Lucas Samaras is a Greek-American artist, best known for his polaroids, his intricate sculptures, and mind-bending installations. Each piece of work created by Samaras serves as a look into the human psyche. Samaras’ constant questioning of his own identity has been influential throughout the art world. His whole life has been devoted to art, and at 87 years of age, he is still an active artist.
Lucas Samaras’ Early Life: Greece to New Jersey
Lucas Samaras was born in 1936 in a small Greek village called Kastoria.
His childhood was overshadowed by World War II, which broke out when he was only 3 years old. During this time, his father was away, so he was raised by his mother, aunt, and grandmother. They spent many nights hiding in basements and caves, taking shelter from air raids. During one of the attacks, his grandmother was fatally wounded.
After the war, Greece entered a period of political turmoil and strong religious influence. For Samaras, childhood memories included the pageantry of military parades, religious processions…and the rituals, splendors, and fears introduced by the church.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox
Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
In 1948 Samaras, along with his mother and father, moved to New Jersey. These early years of settling into life in America were difficult. Samaras did not speak English, so he struggled in school. During the time of transition, he found comfort in art classes, where he did not have to speak at all. His artistic practice would become central to understanding and communicating his immigrant experience.
The Colorful Boxes of Lucas Samaras
In 1955 Samaras received a scholarship from Rutgers University in New Jersey. He went there to study fine art under Allan Kaprow. This is why he became involved in a number of Kaprow’s famous Happenings.
Some of Samaras’ best-known works from his early career include mixed media box pieces. He first exhibited these boxes in 1961 and was quickly included in his first institutional group exhibition The Art of Assemblage at MoMA. Box #84 is an excellent example of this body of work.
The outside of Box #84 is crowded with small golden pins. They are attached in a rough, haphazard manner. It is clear that picking up the box would be impossible without significant trouble. The inside of the box, on the other hand, is densely lined with colorful glass beads, creating an almost psychedelic interior, alive with color and texture. This joyful inside is enticing and alluring.
For most of the 1960s and early 1970s, these boxes were Samaras’ main artistic project. The intended effect of these works is to both repel and attract the viewer. The glass beads attract the viewer, but the sharp pins repel them. Samaras stated that, in his work, he cannot separate beauty from pain. For him, pain comes with beauty. This might also refer to his troubled childhood in the Greek countryside, where everything that’s beautiful was also colored by the pain brought by the war. The melding of beauty and pain, of light and dark, of good and bad is something that appears often in Samaras’ work.
Samaras’ Immersive Installation Room No. 2 (The Mirrored Room)
Samaras was one of the very first artists to create a fully immersive installation, in which the viewer becomes a part of the artwork itself. In this piece, Samaras built a three-dimensional room, which he covered with mirrors on both sides.
This cube-like structure sat in the middle of the gallery floor and had a hidden door through which the viewers could enter the mirrored space. Once inside, they were immersed in endless reflections of themselves, as every mirrored surface, including a mirrored table and chair, showed their image.
All of Samaras’ works deal with ideas concerning the self and one’s identity. Often, Samaras is even questioning his own identity, his roots, and his lived experience. Room No. 2 turns the question of identity to the audience, asking them to interrogate their own relationship with themselves. This installation, with its endless reflections staring back, suggests that perhaps there is not one single, simple self within each of us. Perhaps each of us is multifaceted and our identity is uncertain. Installations such as this one often elicit an embodied experience of the work. They are not just intellectual or nice to look at. By creating an immersive experience, Samaras’ work tries to get the viewer to experience the uncertainty of their own identity.
Lucas Samaras and the Polaroid Camera
Throughout his career, Lucas Samaras created a body of photographic works that are both beautiful and shocking. In 1964 Samaras’ mother, father, and sister moved back to Greece, leaving Samaras alone in the US. The artist then moved into a small one-bedroom apartment on West 71st Street and stayed in this very home for the next twenty years. This apartment was his studio and his refuge, his creative inspiration, and his sanctuary.
Samaras used this apartment as a photography studio, setting up elaborate scenes with colorful props and stage lighting, and producing countless images using the Polaroid camera. His most famous Polaroid work is the Photo Transformation series. These images were made using the Polaroid SX-70 camera. Once the photos were printed, Samaras would manipulate the ink before it dried, using an array of implements or sometimes just his fingers to blur and smudge the surface. The results are other-worldly self-portraits that at times make Samras seem like a non-human at times.
For this piece, created on June 13, 1973, Samaras posed in his small NYC apartment. He used stage lighting to create a dramatic setting. The photo was then edited so that his body seemed warped and disfigured. In the photo, his body looks like it’s disintegrating and melting into another dimension, like a surrealist dreamscape. Yet the artist’s feet are firmly planted on the floor, the right arm is cast out, and his face is captured in a passionate shout. All of these details assert his presence. Therefore, Samaras both asserts himself and erases himself from the photo, and by doing so he questions the very stability of his own identity. For Samaras, using his own naked form was an important element of his work. He stated that eroticism was a must in photography, and claimed to be motivated by a love for his own form.
The Life of a Hermit – Lucas Samaras’ Private World
In recent years, Samaras has embraced digital technology. Works such as the untitled 2019 piece show a fascinating blend of Samaras’ past and present, as well as an enthusiastic embrace of the future. This work represents a digital collage of different, seemingly unrelated images. The piece is dominated by dizzying cityscapes captured from above. This is interspersed with a peaceful scene from nature and a blurry old photograph of Samaras as a child. Interjected on top of all of this are wholly fabricated digital creations: colorful vortexes, a stylized head, and angel wings.
Much of Samaras’ life has been spent in solitude. The twenty years he spent in his tiny New York apartment were insular and solitary. It’s not that Samaras did not have any friends—he was well-liked and admired. He enjoyed spending time alone, working on his art. For him, the creative process was more important than anything else. In 1989 Samaras moved from his tiny apartment into a spacious high-rise, where his life as an urban hermit continued. In fact, his isolation increased. Samaras stated in an interview that he divorced himself from people when he moved there. He spent his days at home working or walking around the neighborhoods and parks of Manhattan.
The Influence and Legacy of Lucas Samaras
Perhaps what Lucas Samaras will be best remembered for is his life-long study of the self. In 68 years of art making, every piece of artwork made by Samaras is in some way an interrogation of identity. Most often it is his own identity that he explores. Samaras’ creative output has been very fruitful. He makes pastels, sculptures, photography, and painting. Much of his photographic work, particularly his early polaroids, has been tied to later works by artists such as Cindy Sherman, The Pictures Generation, and Robert Mapplethorpe. Although he may not be the most famous artist in the USA, he is widely admired among the art crowd for his eccentric personality, commitment to his art, and never-ending questioning of the self.