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11.11.10

VIP Portrait Show

According to Lucas Samaras, that is. Judith H. Dobrzynski on the subjects of his new show featuring the likes of Evelyn de Rothschild, Cindy Sherman, and Leonard Lauder.

Jasper Johns is there. So are artists Cindy Sherman, Alex Katz, Chuck Close and Lisa Yuskavage. Glenn Lowry, the head of the Museum of Modern Art, and Lisa Phillips, of the New Museum, are side-by-side with collectors Leonard Lauder, Marie-Josee Kravis, Agnes Gund and dozens of similar luminaries.  

They’re all subjects of new photographic works by Lucas Samaras, a slight, 74-year-old multi-media wizard whose new exhibition, “Poses,” launched an art-world version of the name-game when it opened at the Pace Gallery this week.  

Why Leonard Lauder, chairman emeritus of the Whitney Museum, but not his brother Ronald, former chairman of MoMA? Where are hot-shot artists Richard Prince and John Currin? Why isn’t Henry Kravis there with his wife? How about alpha collectors Aby Rosen, the real estate tycoon, and Beth Rudin DeWoody, an heir to the Rudin real estate fortune? Sandra Brant is in, but not her ex-husband, newsprint magnate Peter, or his off-again, on-again second wife, supermodel Stephanie Seymour. And while it may be understandable that reticent critics like Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker and Roberta Smith of The New York Times aren’t on Pace’s walls, where is Jerry Saltz, the energetic New York magazine critic who made a star turn as a judge on Bravo’s reality show “ Work of Art”?   

Funny thing, though, with Samaras as artist, it’s not clear whether it’s better to be included or not. One earlier series, “ Sittings,” required his subjects to get naked. To make these works, Samaras snapped digital headshots of his subjects standing against a white wall, lit from below to sculpt shadowy, enigmatic, sometimes devilish images. Then, he booted up Photoshop. But instead of using it to conceal imperfections—“Making people look pretty is just a stupid Hollywood idea,” he says – Samaras set out to make “unpretty” images that exaggerate and reveal. Working in a 62nd-floor midtown studio that’s as warm as his native Greece, Samaras says he runs through Photoshop color and lighting effects until he finds the one he likes. Searching for the inner being, he spends anywhere from two hours to two days on each photo.

Gallery: Lucas Samaras: Poses

“Some people will be upset, but they are all part of the art world,” Samaras adds, his voice trailing off. “I don’t care if they like it or don’t like it.”

Most of his posers had not seen their images until the opening party Monday night. The tipoff? Along with their invitations, each received a miniature bottle of Stoli vodka, with the suggestion that they imbibe first. “I told them all it would not be pretty,” he says, “but I also said there would be no distortions.” To his subjects like Lauder, who joked that he hoped “he manipulates the lines out of my face,” Samaras responds “fat chance.” (Lauder looks diabolical.)  

“Some people will be upset, but they are all part of the art world,” he adds, his voice trailing off. “I don’t care if they like it or don’t like it.”  

Samaras has been thinking about this series for a few years, but he didn’t get started in earnest until a year ago, when he ran into old friends, Martin and Mickey Friedman, at a party for David Hockney. That night, he brought them back to his apartment, and took their pictures.  

“The next day, I put them into Photoshop, and it was like Nirvana,” Samaras says. “They made it legitimate. The pictures were honest; they showed age but in a legitimate way, in imperfect terms.” Not so for Friedman, who came back to see the results—his face is tinged in neon green, the circles under his eyes exaggerated. “He was horrified,” Samaras says, “but he said, ‘fuck it, it’s art.’ “

“From then on, I was coasting,” he says—except that he had to recruit victims. Some he asked himself, like Kim Levin, who was one of the first critics to write about Samaras, back in the ‘60s. 

But it wasn’t enough, so his dealer Arnold Glimcher stepped in. It was he who asked Marie-Josee Kravis, for example. He also asked Henry, but the appointment was fumbled by his staff and then, Samaras says, he didn’t need him any more. “I wanted him to represent Wall Street, but Arne got me Rothschild,” Samaras says, referring to Evelyn de Rothschild. “He brought a certain mythic name. Evelyn was both hauteur and vulnerability,” maybe because he was rushing out to catch a plane. His wife, Lynn Forester de Rothschild, also posed, a little later. (Samaras was easy on both.)  

Along the way, Samaras expanded his headhunting staff to include Marc Glimcher, Pace’s president, his wife, Andrea, and the “Poses” catalogue essayist, Pierre Alexandre de Looz, who recruited his own mother.  

“Most people came without knowing what I was doing,” Samaras acknowledges.  

Still, it seems some people were wary. Samaras rarely got an outright “no” from a sitter, but some people kept postponing their appearances. Others, like critics Smith and Schjeldahl, never responded to his emails.  

Some obvious candidates, like Saltz, weren’t asked. “This is the first I’ve heard about any Lucas Samaras “Poses” project,” Saltz responded in an email. But stay tuned. If for the first round of “Poses” the sitters were generally within six degrees of separation, Samaras has already started on a second round. Says the catalogue: “Finis For Now.”

Plus: Check out Art Beast, for galleries, interviews with artists, and photos from the hottest parties.

Judith H. Dobrzynski, formerly a reporter and a senior editor at The New York Times and at BusinessWeek, as well as a senior executive at CNBC, is a writer based in New York. She blogs about the arts at www.artsjournal.com/realcleararts.