Made by the Greek-American artist Lucas Samaras in 1963, this work consists of a box that is wrapped in string and studded with pins. Numerous triangular shards of glass protrude from an opening in its lower facade, their points jutting out into the space in front of the object. A handle on the outside of the work suggests that it can be opened, and once the lid is lifted it reveals an interior consisting of two mirrors made from silver acetate film covering the underside of the lid and the box’s main compartment, sealing off the inside. Linking the mirrors are several pieces of coloured wool, which run diagonally from the upper left corner of the lid to the bottom right corner of the top compartment and are pulled taught when the box is open.
Samaras created Box in his studio in New York in 1963. The box itself, which is made from mahogany and has a brass handle, has been wrapped in a greyish cream string along which numerous steel pins have been inserted. Samaras cut a large rectangular hole in its front, into which he affixed the thick pieces of mirror glass, and the two sheets of silver acetate are attached to the lid and upper opening using staples. The coloured threads inside the lid consist of four-ply knitting wool.
Samaras made his first boxes in the summer of 1960 in the form of small wooden containers filled with rags. He began numbering some of them in 1962, when he produced Box #1 (private collection). He then went on to make 135 numbered boxes, such as Box #61 1967 (Tate T07151) (see Prather 2003, pp.20–2). Since it is unnumbered, however, Box belongs more generally to his works in this form and is a relatively early example. Although Samaras made paintings and other sculptures during the 1960s, boxes were his main output at this point in his career. During 1963 Samaras began to use coloured wool in his boxes for the first time, thus the few strands utilised in Box are among his first experiments with this material.
The critic and art historian Donald Kuspit has described Samaras’s boxes as ‘wombs with much evil and violence in them, and no hope at the bottom, except for Samaras’s mirror image’ (Donald Kuspit in Prather 2003, p.46). This observation is particularly relevant to Box, which is not only pierced multiple times with pins and glass, but contains mirrors that reflect the artist and the viewer back at him- or herself. Viewers may therefore wish to avoid touching it and yet, despite these qualities, the box’s handle and, when closed, its mysterious contents, invites us to open it.
Kuspit has argued that much of Samaras’s work is autobiographical, stating that in the same way that the German performance artist and sculptor Joseph Beuys (1921–1986) ‘turned his wartime experience into a personal mythology, Samaras has mythologised his traumatic experience’ (Kuspit in Prather 2003, p.47). Here Kuspit refers to Samaras’s childhood during the Second World War in Greece and the Greek Civil War of 1946–9, arguing that Samaras’s boxes represent the way in which he ‘hunkered in on himself in a hostile world. He created a small inner space, womblike and reclusive, where he could hold out against the world; a space not unlike the cave in which he hid from the Germans with his mother and aunts’ (Kuspit in Prather 2003, pp.46–7).
The pins in Box also have their roots in Samaras’s family history. In a ‘self-interview’ of 1963 he said:
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.)
Writers such as Kuspit have primarily interpreted Samaras’s boxes through a psychoanalytic lens, making connections between their symbolism and events in the artist’s life. More generally, they have been situated within surrealism, particularly in their unexpected juxtapositions, such as the colourful and shiny effects combined with the pins, glass and the constraints of the string that suggest a connection between beauty and pain (see Rorimer 1973, p.3).
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.
Supported by Christie’s.