrow doorways, crawling on modified all fours, or holding himself up on straight arms. Samaras’ inventiveness seems almost inexhaustible in these pictures, as he kneels and folds and hops and howls in succession.

And in many of these works, Samaras didn’t stop when the photography was done. Swarms of hand painted colored dots surround his bodily compositions – and they are executed with such painstaking meticulousness, on such a small surface, that they seem impossibly detailed and precise. The fields of dots, squiggles, and other marks serve to further isolate his forms, his body floating in a flat field of shimmering color rather than lingering in the middle grey of his dingy apartment. These physical interventions amplify Samaras’ artistic presence, his improvisational touch an integrated layer of the end artworks.

The same can be said for his arrangements of images into grids and groups, where visual repetitions and echoes reverberate in patterns of running water, glass apples, and interlocked forks and spoons. In these works, he has moved beyond the single frame to a more complex combination of imagery, allowing him to interweave separate narratives and themes and to explore unlikely juxtapositions.

With nearly fifty years of hindsight, what stands out most prominently in this project is the brightness of Samaras’ obsessive virtuosity. Armed with only his body and the everyday accoutrements of bathroom and kitchen, he devised a seemingly endless variety of formal experiments, seeing himself with both unflinching honesty and playful mischievousness. These early works are sophisticated and smart, a durably influential and pioneering example of turning intimate personal action into a complex photographic study.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The individual prints (regardless of black and white/color) are priced at $30000 each, while the larger matted sets of prints range from $70000 to $125000. 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.

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