The accordion body of a beguiling black wooden box opens to reveal a furtive interior universe replete with coexistent wonder and peril. Like the mythically foreboding Pandora’s box, Lucas Samaras’ Box #7 from 1963 tempts the viewer into a highly intimate game of seduction with a fragmented reflection of our mirrored selves. Paradigmatic of Samaras’ richly enigmatic and surrealist-inspired early work that bristles with the artist’s unfailingly original shamanism, the present work is a profoundly complex articulation of Samaras’ pioneering assemblage. Following in the tradition of Dadaists like Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Höch, while expounding on the influence of Robert Rauschenberg’s combines, Joseph Cornell’s boxes, and Ed Kienholz’s surrealist dioramas, Samaras created an opulently provocative body of work that pits the quotidian against the dreamlike in a perpetual psychological tête-à-tête.
Box #7 is one of the earliest of Samaras’ numbered boxes; Samaras began his first box constructions in 1960, but he did not start numbering them until late 1962. While Samaras created 135 unique and highly complex boxes from 1962 until 1989, the present work is significantly among the first ever executed, and was initially exhibited in one of the inaugural exhibitions of Samaras’ boxes at Virginia Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles that opened in November 1964. Multiple boxes from the same year as Box #7 are treasured in distinguished international museum collections: Box belongs to the Tate Gallery, London; Box #3 belongs to the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and Box #10 is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Recognized truly as an ‘artist’s artist,’ Samaras’ Box #48 rests directly at Donald Judd’s former bedside at 101 Spring Street.
Samaras’ boxes revel in the familiarity of the form’s shape and function. When closed, Box #7 appears as an unassuming reliquary of the everyday; when fanned open, six individual rectangular prisms hinged together at their sides stand dramatically like a miniature stage. Embodying Samaras’ fascination with penetrating the boundary between the box’s visible exterior and its dark, private inner world, Box #7 operates as an allegorical diagram of the mind. The inner mirrors are punctuated all over by threatening tacks that appear weaponized, exposing to the viewer a likeness of themselves that is assaulted like a target. Resembling a barrage of bullets frozen in mid-flight, the reverberating reflection of the tacks is archetypal of Samaras’s interest in the simultaneous interplay of allure and menace; many of his other boxes employ similar materials, such as pins, needles, and razor-blades. Highly personal, the mirrors of Box #7 conjure Samaras’ favorite subject: himself. Through various forms of self-portraiture such as photographs, large-scale mirrored installations, and boxes that include his own image, Samaras’ oeuvre has focused on unraveling the mysterious physical and psychological complexities of the artist’s own self.
Samaras came of age on the island of Kastoria in Macedonia, Greece amidst the traumas of World War II and the Greek Civil War before moving to New Jersey in his early teens. Enrolling in Rutgers University on a scholarship in 1955, Samaras joined the art department at a time when it was a burgeoning hotbed of artistic innovation, boasting a faculty that included Allan Kaprow, Roy Lichtenstein, and George Segal. Building the foundation for his career-long preoccupation with the avant-garde tenets of Dada and Fluxus, in addition to his work’s fixation with the theatrical, Samaras participated in the Happenings that defined the downtown New York art scene between the years 1959-1963, alongside figures like Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, and Robert Whitman; in fact, Samaras acted in the very first Happening organized by Kaprow at the Reuben Gallery in the fall of 1959. Box #7 was first owned by Rolf G. Nelson, the Los Angeles dealer whose eponymous gallery—a significant venue for artists like Judy Chicago, Llyn Foulkes, Joe Goode, and Robert Indiana—was just a few doors down from the Ferus Gallery on North La Cienega Boulevard in the mid-1960s. Before opening his own gallery in 1963, Nelson first held a job at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York, where he worked closely with Kaprow and Oldenburg—artists through whom Nelson likely met Samaras and came to acquire the present work.
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