Unrepentant Ego: The Self-Portraits of Lucas Samaras opens with this quotation from the artist: “Professional self-investigation—which is what a good self-portrait is—is as noble a search as any other, and I have always shared what I have learned with the public.” The use of the word noble is slyly defensive, as is that of unrepentant in the exhibition’s title. They suggest a concern that viewers may find something ignoble—something that should be repented—in Samaras’s art. That something is, of course, narcissism. For most of his life as an artist, Samaras has focused upon himself with an intensity that goes well beyond “professional self-investigation.” He has made thousands of Polaroids of his face and body; he has a childlike love of glitter and a morbid preoccupation with the decay of the body; his significant other is himself. Alone in his Manhattan apartment, he permits no one to come between him and his object of desire, creating a me-myself-and-I theater of the self in which he claims every role. The “noble” narcissist casts himself as performer, audience, critic.
Narcissism, many thoughtful people have concluded, is the principal spiritual malady of our time. Samaras is naturally exasperating in that respect, but he also has certain qualities—not usually associated with narcissism—that set our culture’s navel-gazing into unexpected relief. To begin with, he is not as cold as most narcissists. Whereas the mythological Narcissus found his image in a pool of water that was clear, still, and cool enough to reflect his perfected countenance, Samaras seems to look into a hot, murky, turbulent cauldron. He finds as much self-loathing there as self-love. More important, he is essentially a religious artist—and not one who builds a cathedral to himself. He is instead the modern reincarnation of a Byzantine hermit in a cave, an artist who stares into “the self” the way a monk relentlessly, desperately, longingly, convulsively, idiotically, boringly stares into a skull—searching for something beyond reason’s body.
Samaras, who was born in Greece in 1936, witnessed at first hand the horrors of World War II. He immigrated with his family to the United States in 1946 and early in life aspired to be an actor rather than an artist. It sometimes seems as if he has felt compelled to reinvent himself every day since his arrival. The exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which was organized by Marla Prather, includes almost 400 photographs, drawings, pastels, and box sculptures—only a fraction of his actual output. The number of images on view is excessive, but the too-muchness conveys something poignant: the constant churning of the self. Most viewers will not take away an impression of any particular work but will remember instead the flux and metamorphosis. Samaras strikes hundreds of different poses, twisting and reshaping himself before the lenses of his various Polaroids. He has also manipulated the technical characteristics of the self-developing film so that, for example, the colors run and turn his image into a beautiful stain. Not surprisingly, the computer has further extended his ability to imprint his image upon the world.
Samaras’s boxes are the counterpoint to his floating Polaroid self. They seem to be the place where that wandering self goes to rest, perhaps after it dies. The boxes could be symbolic suitcases, treasure chests, coffins, portable altars, makeup kits. Certain boxes glitter with pins or nails, calling to mind an instrument of torture like the iron maiden. Some are encrusted with costume jewelry, evoking the roughly bejeweled icons of Byzantium. Like the boxes of Joseph Cornell—another hermit—Samaras’s contain a variety of objects, such as transparent glass marbles or toy insects, that become precious, message-laden relics. His own image is usually part of the ensemble, but often appears ghostly and intangible compared with the heavy sparkle of the box itself. If Samaras is a narcissist who relishes endlessly rediscovering himself, he is also one who longs to shed selves. I left the show thinking not of narcissism but, paradoxically, of limpid emptiness and a release from the monkey cage of the self.