Lucas Samaras (b. 1936, Kastoria, Macedonia, Greece) has produced an expansive body of work across media and disciplines including photography, installation, drawing, assemblage, performance, sculpture, and design. Eliding historical categorization, Samaras's oeuvre is united through its consistent focus on the body and psyche, often emphasizing autobiography. The theme of self-depiction and identity has been a driving force behind his practice, which, at its onset in the early 1960s, advanced the Surrealist idiom yet proposed a radical departure from the presiding themes of Abstract Expressionism and Pop art.
Samaras emigrated with his family from Greece to the United States in 1939, settling in West New York, New Jersey. As a young adult, he was awarded a state scholarship to attend Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey (1955), studying under Allan Kaprow and George Segal. Upon graduating in 1959, he received a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, which enabled him to enroll at Columbia University, New York, where he studied art history under Meyer Schapiro. His interest in self-investigation began during this period, when he initiated painting self-portraits from the front and back using a mirror. He also gravitated toward the use of pastels, which enabled him to work quickly, exploring figurative and geometrical forms in rich colors and with luxuriant texture, characteristics that would reoccur throughout his work.
Between 1959 and 1962, Samaras's practice evolved into a large body of work comprised of paintings, ink drawings, pastels, and sculpture made of plaster-covered rags, molded into human form. He soon shifted toward objects, producing assemblage reliefs and boxes comprised of elements culled from his immediate surroundings and five-and-dime stores - cutlery, nails, mirrors, brightly colored yarn, and feathers - affixed with liquid aluminum or plaster. Samaras's embrace of these materials was part of a larger turn away from traditional art media and reflected a blurring of art and life that was championed by Kaprow.
Although Samaras had been the subject of one-artist exhibitions at the Art House gallery affiliated with Rutgers University, his first New York exhibition was held at Reuben Gallery in 1959, which came on the heels of his first group show at the gallery, Kaprow's 18 Happenings in 6 Parts. Through his involvement at the Reuben Gallery and his participation in Happenings, Samaras met Jim Dine, Red Grooms, and Claes Oldenburg. He had met Robert Whitman, another key figure in the Happenings movement, while at Rutgers and the two collaborated on performances. Samaras's engagement with performance led him to pursue theater and in 1960 he enrolled in acting classes at the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting.
Samaras's brief association with Reuben Gallery came to a close in 1961 when he joined Green Gallery, New York, where he debuted his assemblage boxes. For the artist, the boxes possessed elements of sculpture, architecture, and painting, amplified by the inclusion of objects such as mirrors and photographs - additions that situated Samaras as one of the earliest artists to emphasize his ego and corporeal self in his art. His early boxes led to his inclusion in his first institutional group show, The Art of Assemblage, held at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1961.
In 1965, Samaras joined Pace Gallery, which mounted an exhibition of his works made between 1960 to 1966, accompanied by an exhibition catalogue. In addition to showing early drawings and assemblage, Samaras created the immersive Room No. 2 (1966), also known as Mirrored Room. A culmination of his mirrored boxes, Room No. 2 was his first installation to become a part of a museum collection, acquired in 1966 by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. In 1969 Samaras began to expand upon his use of photography, experimenting with a Polaroid 360 camera, which appealed to his sense of immediacy. His innovation further materialized with his use of the Polaroid SX-70 in 1973 in a melding of self-portraiture and abstraction, created by manipulating the wet-dye emulsions with a stylus or fingertip before the chemicals set.
By the end of the decade, Samaras received his first major solo exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1969), which was followed by his first international museum exhibition, held at the Kunstverein Museum in Hanover (1970). He received his first full retrospective in 1972 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. In 1974, Pace Gallery held Lucas Samaras: Photo-Transformations, which was developed into his first traveling exhibition, organized by the University Art Museum, California State University, Long Beach (1975). By the mid-1970s, Samaras had also received his first large-scale commission for which he produced Silent Struggle (1976), a sculpture comprised of Cor-ten steel, initially installed at the Hale Boggs Federal Courthouse in New Orleans.
Samaras's interest in digital art was evident as early as 1996 when he obtained his first computer and began to experiment with printed texts on typewriter paper. By 2002, he had acquired a digital camera and the use of Photoshop became an integral component of his practice. These technologies gave way to Photofictions (2003), a series characterized by distorted self-portraits and psychedelic compositions. Gesturing toward a larger investigation of (self) reflection in his work - found in his mirror rooms and self-portraiture - his use of digital mirror-imaging acts as an extension of the body while underscoring the transformative possibilities of the everyday.
Samaras has been the subject of over 100 solo exhibitions, including four traveling exhibitions and seven major career retrospectives, among them Unrepentant Ego: The Self-Portraits of Lucas Samaras at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2003). In 2005, the J.F. Costopoulos Foundation, Athens, organized the first retrospective of his work in his native Greece, and in 2009 Samaras was selected to represent Greece at the Venice Biennale with an exhibition that spanned four decades of his practice. His work has been featured in numerous group exhibitions, including the Annual Exhibition: Contemporary American Sculpture, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1964, 1968, 1970); Documenta (1968, 1972, 1977, 2017); the Venice Biennale (1980).
Samaras's work is held in collections across the United States and abroad, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois; Dia Art Foundation, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisbon; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia Museum of Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Tate, London; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, among others.
Samaras has held teaching positions at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut (1969), and Brooklyn College, New York (1971–72). Under the auspices of the United States Information Agency, Samaras participated in an exhibition and lecture tour, traveling to Rome, Prague, Athens, Tehran, and Tokyo (1977).
Lucas Samaras has been represented by Pace since 1965. Major exhibitions of his work at Pace include: Selected Works 1960–1966 (1966); Boxes/Transformations (1968); Chair Transformations (1970); Part I: AutoPolaroids (1971); Part II: Stiff Boxes (1971); New Chicken Wire Boxes (1973); Photo–Transformations (1974); Samaras and Some Others (1975); Phantasmata (1976); Reconstructions (1978); Reconstructions (1979); Sittings 8 x 10 (1980); Pastels and Bronzes (1982); Chairs, Heads, Panoramas (1984); Paintings (1985); Chairs and Drawings (1987); Boxes and Mirrored Cell (1988); Slices of Abstraction, Slivers of Passion and/or Mere Décor (1991); Pastels (1993); Cubes Pragmata + Trapezoids (1994); Kiss Kill, Perverted Geometry, Inedibles, Self-Absorption (1996); Photo-Transformations 1973–1976 (1996); Pastels (1996); Photo-Transformations (1997); Gold (1998); Paint (2001); Photofictions (2003); PhotoFlicks (iMovies) and PhotoFictions (A to Z) (2005); iMovies (2006); NYC Chairs (2008); Poses (2010); XYZ (2012); Album 2 (2015); and New York City, No-Name, Re-Do, Seductions (2017).