Cahiers d'Art Institute Blog

December 9, 2020 11:16 AM

Untitled (Shoe Box), 1965
Mixed media
10 1/2 x 15 1/2 x 11 in. (26.7 x 39.4 x 27.9 cm)
Photo courtesy Berardo Collection Museum

By David Grosz, President of Artifex Press

This is the second in a series of blog posts in which Artifex Press staff members delve deeper into the artworks they are researching, sharing insights and discoveries gleaned during the intensive process of assembling a catalogue raisonné.

Last week, my colleague Christine Lee wrote about the art of Lee Ufan, which she described as “charged with a quiet but vibrant energy." This week, tasked with describing Lucas Samaras’ iconic Boxes, I couldn’t have a more different challenge. After all, the Boxes are nothing if not loud and cacophonous, overflowing with strange objects and dark humor, evoking a raucous party gone bonkers sometime pre-dawn.

Above, for example, is Untitled (Shoe Box) from 1965.

And here is Box #112 from 1984:

Box #112, 1984
Mixed media
18 x 14 1/2 x 20 1/2 in. (45.7 x 36.8 x 52.1 cm), open; 11 1/2 x 14 1/2 x 17 1/2 in. (29.2 x 36.8 x 44.5 cm), closed
Photo by Ellen Page Wilson, courtesy Pace Gallery

Atop the first sits a high heel shoe stuffed with a tangle of steel pins, as a cloud of cotton pushes out through the open box lid. Meanwhile, in the second, you’ll find an assortment of objects: a diorama of peacocks, a toothbrush, pencils, dental mirrors, wire, wool, and yarn—many of them bursting through a hole in the box’s side. If Lee Ufan’s work presents a balanced relationship between inner and outer worlds, here interior and exterior are both in tumult: some objects seem to want to pierce into the center, and others to explode outward.

Where do you start in describing these works? Samaras wrote, in a statement from 1972: "We live in boxes, see and eat with boxes, travel in boxes, and even our days and nights are boxes. Box is a lovely principle that carries a lot of symbolic beans…. There is a language of words and sub-language of visibles. Talk is sometimes used as a legitimatizing agent. It is also a lullaby and a dirge."

If words are insufficient to represent these works, so too is a single image:

Box #56, 1966, States 1-5
Mixed media
Dimensions variable, open; 12 3/8 x 12 1/8 x 12 1/8 in. (31.4 x 31 x 31 cm), closed
Photos by Robert Gerhardt and Denis Y. Suspitsyn, courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Like Box #56 (pictured above), each Samaras box is both singular and multifaceted, and not one is exemplary of the basic form of the box. In a catalogue raisonné of 295 works, there are 295 exceptions without a single rule. Each work's pleasure lies in its quiddities.

Also, in its paradoxes. Subtlety is not what you would expect of creations that bristle with knife blades, steel pins, and shards of glass, but read this Webster’s Dictionary entry for the word "subtle" and find the definition that the Boxes do not meet:

      a subtle fragrance
      b: difficult to understand or perceive: OBSCURE

      a writer's sharp and subtle moral sense
      b: having or marked by keen insight and ability to penetrate deeply and thoroughly

      3a: highly skillful: EXPERT
      b: cunningly made or contrived: INGENIOUS


      5: operating insidiously

Beauty and revulsion, joy and pain, order and chaos, delicacy and force, discovery and concealment—you’ll find it all tangled together. The boxes allude to modernist icons like the minimalist cube and ancient myths like Pandora’s Box but are born of a spirit of pure iconoclasm.

Ultimately, they feel to me like riddles that turn inward, collapsing into themselves. All those knives and pins cry out: Watch your hands. Watch your eyes. A warning to the viewer, a warning to the artist. Stop, stand back.

But then they add in the next breath: I know you can't resist.

97_detail.png Detail of Box #97, 1977
Mixed media
15 1/2 x 15 1/8 x 18 in. (39.4 x 38.4 x 45.7 cm), open; 8 3/4 x 15 1/8 x 18 in. (22.2 x 38.4 x 45.7 cm), closed Photo by Tom Barratt, courtesy Pace Gallery

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