Lucas Samaras has been hailed as the master of self-depiction in the post-war American landscape. As a painter, photographer and filmmaker, his work has anticipated the era of the so-called selfie.
The curator of the current exhibition “Lucas Samaras: Offerings from A Restless Soul” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Marla Prather, has noted that “innumerable precedents exist in the genre of self-portraiture but Samaras’ devotion to his own image is an obsession born of profound narcissism, for which he makes no apology…His ‘Autopolaroids’ and ‘Phototransformations’ are among the artist’s most transgressive inventions.”
In light of the fact that two major New York exhibitions are currently featuring his work, the reclusive artist spoke to Michael Skafidas for The WorldPost about the power of self-representation in art, the superficiality of the selfie-era and his objection to be associated with it.
Michael Skafidas: Are you surprised that 55 years after your breakthrough in New York, the "selfies," addicted as they are to Instagram, are manifesting an obsession with the self-image that has always been your trademark fixation?
Lucas Samaras: Yes, but there is one slight difference -- that I am a professional and they are amateurs. I come from an art tradition, so there is a certain aesthetic desire to make it look good, whereas the so-called selfies could not care less whether it looks nice or not. They can do anything they want because it’s a different world. It’s almost like Sunday painting. There is a stage in art that you have to pass where if you are an amateur, magically you become a great professional. Instagram people could not care less about this transition. There is no self-criticism from an artistic point of view. A few perhaps pretend to be artistic. Out of those, it’s possible to get somebody who becomes a legitimate photographer with style, even though at the moment there is a style of no style.
MS: It’s been argued that the selfie is not actually a new phenomenon; it is just a technological reincarnation of a very old one. As a critic remarked recently, even cavemen tended to be the subject of their own paintings.
LS: Well, it wasn’t the self back then, it was an idea of painting what you saw. With the cavemen there was no mirror. They couldn’t see themselves, but they saw the person next to them, so they got an idea what they could look like. The self didn’t quite come then. The mirror came at the moment when glass was invented, before glass it was polished metals like bronze that enabled people to see their face there sometime in the ancient period. I assume in Homer’s time, there were small mirrors made of metal, but not glass. People did not have a chance to see themselves naked really, unless they saw their reflection on the pool like Narcissus.
MS: How is today’s fast self-portrait of the selfie shaping the notion of art and the principles of self-portraiture in photography?
LS: The critics get tired of the artists; they want to see something raw. What is going on now is considered raw and therefore of interest to analyze. That diminishes the value of self-portraiture, especially when someone decides to see the difference between the professional and the non-professional, which is mostly junk. Many people have stopped searching for an intelligent, intellectual criticism. The selfie mentality demonstrates a very aggressive behavior: it’s like going to a museum and saying : "screw the Rembrandt." The selfie era offers a big opening: everybody can do it; nowadays even five-year-olds know how to take a nude self-portrait. Remember how we were brought up with a huge number of valuable restrictions? Now if you are a kid, it’s all about escaping restrictions, and that’s a perfect example of escaping clasps of social upbringing.
MS: Your Autopolaroids (a series of manipulated Polaroid self-portraits) were considered very raw as well back in their time. In a way you were escaping artistic restrictions yourself as a young artist.
LS: Back in the 1960s, there was a great deal of experimentation. For me, the idea of exposing myself so other people can see it -- it’s almost like being a child discovering the water and jumping to its openness. I had been seeing how artists at different periods always painted themselves, maybe once or twice, maybe more. How can you paint other people and not paint yourself? Some artists, like Van Gogh, were sort of hooked. At the same time that they exposed themselves, they also exposed their environment -- Van Gogh’s bedroom, for example.
The exposure of the self is not only your body; it’s also your space, where you live, what’s hanging on the wall. My fame is part of this exposure, and technology expedited it. Even though I’ve done a million other things, people still think that the Polaroids were the best part of my work. My Polaroids were quite open, raw and sexual also. I went lecturing with them, and I had people get up and leave the auditorium because they couldn’t accept the naked part.
But exposing oneself is both a self-journey and a journey you share with other people. Some people use the term exhibitionism, which nowadays is trendy again because of the selfie mentality. Different words can try to explain the same situation. But I never saw it that way. My self-portraits are not strictly about sexuality, they are about the development of the self in time and the various stages of the self, from youth to aging. Aging is quite shocking and requires strength to continue.
"Photography is the best way to depict the idea that you existed. You don’t have to say that nature is aware of your existence, that God knows you are here. The camera gives you proof that you have lived at least once."
MS: Is photographing your own body an erotic act?
LS: No, it isn’t erotic for me. But there might be something in the nature of love –- eros and agape which are two different things in the ancient Greek context -- that brings tenderness to it, but no sexuality.
MS: This tenderness for the self echoes Walt Whitman, the great American poet who celebrated the self in his poetry long before the wannabe narcissism of the selfie-era. In a way you do with images what Whitman did with words. You are recording a life that becomes paradigmatic for others.
LS: Yes, in my pictures I am talking to my future viewer in a non-traditional way, which I guess is what Whitman did in his time with poetic language. But aside from celebrating the self, now that I'm getting older, I am also celebrating the lives of others through my photographs. Photographs reveal something inner about any self, and photography is an imprint of existence. Everything you see existed. As I’ve said before, photography is the best way to depict the idea that you existed. You don’t have to say that nature is aware of your existence, that God knows you are here. The camera gives you proof that you have lived at least once.
MS: Has the selfie-era somehow justified your preoccupation with recording the self?
LS: Perhaps, but I wouldn’t use this term. You see, this is my problem, I was doing what I was doing, and then 50 years later people are using the word "selfie." I hate the word, it’s awful. It almost has something childish into it. I detest it for that juvenile aspect of it. "Pop art" was stupid enough as a term, but at least it had some kind of punch. But "selfie" is diminutive and phony. It denotes a crowd mentality and transfixed stupidity, a massive movement that technology has enabled to release the need of the so-called "selfies" to see themselves as they want to see themselves.
MS: You already sound like a disapproving father! So I assume you would resent the honorific title "father of the modern selfies."
LS: I like to make my own titles. But if somebody gives you a title, you say thank you.
(The exhibition Lucas Samaras: Offerings from a Restless Soul is currently in view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through June 1.
Samaras’ works are also featured in the current exhibition "What is a Photograph?" At the International Center of Photography in New York, through May 4).