I have done extravagant things
“You may like my work,” Lucas Samaras once told an interviewer. “You may find, however, that you do not like me.” Although he offered no similar warning to me, on the two occasions that we met and talked, his welcome was more wary than warm, and he made no pretense of being either convivial or confessional. But he is not without charm, and his personal magnetism is formidable; the force field around him fairly bristles with pent-up energy.
An interview is always something of a performance, but Samaras—whose performing career goes back to early-sixties appearances in Claes Oldenburg’s Happenings and the brilliantly compressed dramas of his own seventies “Autopolaroids” and “Photo-Transformations”—dispensed with the usual psychological striptease. Not surprisingly, his approach to our exchanges was slyer, drier, more playful, and full of unexpected tangents, not all of which made it into the version you see here.
Samaras may be overstating the case when he says that his 1970 show of “Autopolaroids” at New York’s Pace Gallery was a turning point for the acceptance of photography both in the art world and in general. (“Photography wasn’t photography anymore, it was art,” he claims.) Still, his early work with the Polaroid remains dazzlingly original and enduringly avant-garde; it also anticipates by some two decades the art world’s recent focus on gender, identity, sexuality, and the body. Samaras continues to explore many of these issues in an ongoing series of self-portraits, the most recent of which find him deliberately emaciated but startlingly regal, like some wizard king.
We spoke in a sparsely furnished, immaculately clean room that he uses as his studio, in the sprawling apartment near Carnegie Hall that he’s lived in since 1989. The view of Lower Manhattan from his window still featured the World Trade Center when we met. The furniture is of Samaras’s own design; the walls are bare except for lengths of brightly colored yarn hung curtainlike by the window. I was immediately struck by the
difference between this space and the little apartment Samaras used as the stage for so many of his early self-portraits, and so we began by talking about location, location, location.
VINCE ALETTI: I suspect this is a very different building from the one you used to live in.
LUCAS SAMARAS: I used to live in a brownstone, so it was totally different. This one has 640 apartments or something absurd. I moved into that earlier apartment in 1967. It was a small apartment, with a tiny room as a studio and a tiny room as a bedroom, where just a bed fit in, and a very tiny kitchen. But it had living room with a twelve-foot-high wood ceiling, and that was the nicest thing, the most elegant-looking thing. [Then, in the late eighties,] when people—artists and whatever—were making some money, they would move into lofts. I didn’t like that idea. I like the idea of a living room, a kitchen, a bedroom, and I like the idea of living where you’re working.
VA: Was it a sort of wrenching move or was it a relief?
LS: It was wrenching. I remember going to one of my dealer’s [Arnold Gllmcher of PaceWlldenstein] parties, and saying, “Gee,
I don’t know if I can deal with the doormen and staff and all.” And this woman said, “Ah, forget it. In five minutes you’ll learn how to do it.” I was moving from a pit into an attic. The sun came into my old apartment for about two hours—and it was about a yard of sun. I was on the second floor, but it was a dark and gloomy place. This is totally different. You know, sometimes you think, “Gee, what do I want?” I realized I wanted to see something. And here I could see the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. Plus the town where I grew up, with my high school, my public school.
VA: Where is that?
LS: “West New York”—it’s across the river, in New Jersey. The idea of seeing where I came from somehow made it warm. And one of the beauties is that when I look out my window and I see these things that I consider tall buildings, they look like toys. And that’s a surprise, because when you’re walking in the street, you look up and see these massive buildings, but when you’re looking down at them, psychologically, the monstrosity disappears.
VA: Do you work in this room?
VA: Where’s the mess? I’m looking for paint splatters.
LS: Well, I’m not a messy person. I don’t like mess.
VA: How important is personal comfort when it comes to getting your work done or moving your life forward?
LS: I didn’t think of the bigger apartment as being a comforting thing. I just think it’s different. I still do the same kind of work as before. I still do my dishes and I still go shopping. I don’t have people doing things for me, you know.
VA: You don’t work with assistants?
LS: No. I put out the same amount of labor, and I like it. So that’s not changed. It’s just being in suspension, 600 feet up from the ground.
VA: I was also thinking about your earlier work and the very different environment that it was created in.
LS: Well, the earlier work also used that environment. I don’t have setups like that here—it doesn’t have the details, the funky, stupid details that the other place had.
VA: Did moving here in any way change your work, or did it just sort of evolve in a natural way?
LS: Well, it probably continued from what I was working on, but I think that several things are affecting my artwork. One is getting older.
VA: How old are you now?
LS: I’m sixty-five. So, I’m getting older. And also changing the people environment that I have. The third thing has to do with finding a different way of working, which has to do with thinking, or realizing, that perhaps you’ve done your best work at an earlier time. As you get older, you know you’re lying to yourself—or maybe it’s just wishful thinking—that you’re going to do your best work tomorrow. So there’s a kind of acceptance that you can write another chapter, but the big book’s been written. There’s a different, more contemplative working method. It’s calmer.
VA: But not the same sort of drive?
LS: Well, I think that at an earlier time there’s a stupidity involved in thinking that you’re unstoppable.
VA: A necessary stupidity.
LS: Sure. If you don’t have it, you can’t do great things. [LAUGHS]
VA: I think what’s characterized your work over the years is this regular reinvention or rethinking of things—approaching a medium in a different way each time, with every show being considerably different from the one before. Do you think that sort of inventiveness is less possible, or just less likely as you’ve gotten older? Or have you done most of what you want to do?
LS: Well, it isn’t as if I had a project to do these things by the time I got to a certain age. It was never structured like that. I tend to move in any way I need to move, and if I think I’ve completed something or done enough, then I can move on. But I think there’s another part to making art. That is, your art is provoked not only by yourself, but by the people around you. I made this change when I moved here: essentially, I separated myself from the people that I used to see regularly.
VA: Why did you do that?
LS: It’s like I got annoyed that they weren’t moving in the direction that I was moving in. And I think the petty stuff got to be too much for me. And the jealousies. And seeing some of their lives disintegrating. You know how people get divorced, people die— all that. I got sick and tired of all that entropy, [LAUGHS] visible entropy. I wanted to just get the hell out of there. So then you have to pay the price, of course, because you have removed your audience, your immediate audience.
VA: Did you do that in order to find a new audience?
LS: Well, there’s a difference between fantasy and reality. You can always expect more of this and that and the other—but you know that realistically you are not going to have even one percent of what your fantasy is concerning other people. So I wasn’t thinking that I was going to replace all those people.
VA: I wasn’t thinking of replacement either, but of some sort of alternative audience that would provoke you in the same way, or maybe in a whole different way. What is it, then, that would keep you working if it’s not just your own drive?
LS: Okay. So then comes this other idea, and that is: What if everybody died or went away, and you were the only one in the city? Would I make any art? My idea was, no, I wouldn’t, because what’s the point? You do it for this other, who is called “human.” But if there’s no human there, then why do it? Why bother?
VA: So don’t you need a new audience of people who respond to your work?
LS: The audience usually that I have is an audience that I don’t know about.
VA: They’re the larger audience that you’ve always had.
LS: Yes, it’s there, although I don’t know it. And it’s better that way. . . .
VA: Then you don’t have to worry about exactly how they’re responding?
LS: Yes. You won’t insult them. And they won’t insult you when they hang your work next to somebody you hate! [LAUGHS] I don’t want to know! So just the idea that they are there is enough to satisfy; it isn’t as if you’re totally alone. So this distance is physical. It’s not mental, it’s physical. And it gives me the opportunity, a couple of years before I croak, to live as if We croaked. In other words, being totally alone, being totally a unit. And everybody else is not propping you up. They are just others, they are just, you know, things.
VA: They’re not emotionally important to you in any way.
LS: Right. You know, you will die alone. Right? Even if you’re in an explosion with other people. There’s no paradise. There’s no afterlife.
VA: You’re sure of it?
LS: For me, there isn’t. Maybe for you.... [L7\UGHS] So the idea of aloneness—although it’s extremely difficult, annoying, depressing—is something that is noble if you live through that period. People might say, “Oh, stop. Go out and find some people. . . .”
VA: Engage with the world.
LS: Whereas, I think just being by yourself—I think it’s an important time, before you croak.
VA: So much of your work—especially the photographic work, where there’s evidence of the process—was done alone. There’s this sense of you as a kind of maverick loner, working things out completely alone. Even though there may have been an elaborate social structure around that, there was still the feeling that the art was coming from a very personal and private place. But do you feel that now it’s more focused and more of a real thing?
LS: No. It hasn’t changed in that respect. Because in my previous work, although it looked as if I did it alone, I had support. I had intelligent support. So I don’t think I was totally alone.
VA: Are you saying that at this point, aside from the amorphous audience out there, you don’t need a response like that? Or are you just happy to experience this aloneness in the years before you die?
LS: No, I need it desperately, but I think it’s a biological condition. There’s a certain time when your work appears new to people, and when they see it there’s an excitement. Later on, the excitement diminishes, because they’ve got clues to your mind. So instead of a big shock, it’s a smaller shock. At which point they say, “Forget it. Don’t bother!”
VA: So what drives your work?
LS: My daily state is one where I am nothing, and I haven’t done anything, and I am hoping a surprise will come. Then months pass, and I get an idea, and all of a sudden it’s like I’m alive. I’ve shifted into a different plane. Then I have this working period of a couple of months, or a couple of years, and then that dies, and then I’m back into a desert where I’m nothing again. It’s kind of biological: nature creates this rough period. When I discover a new way of doing something that I think is serious, that will be shocking for me or different, I get this excitement.
VA: Have you always gone through this sort of process?
LS: Yes. It seems to come by itself. I used to think in the old days that it came because I was so angry. Anger created. Anger made a hospitable place for creativity.
VA: If anger is the impetus, then you’ve turned it into something more various and appealing and fun. Would you accept that?
LS: Umm . . . yeah. I come from a background sort of pouring with love but also pouring with contempt or hate or annoyance. So it’s almost as if I was bounced around. I was like a tennis ball where this side is good and that side is bad.
VA: Between parents?
LS: Relatives. So that if I got, say, a favorable response, then out of nowhere would come this negativism. But I think the positive was stronger, because I always felt that there was something that the negative people didn’t understand about me, and it was up to me to make them change and see the light. This compulsion to wake people up toward me has continued, even until now.
VA: It would be simplistic to ask, is that why you so often use yourself in your work rather than featuring other people? But do you think that had anything to do with it?
LS: Well, when I first started photographing myself, I thought I did it because the famous photographers had not invited me to pose for them.
VA: So you had to do something to make your presence known?
LS: Yeah. Although Diane Arbus did come photograph. And that . . . may have been an inspiration for me.
VA: What did she do with the photograph?
LS: She published it in Bazaar, around 1966. [The July 1966 issue of Harper’s Bazaar featured Samaras, along with Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, and others, in a piece titled “Not To Be Missed: The American Art Scene. ”]
VA: In what way was Arbus inspirational? Was it the experience of sitting for her or when you saw the results?
LS: I think it happened at the right time. I think that when I was in my late twenties, early thirties, I looked better than before. So she was not going to be photographing the gargoyle. It was going to be pretty good! And the two pictures she took are pretty good.
VA: So it was a chance to see yourself in a way that you were really happy with.
LS: Yeah. I said, “Okay, the body looks okay. You can do it now. ”
VA: Well, certainly it seems that once you started photographing yourself, there was no holding back. I remember those early Polaroids being kind of revelatory. And I’m wondering whether you were immediately excited with them.
LS: Immediately. In ’69, I took one picture, and by the second or third, that was it. They were good enough to make the statement. in a way I’d already taken them before I even got a camera—-just thinking.
VA: Did you start out working with the Polaroid?
LS: Yeah. The early black-and-white cameras. My first set, my first few years, I took all those with the Polaroids. Then came the SX-70 for the “Photo-Transformations.”
VA: Could you talk about the November/December 1970 Art in America that featured your “Autopolaroid” series?
LS: This was monumental for me, for my photographic journey. I started in the fall of ’69 with the early version of the Polaroid, where you took a picture and then you had to unpeel it and fix it. Within a month or two, I had created a whole body of work. I began taking it around to places, and it was kind of tough to get people excited, because the pictures were perceived to be too erotic . . . too dangerously erotic for a male to do. My dealer was mortified.
VA: Was it freeing in any way to do this work and then to see where it took you?
LS: Well, to me it was a delight, yeah. It was almost as if I was making an equivalent to what friends did when they got married. They came of a certain age, and then they got married, and then they entered this area of adulthood. And for me, the “Autopolaroids” had that kind of drama. This was my wedding.
VA: Did it change the work that you did afterward? Was it an opening-up for you to do those photos?
LS: There’s only one thing that changed, and that was: I was free to take nude pictures of myself at any time. But other than that, it didn’t free anything else, I don’t think. I grew up with women, so I was really not given any tools with which to express my body the way other kids did. It’s almost as if I had to emasculate myself because I had to live with them. And in the process, there was this hiding, and shame. So for me, it was this freedom with photography. It came late, but when it came there was this freedom about the body. But it also helped me. ... It freed me up also for the aging that occurred later on. People say, “Oh, I wish I had become a rock star or
a baseball player” or something, and they are moping for the rest of their lives. I wanted to be an actor, but since I didn’t become one, I could enjoy just performing for my camera. It satisfied that urge.
VA: And gave you a much greater range of roles that you never would have been able to explore had you really gone on stage.
LS: Yes. So sometimes not getting your wish can be better than getting it.
VA: I still can’t imagine exactly how you discovered all the things that you could do within the Polaroid frame. You must have worked out a lot in advance.
LS: I think that the period of study must have been ten years before, when I was doing pastels. In other words, I had kind of a painting vocabulary, a visual vocabulary to work with. And I was always interested in acting, which meant facial manipulation. You look the way you look—or you can look a hundred years older or younger, a man, a woman, all that stuff. So the anger sort of propelled the need to find something, but then the education, the theatrical education helped. Art-historical things helped. Plus the daring of using yourself. Which was immediately considered masochistic. [LAUGHS]
VA: Did that bother you?
LS: It annoyed me.
VA: Because every artist has abused himself to one degree or another. And you did it in a way that didn’t seem narcissistic, it seemed to do with using yourself as clay.
LS: Yeah. And although it was 1969, people were still having problems with male nudity. The critics—they were young critics, but they came out of Yale or Princeton or whatever, and they had this professorial demeanor, like, “What am I doing looking at these things?”
VA: I’d like to talk about your overall working process—what is the pacing of your production like?
LS: My routine is this: once I’ve made the decision to go in a particular direction, where I made one work and it looked pretty good and I think I am going to make another one, then it’s like being in a trance, and it could last one or two years until I have just exhausted the thing. But when that’s finished, or when it gets toward the end, I keep thinking maybe I’ve done it. Then comes a point where I say, “Okay, I have done it. The thing is closed. Period. It’s over.” Then there’s an emptiness.
VA: As you’re working on a series, does something else naturally evolve out of it—another idea that allows you to move on to something else?
When you get older, you say, “Okay, now it’s time for me to play Lear.” So I had to play it, and I would photograph it.... You give yourself the opportunity of registering the way you look at this particular time, and making it look the way you want it to look....
LS: Not necessarily. But when I was making my gold work [jewelry designed and fabricated between 1996 and 1998 and shown at PaceWildenstein in November 1998], I was thinking at some point, “Gee, maybe I should photograph myself.” The war in Bosnia was happening, or had just happened, and I thought, I am older, I am going to be sixty pretty soon. The body doesn’t look anywhere near what it looked like when it was thirty, but I’ll accept it. Only I’ll go a little further. Let me see what it would look like if I was in a concentration camp. So by removing thirty pounds, I got to the point where my bones were showing.
VA: You lost weight deliberately, just for the project?
LS: Well, it was the project essentially, but it was also this vague feeling that you’re in solidarity with some human capacity someplace nearby. Just this vague connection.
VA: And you were going beyond vanity after losing weight in order to be thin, rather than just thinner.
LS: Yeah, I was going to be beyond thin—I was going to be almost emaciated. But I wasn’t going to look ugly! [LAUGHS]
VA: So there is still a little vanity involved.
LS: Even if you’re emaciated, you want to look good emaciated, or poetic emaciated. In acting, when you get older, you say, “Okay, now it’s time for me to play Lear.” So I had to play it, and I would photograph it. But then, after you take one picture you say, “Gee, it looks like what I thought I was going to do, but it also looks like Renaissance paintings of saints”—Saint Bartholomew or some saint in a Caravaggio. So you then make your body into that. The linkage is fascinating; it’s both contemporary and ancient. In other words, instead of in middle age taking a portrait—like Steichen’s of J. P. Morgan, or Churchill, or whatever—it’s going to be different. It’s going to show age, but it’s going to have qualities that I like to see. And behind it all is the twentieth-century idea of the image. So you give yourself the opportunity of registering the way you look at this particular time, and making it look the way you want it to look, instead of somebody else’s idea of what an artist should look like. You know the old expression of eating the cake and having it, too? That’s what it is. It’s an impossible thing.
[In the course of a tangential discussion of John Coplans’s nude self-portraits, Samaras says, “I could use more eroticism. I think eroticism is a must in photography. "]
VA: There’s always been an erotic element to your photo work.
LS: Well, the human figure is erotic. The prime response is an erotic response, and then comes all the other stuff.
VA: I think what’s been liberating about your work from the beginning was your willingness to use yourself as an erotic figure.
LS: Yes. Well, the Minimalists made as if their bodies were just part of a landscape. But I don’t see why we should reject an enormous component of our being.
VA: You said that in the beginning a number of critics were unhappy with the male nudity in your work. In your most recent photo series, you continue to use your body, but now it seems that you’re doing it in a more classical way, rather than playing with it, and the theatricality has been played down.
LS: In the classical tradition there is one way of showing the young male nude, and then the opposite: the old man with the huge erection. I always have an idea of what a basis is, what a standard is, and then you want to transgress it. You’re going to go one way or another. But you always come back to what the present is, to what the reality is. You can go into irony, you can go into comedy, but again you can go back into this presence. I am more interested in presence at the moment, rather than the extravagance. I have done the extravagant things.
VA: Now you’re just dealing with the clear presence.
LS: Yes. For myself, this is what intrigues. The second thing is that when you’re younger, you can afford to distort, because you know that after the project is over you go back to looking thirty again. When you’re older, if you distort things, you go back to distortion again! So it’s not funny.
VA: You’ve already done so much in that area, but this kind of classical reserve is new. Or is it?
LS: Well, let’s say that I haven’t presented it programmatically.
VA: Have you done bodies of work that you’ve never shown?
VA: And for what reason?
LS: Well, the dealers didn’t like it. I have tons of things that I haven’t shown. But now you’re bringing up a market thing. The market situation is totally different.
VA: Does that sort of consideration bother you?
LS: Yeah, it’s annoying to me. When you have to deal with other people’s reaction, it’s always annoying.
VA: But you’re not making art in a vacuum. You wouldn’t be making it if there weren’t people out there to see it.
LS: Yeah, but what’s annoying is the cliques. This is the communist clique, this is the capitalist clique, this is the socialist clique. If you belong to a clique, then you get this attention. If you belong to another one, you get another kind of attention. It’s not a classic evaluation of quality. I hate the idea of working with other people who are similarly inclined. It would be murder, I think.
VA: I’d like to talk a little bit more about your working process.
If you’re in a period where you’re not actively working on a particular project, how is your day typically occupied? Do you go out? Do you spend time with other people? Do you actively seek inspiration or are you just happy to kind of ruminate?
LS: I think a certain part of my time is spent thinking about my condition—whatever my condition may be at any particular time. I usually go out shopping for vegetables or something every day, and walk through the park or a couple of blocks west. There are routines where I eat at a certain time, and ever since my dieting [for the emaciated photo series] I’ve learned that certain ingredients would give me a pound or would take a pound away.
VA: It sounds very disciplined.
LS: Extremely. I think if I am not disciplined, then I have lost it.
VA: Have you always been as disciplined?
LS: Yeah. Not always about eating, but about work. Inspiration,
I don’t know where it comes from. My main museum is the Metropolitan. I go there a couple of times a year. I don’t go to galleries. But in the art magazines, maybe I can see something. The magazines give you the basic turmoil. I used to go to galleries. I think now I am too self-conscious. It’s as if when I go to a gallery, I kind of see myself being in a gallery, and I am watching what I watch being watched. So I don’t like that. Also, it may be that you’ve seen it all. You’ve seen it all, you’ve done it all.
VA: But you know that’s not true.
LS: There are variations, but in the variations, it’s not something you haven’t been in touch with. Enough of it. I want to get
rid of it. I don’t want it any more. Well, for a number of years, the art world has been saturated with toys or tchotchkes or whatever. It’s kitsch, but it isn’t taking small amounts of kitsch in order to revive an ancient tradition; it’s just kitsch remaining kitsch. These things don’t compel me. Whereas, when I go to the Met, I go and see a masterpiece from a couple of hundred years ago, and I am moved to the core. I listen to classical music. Classical music is all I need. And if I get tired of classical, some hard rock. Just something to shake my brain. You know?
VA: What you’ve described sounds like isolation, but not an unhappy one.
LS: Well, that’s what’s nice about being at a certain age. Certain hours of the day I am in the dumps. I feel as if I should jump out of a window.
VA: You have quite a few to choose from.
LS: But the window doesn’t open. Then I go out. I have lunch.
I feel better. Then in the afternoon maybe I think of doing something, and by the time the evening comes, I’m happy. And every day it’s like that: miserable, semi-miserable, and joyous.
I hate the idea of working with other people who are similarly inclined. It would be murder, I think.