This mixed media box sculpture was made by the Greek-American artist Lucas Samaras in 1967. Threads of coloured wool are arranged across the box’s exterior and numerous brilliants (gemstones), possibly made from plastic, cover its base. The box opens to reveal a complex layout and dazzling array of colours and textures. A photograph of the bottom half of the artist’s face lines the inside of the lid, with pins stuck in it at regular intervals along the contours of his cheek, moustache and mouth. Framing the portrait are more brilliants that glitter and give colour, creating a kitsch photo frame. The compartment below this, which incorporates the back hinge of the box, is lined with still more brilliants, producing a dense, inviting interior space. Two pencils, each with a red-painted tip, protrude into this area from either side of the box’s inner edges. The front portion of the box reveals a multi-coloured surface of painted dots, and Samaras has painted the interior rim of the box in alternating coloured stripes. The box is displayed open, with a small cylinder painted with dots placed behind it to support the lid.
Samaras created Box #61 in his studio in New York in 1967. He made his first boxes in the summer of 1960 in the form of small wooden containers filled with rags and began numbering some of them in 1962 when he produced Box #1 (private collection). He then went on to make 135 numbered boxes (see Prather 2003, pp.20–2) and this box owned by Tate is the sixty-first produced in that series (for an example of an unnumbered box, see Box 1963, Tate T07186). Although Samaras made paintings and other sculptures during the 1960s, boxes were his main output at this point in his career.
In a ‘self-interview’ of 1963 Samaras made a series of statements about the use of pins in his work:
1. When I use them with the flat paintings they create a net pattern which creates a stranger illusion. 2. Pins are marks, lines, and dots. 3. They are relatives of nails. My father spent some time as a shoemaker. I was raised up by a very religious family. The nailing on the cross. As a child I often played with pins at my aunt’s [cousin’s] dress shop. Nailing pieces of cloth. My father spent many years in the fur business stretching and nailing furs. The pin is to an extent a part of the family.
(Samaras in Levin 1975, pp.45–6.)
In Box #61 the pins seem to threaten the face, holding the mouth shut so that the artist cannot speak. As the critic and art historian Donald Kuspit noted in 2003, Samaras’s family were unsupportive of his artistic career. It could be that, despite the ostentatious beauty of this box, Samaras signals his ongoing struggle, again noted by Kuspit, against the views of his family, with his speech being silenced by the pins his father used in his own profession (Kuspit in Prather 2003, p.50).
Further to this, the connection between beauty and pain has been discussed in relation to Samaras’s work. The curator and art historian Anne Rorimer explored this in 1973 in an analysis of Box #53 1965 (Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago): ‘the essence of his art lies in his ability to produce associations connected with bodily response particularly related to pain or repulsion within a framework of beauty … Samaras’s main artistic concern is to confound beauty with pain, for “I cannot separate beauty from pain”, he maintains’ (Rorimer 1973, p.3). In the case of Box #61, the decadence of the glittering and colourful surfaces is juxtaposed with the violence of the artist’s pin-lined features. The amount of decoration, pattern, texture and colour also threatens to become oppressive through the way in which it overloads the senses, an effect that the critic Kim Levin has described as ‘obsessive, intensely private, almost hallucinatory’ (Levin 1975, p.46).
Anne Rorimer, ‘A Box by Lucas Samaras’, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, vol.67, no.3, May–June 1973, pp.1–3.
Kim Levin, Lucas Samaras, New York 1975.
Marla Prather, Unrepentant Ego: The Self-Portraits of Lucas Samaras, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of Art, New York 2003, reproduced p.108.
Supported by Christie’s.