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Arts and Culture

Artist Lucas Samaras Opens New Virtual Exhibition, 'Gestures And Constructions'

Lucas Samaras,<em> Untitled,</em> 2008-2020, inkjet print
Lucas Samaras,<em> Untitled,</em> 2008-2020, inkjet print

Nearly all of the 70 or so pieces in Lucas Samaras' last solo show in Manhattan included the artist — frequently, naked. "What the hell am I hiding?" asks the octogenarian artist.

Samaras helped transform the lowly Polaroid into fine art. After escaping the Greek Civil War as a child, he became part of the New York art world's inner circle and an acclaimed artist in his own right.

His last show at Manhattan's Pace Gallery included "six different versions of Lucas' body superimposed into the lobby of his apartment building," says curatorial director Oliver Schultz. "He's standing there naked, striking these different, varyingly classicizing poses, which are, you know, hilarious. I mean, this is the heroic or unheroic male nude, which we usually don't see in the form of an aged man, especially one who's sort of ... dwelling on his own body in a way that's both incredibly public — and yet, because he never actually went and stood in the lobby — very private at the same time."

Still, in these times of imposed privacy, Samaras ventured out onto the empty streets of his neighborhood to create the photographs for his new virtual show at Pace Gallery. He's added neon colors and distorted geometric shapes to transform construction sites and drab buildings into kaleidoscopic wonderlands.

Lucas Samaras, <em>Untitled,</em> 2008-2020, inkjet print
© Lucas Samaras / Courtesy Pace
Lucas Samaras, <em>Untitled,</em> 2008-2020, inkjet print

Samaras lives in a Manhattan high rise. Thick black fabric covers the windows of his apartment, the lights are low, and even Samaras is free of color in his gray clothes, long white beard and straight hair past his shoulders. He sits in front of computer screens, looking at some of the 17,000 digitized photographs of his past.

Samaras clicks through photographs from his childhood in Greece. One shows his stylishly dressed mother standing next to his grandmother, her arm around the elder's black clad shoulders. Young Lucas sits on his grandmother's lap, in a white knit jacket with puffy white balls. But the artist added an almost imperceptible detail — an alteration much bigger in its significance than its size.

Lucas Samaras, <em>Untitled,</em> 2019, pure pigment on paper print
© Lucas Samaras / Courtesy Pace Gallery
Lucas Samaras, <em>Untitled,</em> 2019, pure pigment on paper print

"I put in a small dot red dot there," Samaras explains. "Now, I knew some people would go by and not see it. This was in 1936. In 1937, our house was bombed. Greece was fighting itself then. So it fell on my apartment and hit my grandmother on her chest and she died in six days."

The rest of Samaras' immediate family survived the Greek Civil War, moving to New Jersey in 1948. He attended Rutgers University. Then, in Manhattan, he studied acting with one of the great teachers of the last century, Stella Adler.

When he asked her whether she thought he had talent, he remembers she told him: "Listen, kiddo: All the smart men become directors. All the stupid ones become actors."

When he started working with Polaroids, Samaras got to be both; "I was an actor, but for myself," he says.

In his art, Samaras directs his narrative, freely appropriating images, including one of his favorite paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He created a split image with himself at the left and an El Greco on the right. Both wear glasses and look remarkably alike staring out at us. (And like El Greco, Samaras has work in the Met's collection.) Pace Gallery's curatorial director Oliver Schultz says that's well deserved.

Lucas Samaras, <em>Untitled,</em> 2019, pure pigment on paper print
© Lucas Samaras / Courtesy Pace Gallery
Lucas Samaras, <em>Untitled,</em> 2019, pure pigment on paper print

"When Polaroids were first invented ... he took the physical objects and he manipulated the actual inks on the Polaroids to make them into these bespoke, handcrafted, incredibly rich visual experiences," Schultz says. These artworks were "much more than just photographs because they were like paintings. And I think he's doing the same thing now, only on the computer and with Photoshop."

No matter the tools, the work resists being warm and fuzzy — there's an inherent Hitchcock in there, daring us to look at his aging self and all of his past.

"I'm saying, let's do it correctly now and show everything," Samaras says — an opportunity to show his complete life as an artist, from beginning to end.

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