Summary of Lucas Samaras
Samaras has produced a body of work that is remarkable for its scope and inventiveness. He has achieved success in many media but is undoubtedly best known for his multi-media "box" assemblages and his Polaroid "photo-transformations". The broad range of his work is nevertheless dominated by a single theme: that of autobiography. He repeatedly addresses the relationship between the body, mind, and soul and the environments and milieus which help shape them. Yet while his art is highly personal, Samaras uses autobiography, not as a romantic device, but rather as a more critical means of self-interrogation. Samaras is also very well known for the solitary world in which he chooses to live; his tiny self-contained one-bed apartment doubling as both living space and artist's studio.
- Samaras was one of the first artists to exploit the artistic potential for the instamatic Polaroid camera. With his "Photo-transformations", Samaras worked the wet emulsions on Polaroid prints to "transform" the fixed image into something more malleable and ethereal. Many of these images were gestural self-portraits that saw the artist metamorphosed into a multicolored phantasmagorical figure. Samaras stated that he "made things to seduce myself ... narcissism is making one's body into art".
- Samaras produced 135 complex bejeweled box assemblages over a period of close to two decades. The boxes, made up of found items from his immediate surroundings or bought at local thrift stores often featuring a portrait head shot of the artist himself, and were revealed to the viewer through hidden compartments. The box assemblages represented Samaras's ongoing interest in exploring ways to represent a psychological (rather than literal) portrait of himself.
- By inviting viewers to "experience" rather than simply "view" the artwork, Samaras's ground-breaking Room No. 1 (1964) was one of the earliest known immersive installation artworks. His "Rooms", which incorporated personal bric-a-brac and other ephemera, were, on the one hand, "readymades" constructed on the theme of personal identity. On the other, the installations contributed to the wider tendency within the current avant-garde that was questioning the very notion of what could or should be art.
The Life of Lucas Samaras
For Samaras art and life should be considered one and the same thing: "To be a human being may be a very messy thing, but to be an artist is something else entirely, because art is religion, art is sex, art is society. Art is everything".
Important Art by Lucas Samaras
Untitled, 7 July 1962
Between the late 1950s and early 1980s, Samaras produced (periodically) small pastel works made on cheap construction paper. The artist himself claimed that he was initially attracted to pastels because of the "bright colors and shimmering surface, and also to the fact that it was an unfashionable medium in postwar American art". As the online art journal, Artfixdaily, describes, the early pastels "reflect his love of patterns and rich color contrasts [...] Their inspiration ranges from modern masters - notably colorists such as Henri Matisse and Hans Hofmann - to pornographic magazines. They also reflect Samaras's interest in theater with their imaginary scenes and stagelike compositions".
In this image, we see a wounded, pale figure, hanging above a forest path. The hands are out of frame, and so he appears to almost hover above ground. The wounds on the figure's body - on the head, the chest, the feet - are reminiscent of those received by Christ on the cross, and it is likely that this figure alludes to Samaras's own feelings about his strict Greek Orthodox upbringing. The forest scene which surrounds the central figure, meanwhile, is executed in inviting warm tones of browns, yellows, reds, with dashes of vibrant purples and blues. These attractive markings rather undermine the image's overall feel for claustrophobia and violence.
Samaras has said that with his early pastels he created "personae through whom [he] could release a string of strong, unsophisticated psychic pictorialized needs". Indeed, Artfix alluded to the psychosexual element of the piece(s) through a connection to the artist's theatrical training. Artfix makes the point that during this period "Samaras was also taking classes at Stella Adler's acting studio, and became involved in loosely structured theatrical performances known as "happenings" in lofts and galleries. He also wrote plotless and irrational narratives though he never physically enacted them. He did, however, give visual form to some of these in his pastels - employing imagery associated with private fantasies, eroticism, and violence".
Pastel on black construction paper - The Morgan Library & Museum
Room No. 1
In 1964, Samaras recreated his bedroom in New York's, The Green Gallery. The room was a restaging of his own bedroom from his family home in New Jersey and contained everything he had accumulated since moving to America - a decade long gathering of sentimental and artistic miscellany. Items such as yarn, beads, foil, cloth, paints, books, all crowded around his disheveled single bed. This Installation (although the term would not become part of the parlance of contemporary art practice until the 1970s) was a bold statement on identity: an assertion of individuality, artistry, masculinity, and humanity, presented to the public in a gallery. At the same time the work explored the dissolution of identity in that the installation was largely motivated by the fact of his family had moved back to Greece (while he remained behind in America). As art historian Thomas McEvilley has noted, this decision "signified a kind of death, an end to one identity and the beginning of another".
This work, though deeply personal, was also in line with wider counter-tendencies within the artworld at the time, in particular the desire to question the idea of what could be considered art. Whereas high modernist art had tended to focus rather rigidly on various forms of painting or sculpture, the late 1950s early 1960s saw artists moving into new media, performance and happenings. Indeed, Samaras was an alumni of Rutgers University whose art department was headed by Allan Kaprow. Samaras took part in several happenings, including Kaprow's, 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1959). For what some see as a turning point in contemporary art practice, Kaprow took over an entire gallery for a happening that involved performances in music, theater, and dance. The audience experience, which was fully immersive, was designed to dismantle the orthodoxy that demanded that an audience come to a gallery or museum to enter in a ritual of arts appreciation and spiritual or critical contemplation.
With Room No. 1, Samaras had extended the concept of performance to the readymade, and in so doing, suggested that life itself, with all its mundane ephemera and disposable objects, can, under altered contexts, become transformed into something meaningful. Samaras had constructed his room with the goal of creating an understanding between artist and audience (who would be acquainted with the sorts of domestic environment he had recreated). A feature of Installation art is that it will be dismantled and, although it may be reassembled at another venue, Installation art presented a further challenge to the traditions of art exhibition and appreciation because the work in question is transient and very much "of its moment". Indeed, after the exhibition's run, Samaras's Room was dismantled for good - Samaras kept the artist's materials, but he donated all his furniture to the Salvation Army.
Installation - Green Gallery, New York
Room No. 2
Two years after Room No. 1, Samaras constructed Room No.2. It was an installation measuring eight feet square, and ten feet tall, lined on the inner and outer walls with square mirrors. In one corner, there is a concealed door, allowing two viewers at a time to enter the piece. Stepping inside the room, one is dazzled by an infinity of reflections, eyes straining to pick out the mirrored table and chair in the center of the room. This work is in some ways an elaboration on Room No.1 since both works interrogate the idea of the self, and how the self-functions in interior spaces.
Samaras was a contemporary of the Japanese-American Conceptual artist, Yayoi Kusama and one might draw some comparisons between the two. Like Samaras, Kusama's installations were immersive and autobiographical and in 1963 she presented the first of her Infinity Mirror Rooms. For Kusama, her early Mirror Room's (she had made over 20 such rooms during her career) allowed her to transform, through intense repetition, her earlier paintings and works on paper. Kusama's perplexing environments played on the viewers' perceptions of space and distance while the repetitions of her artworks spoke loudly and specifically of the artist's troubled mental state that related to childhood trauma and her anxieties about sex. With Room No. 2, Samaras rather turned the question of autobiography back onto the audience by prompting them to question their self-identity. Reflected images of inanimate walls, tables, chairs, and indeed, the viewer themselves, abound. The sheer number of reflections makes it difficult to grasp any single image and so conceptions of "self" becomes multiple and illusive. The artist and the viewer are thus connected in one overwhelming sensory experience.
Installation - AKG Art Museum, Buffalo
Box # 61
Samaras began producing mixed media box works in the summer of 1960. The outside of Box #61 is covered with a pattern of colored wool. On the inner lid is a photograph of the lower half of Samaras's face, the contours and outline lined with thin metal pins - down the bridge of the nose, along the lower lip, around the mustache, and along the side of the face. The inside of the box is embellished with countless beads of blue and yellow, creating a beautiful interior. Emerging from each side is a pencil, its tip stained red, the two points almost touching. The front panel is completed with a series of painted colored dots.
Samaras's Boxes follow in the vein of the American Surrealist, Joseph Cornell. Indeed, Cornell made his name on his celebrated glass-fronted boxed assemblages. Predating Samaras's boxes, Cornell's were filled with all manner of thrift store objects and magazine cuttings, but with the intent of creating, through incredulous juxtapositions of different items, a type of inexplicable (ergo, surrealistic) visual poetry. But whereas Cornell's shadow boxes (as they are known) touched on the idea of the artist as poetic archivist, Samaras's boxes spoke explicitly of the artist's own life experiences.
His boxes would be Samaras's main output during the 1960s and were intended to elicit a dynamic repel-and-attract response in the viewer - their beauty attracts or pulls the viewer in while violence is suggested in the pins or the pencil points which simultaneously push the viewer away. Samaras has noted that in life he "cannot separate beauty from pain"; a conflation he termed "the quality of seducing-repelling". Art historian Donald Kuspit states that through his boxes "Samaras has mythologized his traumatic experience" (a reference to the difficult years in Greece during World War II), and that the boxes reflect the way in which, as a child, 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".
Mixed media - Pace Gallery
Untitled Photo Transformation 1977 - 168
In 1973 Samaras began a series of photographs that would become perhaps his most famous works to date. The Photo Transformation works are made using the Polaroid SX-70 camera, and the printed pictures are manipulated using a makeshift tool or even a finger to blur and smudge the emulsion before it has had time to dry. In this image we can clearly make out a male figure, wearing only a pair of black flip flops, crouching on the checkerboard tiles of a kitchen floor. To the left, we see a refrigerator; to the right a table littered with other polaroid images, arranged neatly in rows while a white mug perches on the table's edge. The scene is lit with bands of red, green, blue and golden light. The upper half of the figure is distorted, the body bending wavering and in places disappearing. The figure's right hand is raised upward, the face gazing upward too. The photographic manipulation makes the air seem as though it is vibrating, disturbed by an unseen energy or force which wraps itself around the body.
Taken in his small New York apartment, this photograph is one of his many searching self-portraits. The photographs laid out on the table allude to the artist's wider practice at this time, and what might be described as his narcissistic obsession with self-presentation. Samaras himself has stated: "I make things to seduce myself ... narcissism is making one's body into art". In early life, Samaras had wanted to be an actor, and in many ways portraits such as this can be seen as fulfilling that desire to some extent, as he performs different roles and scenes for the camera. Ultimately, however, in this work Samaras is exploring his own embodied experience of the world. The piece is also vividly imaginative, and the bright colors and patterned distortions are part of a visual language which we see throughout Samaras's work - from his pastels to his boxes, from his Polaroids to his later digital photographs. The use of his own naked form, meanwhile, challenged what Samaras saw as a prevailing public discomfort with male nudity, while the innovative techniques used in his photo transformations pushed the limits of what photographic art could be.
Polaroid print - Princeton University Art Museum
This image is part of a series started in 2008, and still ongoing, wherein the artist constructs a myriad of digital creatures and places them in cityscapes. By digitally manipulating photographs taken in his apartment and on strolls around the streets of Manhattan, Samaras creates scenes that invite the viewer into a familiar, yet alternate, reality. A strange creature, made up of streaks and lines of color, vaguely humanoid in its shape - arms, head, shoulders - looms before the classical visage of building. The creature's arm seems to sweep across the composition, perhaps pointing to the jumbled sign that reads "theatre". Gazing into the creature's form, one becomes seduced by the technicolor pattern. The bottom of the scene is overlaid with a block of greenish-blue hue, on top of which sits a single red triangle.
After Samaras's family returned to Greece (from America) he all-but withdrew from daily social interaction, rarely emerging from his small Brooklyn apartment (and later from his high-rise Manhattan apartment). Many of his digital manipulations suggest a preoccupation with sky and air, presenting his audience with ethereal, sometimes winged, creatures who appear to "float" above the crowd or sit nimbly atop buildings. In these works Samaras projects his interior world out onto the surrounding cityscape. It is in later works such as these that we see Samaras moving from imaginary interior worlds, to engaging with the exterior world. These works are in tune with Samaras's efforts to see art in all aspects of his life, here claiming the Manhattan streets as a canvas.
Ink-jet print - GESTURES series (2008-20)
Samaras's later portraits are intricate digital manipulations whose dream-like landscapes are drawn from the simplest of sources, such as Samaras's apartment, old family photographs and Central Park. In this image, Samaras's naked form appears to move lithely through a green, swampy pond, his shoulders thrown back, and his hips twisting. At his side swims a pure white swan (perhaps a subtle nod to the Greek myth of Leda) - its head bent in toward Samaras, whose eyes gaze piercingly out at us through vibrant orange glasses. The space of the image is a confusing mass of branches reaching down into the water and mirrored above, creating a claustrophobic landscape of oppressive green.
The posing of the body here is reminiscent of many iterations of the female nude throughout history, and Samaras appears to be presenting himself as both artist/voyeur and model/subject. Such conscious mirroring of art-historical posing suggests a desire on Samaras's part to place himself within the trajectory of history of art. Indeed, there is a sense in his work at this time of a very conscious attempt to understand his personal history and the ways in which identity changes throughout one's life, and the ways in which it stays fixed. Curator Oliver Schultz notes that in Samaras's later works we see "the heroic or unheroic male nude ... dwelling on his own body in a way that's both incredibly public and yet ... very private at the same time".
In constructing these elaborate imaginary images, the artist utilizes technology as a means to plunder the past, to try to understand the process of living, of aging, and of dying. Art critic Roberta Smith notes that with Samaras's work, the self that is revealed is "exposed in such specific, sophisticated increments that we encounter him only in fragmented, highly artificialized form, one obsessive preoccupation at a time. Rarely do we see a picture of the real person". By referencing ancient mythology, and creating imagined settings, moreover, this piece moves between the personal to the universal.
Pure pigment on paper - Pace Gallery
Biography of Lucas Samaras
Lucas Samaras was born in a small village called Kastoria, in Macedonia, Greece. His father, and many of his relatives were "furriers" (selling and trading fur in Greece and overseas). Samaras recalls family members arriving home from trade trips late at night with silks and jewels: "they would open a suitcase and out would come this wonderful little satin thing or glittering thing with gold and green and blue and perfume". In 1939 Samaras's father traveled to the United States on business. While he was away, World War II broke out in Europe, meaning he was unable to return home. Samaras, who was still just three years old, was duly raised by his mother, his aunts, and his paternal grandmother.
During the war, Greece was occupied by the Rome-Berlin Axis (the "Axis Powers" - a disorganized military coalition made up predominantly by Nazi Germany, the Kingdom of Italy, and the Empire of Japan) and many towns and villages experienced violent persecution and famine. During air raids, The Samaras family would shelter in their basement, or sometimes in hillside caves with other Greek families. During one attack on the family home, Samaras's grandmother was killed, and his aunt very badly wounded.
After the war, Greece entered a period of political flux and a strong religious order took over domestic affairs. Samaras's childhood memories were of "the pageantry of military parades, religious processions ... and the rituals, splendors, and fears introduced by the church". In 1948, Samaras and his mother and father moved to America, settling in New Jersey. His early years in America were difficult as he navigated this new world. Language barriers meant he struggled at school but Samaras found solace in art class (where he was not required to speak, read or write, and could become lost in drawing). Indeed, art became central to his ability to navigate his difficult immigrant experience.
Education and Early Training
In 1955, Samaras graduated high school and received a scholarship from Rutgers University's College of Arts and Sciences in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Artist and art critic Allan Kaprow was the acting chair of the art department and was known for creating an atmosphere that promoted experimentation and play with new or alternative materials and methods. Samaras became known for his strange style and reserved demeanor. His freshman roommate Norman Fruchter recalled that "People's sense of him was that he was both an actor and an enigma". It was while at Rutgers that Samaras created a series of pastels which he considered his first proper artworks (he has continued to create pastels periodically throughout his career).
Having taken part in Kaprow's, 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, Samaras's first New York exhibition was held at the Reuben Gallery in 1959. It was through these two events that he befriended Jim Dine, Red Grooms, and Claes Oldenburg. He had also met Robert Whitman (while at Rutgers) and the two would collaborate on future performance pieces. After graduating from Rutgers (also in 1959) Samaras briefly enrolled in Columbia University's Graduate Department of Art History. Samaras's parents did not approve of their son becoming a practicing artist, and so to please them he considered the more scholarly career path of art historian. At Columbia he studied art history under Meyer Schapiro, whose uncanny, encyclopedic subject knowledge proved too intimidating for Samaras who soon withdrew from the course. In October of that year Samaras entered the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting in New York, where he studied for a further two years. He had professional headshots taken and distributed amongst various agencies, but without any success.
Over the next two decades, Samaras participated in multiple "happenings" with Kaprow and Claes Oldenburg. Samaras was invigorated by these events: "Being in a Happening was like being in something that had never existed before ... It was our way of making ourselves known artistically", he said. He debuted his famous "assemblage boxes", which brought together elements of painting, sculpture, found objects, and photographic self-portraits, in 1961 at New York's Green Gallery.
Historians and curators Anthony Downey and Claire Bishop said of the boxes "[Samaras's] bejeweled assemblage boxes encrusted in objects such as push pins, glass millefiore beads, yarn or razor blades [suggested] inhabited worlds, recalling the Greek Byzantine heritage of his forefathers, while the off cuts and discarded materials refer to childhood recollections of the young Samaras spending time with his dressmaker aunt". The boxes, which introduced a career-spanning exploration of the theme of the self, led to his inclusion in his first group show, The Art of Assemblage, held at MoMA, in 1961. In 1963, Samaras continued with the autobiographical theme when he turned the black-and-white head shots he had taken for his unsuccessful foray into professional acting into a series of self-portraits by replacing his eyes with hundreds of metal pins.
When Samaras's mother, sister and father moved back to Greece in 1964, he moved into a small one-bedroom apartment on West 71st Street. He lived here for the next twenty years or so. The apartment became his creative hub as well as his home. He stated: "I sit down and I can work on my table and I can have a cup of whatever - everything is within reach, It's almost like a spaceship or a submarine". Samaras worked assiduously, producing a vast body of work and, in the summer of 1965, he joined Pace Gallery on the agreement they facilitate the making of his first mirrored room installation. Upon joining the Gallery, which first mounted an exhibition of his work produced from the beginning of the decade, Samaras said he "immediately felt like a professional artist". Samaras's immersive Room No. 2 (aka Mirrored Room) (1966) was the first of his installations to become a part of a museum collection when it was acquired by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. Samaras received his first solo exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1969 and was followed the next year by his first overseas exhibition at Hanover's Kunstverein Museum.
In 1969, Samaras began experimenting with a Polaroid 360 Land Camera which used a manual "peel-apart" instant film that appealed to Samaras's sense of immediacy. By 1973 he had progressed to the Polaroid SX-70 whose exposed film ejected automatically leaving a 10-minute drying time. It was all the time he needed to manipulate the wet-dye emulsions with a stylus or fingertip tip before the image set. It was during the 1970s that Samaras "stripped back" his boxes project to a basic "chicken wire" construction as a means of re-examining the physical geometric form of the container itself. Historians and curators Anthony Downey and Claire Bishop add that "Responding to developments in Minimalist and Post-Minimalist art, Samaras also concentrated on the geometric possibilities integral to two-dimensional works. The transformative potential of art making attracted Samaras to return to the traditional medium of painting, exploring the surface plane in psychedelic and illusory space. 'Untitled #12' (1973) is one example from a series of round disc paintings. Using a system of rules Samaras built up segments of colour, which seemingly spin out of control expanding the geometric possibilities of the circular space".
In the summer/fall of 1974, Samaras took up pastels once more. He created around 100 heavily patterned compositions that included interiors, still lifes, and seascapes. In 1976, Samaras completed his first public commission. As the U.S. General Services Administration explains, Silent Struggle "has its origins in a 'reawakening' of elements from both [Samaras's] own Greek origins and from the history of art. He likens its design to a doily, delicate and intricate, created out of the indelicate substance weathering Cor-ten steel (an alloy, developed originally to eliminate the need for painting, and which takes on a "rust-like" look after long exposure to the elements). The result, standing 107 inches tall, with a thickness of 13 inches and diameter of six feet, was originally located in the courtyard of the Hale Boggs federal complex in New Orleans". (In 2008, Silent Struggle was transferred to the Court of International Trade in New York City for better cover from the elements.)
In 1977 Samaras produced the first in his series of textile "Reconstructions" which were created as an homage to his mother. These saw the artist allude to traditional quilt-making techniques by sewing fabric strips to canvas to create dazzling colored collages. As Downey and Bishop state, "The synthesis of the paintings and chicken wire boxes are most clearly achieved in the fabric reconstructions [...] Horizontal bands of wildly different fabrics and patterns are here stitched together, creating a science fiction of space and composition. Anticipating the digital age, Samaras, in his acute observations of detail and form, zones in on the pixilated components and structure of his works".
Between 1981 and 1983, Samaras produced the last of his pastel works. These were dominated by expressionistic, vividly colored, self-portraits and were some 200 in number. Around this period, Samaras started to work again with Polaroid film, this time producing an autobiographical series he called "Panoramas". For the series, he pieced assembled "slices" of different photographs to create a two-meter view (panorama) of his tiny apartment-cum-studio.
In 1989, Samaras moved into a new high-rise apartment. Ingrid Sischy, the legendary editor of Artforum, recalled the epic task of moving him: "Every day for two months Samaras carried, in plastic and paper bags, the more fragile possessions from his past - a small walk-up on the Upper West Side - to his future, twenty blocks away: a new midtown skyscraper with doormen who announce company". The move marked the beginning of a truly insular period in Samaras' life. He states that "When I moved here, I divorced myself from people. You can't live in a constant state of ecstasy. You need so many pounds of pain, so many pounds of disappointment, so many pounds of dissatisfaction and so on".
Samaras's progression to Digital art began in 1996 with the purchase of his first computer and experiments with digital editing tools. By 2002, he had acquired a digital camera and the use of Photoshop became an integral component of his practice. He began to manipulate his own photographs, revisiting earlier works such as the Photo-transformations and Auto-Polaroids, and reworking them digitally. He also took photographs with the specific aim of transforming them in Photoshop. He created portraits (including those of friends such as David Byrne, former leader of New York art-rock band Talking Heads) that became known as "Photofictions".
Describing his working environment, historian Efi Michalarou writes "composed of computer drawings of chimerical creatures all made on his Mac in the magical aerie where he lives, alone, high above midtown Manhattan, in one of those apartments wherein you might start to think you were an eagle or a god". In 2009, Samaras represented Greece at the 53rd Venice Biennale, which featured his multi-installation Paraxena.
Secluded in his apartment - "in the magical aerie where he lives, alone, high above midtown Manhattan, in one of those apartments wherein you might start to think you were an eagle or a god" (wrote historian Efi Michalarou) - Samaras spends his days working and his nights reading. He eats in and ventures out occasionally to walk the streets where he will take his photographs.
The Legacy of Lucas Samaras
Historians and curators Anthony Downey and Claire Bishop state "Lucas Samaras's original and versatile approach to art making has had a profound impact on developments in contemporary art, creating works which have anticipated dominant trends in painting, sculpture and photography. a life-long preoccupation with the self, always incorporating his immediate environment into his work. Expressed in his sculptural work or in his radical use of Polaroid film, Samaras always found himself as the subject of his own universe. The investigation of the body or the portrait of the artist provides the central concern that unites the broad and varied character of his art".
Indeed, Samaras's output has been so wide-ranging his influence is all but impossible to quantify. Some art critics have seen his autobiographical Polaroids series as a reference point for the work on self-identity by the likes of Cindy Sherman and Robert Mapplethorpe, while Roberta Smith suggests that Samaras is the progenitor for styles and trends such as "psychedelic color and pattern, labor-intensive craft, homoerotic urges, and fierce performance-like self-revelations". But perhaps his legacy was best summed up by the historian and curator, Efi Michalarou who wrote that, "Samaras is not the best-known artist in America, but among the experts he is considered a wizard, and among artists he's an elusive legend, a loner, eccentric, master of unusual media, and visionary who has avoided classification. He's a solitary worker who has remained outside of movements, trends, or cliques, making work that is always original, provocative, and surprising".