NEW YORK – He’s not as famous as others of his ilk but Greek-American artist Lucas Samaras has long delved deep into the question of self-identity as expressed through his works that ranged from smeared Polaroid self photos to simple walls and boxes.
Now 87, he spent much of his life in a New York apartment that he used as his studio, the site The Collector looking back at the forms he used in works it said “serves as a look into the human psyche.”
How has he done it? Some of his best-known works were early in his career and were mixed media box pieces first shown in 1961 and shown as the Museum Modern Art (MoMA.)
Box #84 was a rough-hewn work filled with small golden pins making picking up a tricky proposition but the inside had a thick layer of colorful glass beads which the review lauded. “This joyful inside is enticing and alluring,” it said.
“Samaras is best known for his relentless interrogation of identity. His art is energetic, searching, and at times shocking,” said the story by art historian Lara Curran in a look at his life.
“Samaras’ constant questioning of his own identity has been influential throughout the art world. His whole life has been devoted to art,” she wrote, noting he’s still active.
He was one of the first artists to create a fully immersive installation, in which the viewer becomes a part of the artwork itself in a 3D room covered with mirrors.
Art being in the eye of the beholder, of course, those who like it could admire Room 2, a cube-like structure in the middle of a gallery floor with a hidden door to get inside to the mirrors.
Imagine the ending of Enter the Dragon, perhaps, with Bruce Lee in a labyrinth of mirrors squaring off against his formidable foe, Han, before dispatching him.
Inside, you see all sides of yourself – except inside – and all the surface is mirrors, including a table and chair, an experience which “turns the question of identity to the audience, asking them to interrogate their own relationship with themselves.”
WHO AM I?
The installation of endless reflections – get it? – 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,” one of the questions he poses.
“By creating an immersive experience, Samaras’ work tries to get the viewer to experience the uncertainty of their own identity,” it was said of the intent.
In other works, such as the Polaroids, including showing himself with full frontal nudity but the picture altered to make it almost psychedelic, he pushes the envelope further.
“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,” said the review.
“Therefore, Samaras both asserts himself and erases himself from the photo, and by doing so he questions the very stability of his own identity,” one look at his face evoking Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
His most famous Polaroid work is the Photo Transformation series in which he would manipulate the ink before it dried in a minute, using different implements or just his finger to blur and smudge the surface, leaving his private parts alone.
“The results are other-worldly self-portraits that at times make Samras seem like a non-human at times,” said the story although it wasn’t said how he maintained a life style in New York City with his art that’s decidedly outside the mainstream.
He has spent much of his life in solitude after his parents came from Greece, Kastoria, in 1948 and at one point he lived in a tiny Manhattan apartment for 20 years in near solitary conditions, preferring to work and be alone.
In 1989 he moved into a spacious high-rise but still lived like a hermit, even increasing his isolation, albeit in a bigger space, wanting to be alone with his thoughts and his work without distraction.
He said in an interview he had decided to divorce himself from people or company and spent his days working or walking around the neighborhoods and parks of Manhattan, alone.
ALL ALONE AM I
He was a child when World War II broke out and the Nazis invaded Greece, his father often away, raised by his mother, aunt and grandmother, hiding in basements and caves to escape air raids one of which killed his grandmother.
His parents took him to New Jersey in 1948 where he found the transition difficult, speaking only Greek and taking solace in art classes where he could express himself without having to speak.
In 1955 he won a scholarship to Rutgers University and studied fine art under Allan Kaprow, as an American performance artist, installation artist, painter, and assemblagis, a performance artist, installation artist, painter, and assemblagist .
His parents and sister moved back to Greece in 1964 but he stayed on in New York City, his one-bedroom apartment “his studio and his refuge, his creative inspiration, and his sanctuary.”
He used it as a photography studio, setting up elaborate scenes with colorful props and stage lighting, and producing countless images using the Polaroid camera that was popular in the time, almost forgotten now.
“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 piece said.
In recent years he has turned to digital technology including a 2019 piece that’s a collage of different, seemingly unrelated images. “dominated by dizzying cityscapes captured from above.”
It shows 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,” Samaras style.
The story itself asks “What is he known for?” He’s had 68 years of his career to to answer that, perhaps with more questions which for philosophers through the ages – the Greeks foremost among them – has been the ultimate uncertainty.
“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,” the story added.
It added: “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.”