On view in American Array, Greek-American art wizard Lucas Samaras’ Untitled (Skull in Colored Nebula) manages to contain a nebula in just a few square feet. It’s a bit like the Doctor’s TARDIS, it’s bigger on the inside.

Or, at least, that’s the feeling you get when you look at it. The work depicts a skull imposed over a shot of the cosmos. The skull is actually an X-ray of Samaras’ head. “Looking in a mirror to do a self-portrait was fine,” stated Samaras in a catalog for a Whitney exhibition of his work. “Having an impression of the face out of tinfoil was also fine. Getting an X-ray of my skull was better. It provided me with a fresh recognizable shape to work with. I combined it with my doodling marks or with pins and it looked right. The pins complicated its depth and the doodling complemented its convolutions.” The image above really doesn’t do the piece justice, because the straight pins in it add a three-dimensional aspect that emphasizes that feeling of depth.

Samaras, who has defied pigeonholing, is best known for his photographs—especially his self-portraits. It may be that Untitled (Skull in Colored Nebula) is Samaras’ attempt at visualizing a transcendental experience, wherein the spirit seems to leave the body and become a part of the larger universe.

Lucas Samaras’ ‘Untitled (Skull in Colored Nebula)’

Lucas Samaras’ ‘Untitled (Skull in Colored Nebula)’

“The human skull against a background of stars appears as though it is pinned on the surface as if just a recent and temporary addition to the universe,” says Katherine Love, the museum’s contemporary art curatorial assistant and an artist. “I think this work is interesting because the large scale of the skull in relation to the background makes me think that the artist was also making a comment on the importance of individual action, such as creating a work of art, in spite of our seeming inconsequentiality within cosmological history.”

American Array is on view through Jan. 15, 2017.

Lucas Samaras
Untitled (Skull in Colored Nebula), 1965
Mixed-media collage with pins
Bequest of Frederic Mueller, 1990