After spending five years on the road, “Room No. 2,” better known as the “Mirrored Room,” has returned to Albright-Knox Art Gallery as the main attraction of the “Lucas Samaras: Reflections” exhibit running through Nov. 16. Nestled with new and returning pieces by the artist in the gallery’s pop art collection on the first floor, museum curator Cathleen Chaffee has assembled an intimate exhibit that provides context for the room, and for Samaras.
Aside from “Room No. 2,” the pieces in “Reflections” explore other aspects of this reclusive artist who works in bold colors, kitschy patterns and distorts forms as easily and evocatively as he manipulates photographs.
Born in Greece in 1936, Samaras immigrated with his family to New Jersey when he was 11. Graduating from Rutgers University in 1955, he received a graduate fellowship to Columbia University’s art history department. After moving to New York City, Samaras quickly became involved in the art scene and studied acting at the Stella Adler studio. Acting may not have worked out in the traditional sense for him, but a sense of drama informs his perspective, and is on display in this exhibit.
Samaras is widely known for his Polaroid self-portraits beginning in 1973, in which he adjusted the wet dyes to create new compositions, or “Photo-Transformations,” before Photoshop let anyone experiment so boldly. Using the software in his “Poses” series, Samaras creates arch-portraits of artists, friends and art dealers. He does not remove wrinkles or touch up errors, instead he manipulates colors, poses subjects and lights them from below to achieve the haunting and intense image. The result is not a true portrait, but a playful possible facet of the person in the photo.
Manipulation of forms becomes literal in the bright colors accenting each side of the 12 transformed boxes in the familiar “Transformation: Boxes.” Samaras showcases new and fascinating angles of the form, which asks what exactly, if anything, these boxes are supposed to hold. Likewise, in two showcased prints, he explores form manipulation in more abstract terms. Black-and-white curves form a backdrop where a bending plane of rainbow colors floats like a leaf toward the lower third in “Hook.”
On the opposite wall, the large “Reconstruction #28” is a fractal-like composition of deliberately cut and restitched fabrics that are tied together with a green ribbon, which gives the piece dimensionality. Either these fabrics are exploding out, or more probably, they are textures of another place we are traveling into.
What brings all of these pieces together is an unmistakable sense of play, which is never too far from a thoughtful and deep interrogation of form, faces and personal reflection.
Away from all the colorful play is “Room No. 2,” surrounded by white walls on three sides, and certainly deserving of the current excitement about its return. Made entirely of mirror panels, the only color brought into (or is it onto?) the piece comes from the people (wearing socks) entering and exiting the room.
Stepping into the room is to experience an infinite, repeating image of you on every surface. With a slight tinge of green, thanks to some of the panel edges, the illusion of tangible limitlessness immediately dislodges a bit of certainty, and nudges visitors into contemplating about where and what they are. There still is nothing like the thrill of being inside the Mirrored Room, feeling weightless, and just looking and looking and looking and wondering if these images really are all the same you.
The pieces complementing “Room No. 2” are few in number, making it a short trip for just the eight new pieces on display. However, getting a wider and deeper view of Samaras’ work, no matter how limited, is certainly worth the journey. Just don’t forget your socks.