Lucas Samaras Pastels & Mesopotamian Copper at The Morgan Library
Morgan Library and Museum exhibits its large ambitions through the current dual exhibitions of varied subjects and treatment. One of these exhibitions is that of Mesopotamian copper sculpture and the other of the pastels by Lucas Samaras.
The Founding Figures at the exhibition consists of seven sculptures and two cylinder seals from ancient Mesopotamia features a title hinting at the influences and even more so at the age of the exhibits.
The title also hints at a relationship with the Founding Fathers, the people in America who wrote the constitution of their nation, the exhibits displayed however, have a lot deeper roots. Especially the sculptures in metal which have an astonishing naturalism as they carry building material in boxes or bowls to the temples that were built to honor their gods.
The inspiration for this unique show comes from a particular piece that belongs to the private collection of John Pierpont Morgan. This piece is a statue made from some kind of a copper alloy has now been named as the Foundation Figure of King Ur-Namma (2112 – 2004 BC). This figure attired in skirt is different from the gods’ sculptures as it has a shaved head and beard as opposed to the bearded representation of the former. The shaved figurine also carries a bowl atop its head as it poses the hands in servitude.
This small naturalistic figure is more noted for its substantial nature than delicate nature as this foot tall sculpture has the empty gazed face of an icon even though the torso of the sculpture is realistically muscular and more universal much like a relaxed human figure created in metal. The figure also has an inscription that says “Ur-Namma, King of Ur, King of Sumer and Akkad, Who built the Temple of Enil.” The deity of Enil was the one that was enshrined in the temple of Nippur, south of Mesopotamia.
It has since come to light that these scriptures were meant to be seen only by the gods, hence the bare chested king sports a body language and expression of a ruler as slave ant not the pride that is associated with the royalty. These figurines were sculpted only to be buried in the foundations of buildings, temples mostly.
Another figurine of great interest is that of a muscular man, bearded and wearing a hat which suggest power and authority kneeling awkwardly, asymmetrically. This greenish ‘Figure of Priest King’ wearing nothing but a belt and leaning forward in a thinking position has a realistic interpretation when compared to the front facing Egyptian figures of the time.
Architectures have commented on the art of the times when these figurines carrying the building materials were made, this was probably the job of the lowest rung of the social hierarchy. The irony pointed out by the architects is that these figurines survived while the grand structures of the times are now buried deep in layers of centuries old earth.
In the other section the delicate pastel works by Lucas Samaras are aptly in contrast to the sturdy and resilient metal figures. An artist, whose medium of choice had always been as indelicate as boxes with protruding pins, collages, happenings and more has found a medium that is so uncharacteristic of him – pastels. Dreams of Dust: The Pastels of Lucas Samaras, donated by the artist and his dealer Arne Glimcher of Pace Gallery strongly hints at a connection to the arts of the past in a media that is not associated with Samaras at all.
The collection is an assortment of small, largely unnamed pieces that vary in style from tactile self-portraiture to phallic long necked creatures to contemplative abstraction where color is probably the only constant element. Some of these works are unabashedly reminiscent of masters like Edgar Degas, Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. The gorgeous overlapping tones of the post-Impressionist Nabis group of artists are a big influence on Samaras’s work even as he puts his own twist on the intimacy in their works. This is exemplified by the over-intimate glimpses of a man sitting on a toilet or a woman urinating while standing in shallow water.
With a bent of eroticism Samaras is also known for his Bonnard inspired nude, with legs spread apart which has a luscious flesh tone though it does have a strange greenish hue. Some works of his mimic the votive stories that usually are found on the borders of religious paintings, but when you reach the earth you see sexual imagery that may not necessary be pleasant.
Samaras known for his tendency to grab your attention than for making friends believes that since it isn’t possible to escape the past, it is wiser to exploit it. Samaras has been known to reveal his secret world through his work, but these pastels are of a personal nature of a different kind. These works offer an insight into the experimentation, exploration, variation, and improvisation which makes them intimate to a whole new level.
This intimacy is highlighted by one of his busts titled Head #16 (1981). This is a self-portrait with Samara’s black hair and beard that envelope a greenish face and eyes that are fixed in a sightless gaze – a homage to the art maestro Henry Matisse, but also hints at neglect, putrefaction and rot. The piles of color that surround the work is also indicative of a sort of an exploded ceramic glaze. In this same year Samaras painted two more portraits that feature a scowl as a warning to the viewer letting him know of the importance and dignity of these works.
The patterned wallpapers that he designed did their job to ensure that nothing around ever feels too harmonious. The entire showcase at the Morgan has an appeal of a jumbled sketchbook and a scrapbook that documents the journey of a rebel through a delicate and seductive medium.
The Founding Figures: Copper Sculpture from Ancient Mesopotamia, ca. 3300–2000 BC and Dreams in Dust: The Pastels of Lucas Samaras exhibitions would both continue till August 21st at Morgan Library and Museum, New York.