In Character

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The Lucas Samaras of multitudinous self-portraits — the wiggy character with electroshock hair and forked beard, the pixilated Zeus, the oldster hippie hidden in psychedelic swirls, the irrepressible ecdysiast — that man, I’m shocked to find, lives and works in an utterly nondescript high-rise in midtown Manhattan. It’s the sort of structure usually filled with corporate apartments. And, I soon realize, it provides exactly the right sort of camouflage for Samaras, because you’d never expect to find the notoriously reclusive artist in such a palace of blandness.

His studio, a tiny techno aerie more than 30 stories above the city, is just large enough to contain a couple of iMacs, some high-end video equipment, thick rows of draped bead necklaces curtaining one wall, some similarly draped power cords, and a narrow galley kitchen. Prints for a new series of photographic portraits hang on the wall opposite the beads. Titled "Poses," the full set of more than 100 headshots will be on view at the Pace Gallery on 25th Street in Manhattan from November 9 through December 24. The palette ranges from stark monochrome to blaring color, sometimes within a single image. And at first glance, the heads are a bit freakish. I’m particularly struck by one in which a man’s mottled, radioactive-green skin half peels away to disclose his peachy, everyday face beneath. Before I can begin interviewing Samaras about the work, he asks if I’ll sit for him. Who could say no to joining the pantheon of famous, powerful, or merely interesting visages he has assembled?

 

The operation is simple and relatively brief. Samaras works as he lives — alone, with no assistants. He asks if I wear glasses. No. Do I have sunglasses with me? I do. He has me stand against the white wall, next to a row of test prints. Using a small digital Leica mounted on a tripod, he photographs me from a low angle, first with the sunglasses perched toward the tip of my nose, then without them. He knows exactly what he’s looking for and directs me — chin up, eyes over here, and so on — silently, with hand gestures. After five or six frames, he’s finished.

The reason for the glasses is that when they’re worn low and lit from below, the shadows produced create an effect like "devil’s horns," he explains, adding that "some people get insulted if I ask, ‘Don’t you wear glasses?’ Like [he names a megacollector], when I said, ‘Do you have glasses?’ He said, ‘No! You know? The vanity."

Samaras doesn’t cater to vanity. In fact "Poses" originated in an ego-puncturing proposal he made to Interview, a magazine dedicated to idealizing celebrities, for which he’d already shot Versace and Elton John, among others. "I called [then editor Ingrid Sischy] and said, ‘I have an idea of photographing people from below,’ which I had done in my videos over the years. ‘But instead of doing the stupid stylist thing, I want to make them like gargoyles.’ She was horrified." Considering the portraiture he saw in the world "either too designy," too much in the Pop tradition, presenting faces as "façades with no indication of the psychology behind them," or "cutesy" and satirical — "negative stuff, like making fun of" — he decided to go ahead with the project on his own.

"That’s the outside part," he continues, seated on a swivel chair before the bank of computers, his spindly legs outstretched. "The inside part is I have been living devoid of daily contact with, and nightly contact, with people — totally devoid, except for what I see on television. But I think the mind, at whatever age, cannot reject all the stuff that came in with this mind’s upbringing. Heads or faces of people are important even if you reject them for 10, 20 years. So I said, ‘Fuck it, I’ll let them come in, but in this way: They come in, I photograph them, and I work on their faces for hours or a couple of days. And then I’ll get to learn more about their faces than I would normally.’" It’s not difficult to understand why portraits have a greater significance for a man who lives as an urban hermit than for those used to daily social interaction, nor why so many faces suddenly thrust upon a loner might take on a sinister or gargoylelike cast. Still, although some of the subjects appear devilish or demonic, what unites the disparate images in the series is a sense of theater, of dramatization.

Interestingly, the Samaras who greets his subjects at the studio door is not Asperger’s-afflicted or furtive or especially odd; he’s a witty and engaging conversationalist, a gracious host. Now a spry 74, he has managed to remain at the forefront of artistic innovation for some 50 years — "Do it first," he says, "or do it best." In the late 1950s and early ’60s, he participated in the initial happenings. He made a floor-piece sculpture with interchangeable parts some five years before Carl Andre made his name with one. He created some of the earliest immersive environments. The altered Polaroid self-portraits of his 1973-76 series "Photo-transformations" anticipated many effects later made possible by Photoshop, a tool he embraced immediately. "I feel connected to Photoshop," he says, "because I did stuff of a Photoshop nature 10 years before Photoshop came, so there’s a kind of relationship, a family thing." He began shooting digital a decade ago. His prestige is now great enough and his friendship (usually telephonic) sufficiently valued to lure such subjects for "Poses" as David Byrne, Glenn Lowry, Leonard Lauder, Cindy Sherman, Agnes Gund, Evelyn de Rothschild, Chuck Close, and Alex Katz.

Most of us are used to locating all portraits somewhere on a scale between literal likeness and idealization, which in photography tends to involve a lot of airbrushing and such. Samaras — who not coincidentally studied acting with Stella Adler — invites us to consider the fictive, in the form of the theatrical, as the best way to convey psychological truth. His pictures implicitly reject the notion that who we are remains fixed from day to day, that a pose is any less true than whatever the opposite of a pose might be. He does not pretend to offer an objective, unadulterated image, nor is he trying to portray his subjects in their best light; rather he provides a stage for them to act on. Jasper Johns hams it up in five of the pictures. Is the stern Johns, peering over his glasses, his skin a zinc-gray monotone except around the eyes and ears, where it glows radioactively, more real than the benign, faintly grinning, rosy-faced Johns?

In his 1978-80 series of photographic portraits "Sittings," Samaras asked his subjects to strip and present themselves as they wished and then jumped in the frame with them. The dramatic tension came from the ways in which his sitters offered or hid their unclad bodies, as well as from the contrast between the vulnerable naked subject and the clothed artist. The drama in "Poses" results partly from Samaras’s directorial ability to elicit a performance from a static subject and partly from the theatrical effects he adds later using Photoshop.

If Samaras’s portraits reject the notion of a fixed psychological essence, they implicitly accept physical mutability, the fact that from moment to moment, we never turn the same face to the world. Thus Samaras will not allow in his portraits "certain natural mistakes" like pimples or scratches, both of which might be true to a person’s likeness today but not that of yesterday or tomorrow. By not including transient blemishes that might call undue attention to themselves, distracting the viewer, Samaras hopes to impose a kind of seamlessness on the act of viewing. Intrinsic oddities, "a nose too big or a crooked eye or whatever — that’s not a problem," he says, "as long as it’s aesthetically pleasing to me."

What’s important to understand is that Samaras’s Photoshop interventions are in the service of neither literal representation nor idealization. He aims for drama and what he defines as nobility. "Any face can give you a variety of psychological roles that it can play," he explains. "But sometimes you want to help them. You don’t want to express something that does not enrich them. I don’t mind a face resembling a gargoyle as long as it’s a grand gargoyle instead of a stupid gargoyle. As long as it’s excellent and noble and not pedestrian." He hasn’t, for instance, edited out the strands straying from Kim Levins mop of hair or smoothed away the wrinkles in her neck, yet by placing her against a violet background, highlighting the area around her intently gazing eyes, and emphasizing the ridges on her blouse, he points up her mournful grace.

Samaras’s directorial strategies — everything he does to enhance a subject’s performance — range from the nearly invisible to the ornate. From Evelyn de Rothschild he elicits sweetness, even comedy, merely by shooting him in extreme close-up, focusing on the nose and eyes. The New York Times writer Grace Glueck receives the full "grand gargoyle" — or Grand Guignol — treatment, with hornlike shadows and her face tinted in contrasting grays, silvers, and blacks that set off the green of her eyes and the carmine of her coat.

A pose in common parlance suggests an affectation, something unnatural. With "Poses," Samaras seems to contend that there is no natural person to uncover, that we are all born actors, and it is in our disguises that we are least concealed.

"In Character" originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' November 2010 Table of Contents.