Shout Magazine

Mark Kostabi on Lucas Samaras

When I lived on the 64th floor of Cityspire, on 56th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues, in the early 1990s, I was determined to build the world’s tallest building—Kostabi Tower, in Brooklyn. It would have been totally devoted to art, I hired a famous architect, Eli Attia, to design the “vertical art city”, and had meetings with city officials and potential investors.

One of my neighbors, on the other side of the building, on the 62nd floor, was the legendary “obsession artist,” Lucas Samaras. I watched the sun rise; he watched the sun set. Lucas had bought two apartments and joined them together, so his studio would be attached to his home. On my occasional encounters with Samaras in the elevator, which is the fastest residential elevator in New York (only 60 seconds to get to the top), I was always struck by his dramatic intensity and sense of focus. Sometimes he said weird things, but I can’t remember what. Everyone who knows him describes him the same way: “dramatic, focused and intense.”

During my one visit to his apartment, I was surprised by how highly organized and relatively minimal it was, considering the unbridled, obsessive nature of his unusual assemblages, incorporating diverse material such as straight pins, multicolored string, plastics, chicken wire, feathers and mirrors. His works are both visually seductive and implicitly violent. Samaras is also known for his reclusiveness, and his work is regarded as a revelation to his disturbing and complex private realm.

Samaras was born in Kastoria, Greece, in 1936. He emigrated to West New York, NJ, in 1948 and graduated from Rutgers University in 1959. He participated in the earliest Happenings, and he studied art history with the legendary Meyer Schapiro and acting at the Stella Adler Studio Theater, which might explain his dramatic personality.

Now, at Pace Wildenstein’s gigantic new Chelsea gallery, Lucas Samaras is redefining obsession with an overwhelming installation of 500 new works. Among them are oval acrylic abstractions, eight-inch squares, cubes, cylinders and dragonfly objects, which are made by bending forks and knives into dragonfly shapes and then encrusting them with myriads of bright color, gooped on straight out of the tube. Samaras’ new work is more painterly than before, and there are fewer found objects.

A few years ago, the brilliant young curator, Mike Weiss, impressed the art world by curating a group show of 400 different artists who each made a painting exactly 24 inches square, all of which were installed in a sprawling grid at the Gale Gates Gallery in Brooklyn. Mike Weiss’ hitherto unchallenged Size Matters show now faces formidable competition from the one-man army of acrylic encrustations that toils in the clouds way above Carnegie Hall and the Topaz Thai Restaurant on 56th Street. These 500— Works will eventually disperse, individually or in thematic groups, but for now they are rigorously installed as a unity, by Samaras himself, to create a gigantic, temporary, singular and unforgettable piece.

December 2001