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Since he began making art in his early twenties, Greek-born Lucas Samaras has built a diverse body of work that includes painting, pastels, photographs, exquisitely rendered ink drawings, and sculpture in a dizzying variety of media, ranging from small-scale constructions to room-sized environments. Growing up during World War II and the ensuing Greek Civil War, Samaras was deeply affected by the destruction and devastation he witnessed. In 1948, he and his mother immigrated to West New York, New Jersey, joining his father, who had left Greece in 1939. Samaras began taking art classes from a young age, and went on to study art as an undergraduate at Rutgers University from 1955 to 1959.He subsequently studied graduate art history with art historian Meyer Schapiro at Columbia University in New York City from 1959 to 1962. At Rutgers, Samaras met a number of emerging artists, including Allan Kaprow, George Segal, and Robert Whitman, who were engaged in a radical form of performance art, or “Happenings.” His encounters with these artists, together with acting classes at the Stella Adler Studio Theater, encouraged his abiding interest in performance (indeed, he initially intended to pursue a career as an actor rather than as a visual artist).
In the mid-1960s, Samaras began to make a series of reliquary-like boxes—which eventually numbered over 135—out of store-bought containers, filling and covering them with dense accumulations of diminutive objects. In 1963, he also started to produce photographs; living alone in an apartment on the Upper East Side of New York City, he became his own subject. A Polaroid camera that Samaras purchased in 1969 allowed him to control the picture taking, developing, and printing process himself and to experiment in new ways. His Photo-Transformations series, shot with a Polaroid from 1973 to 1976, is comprised of photographs that have been heated, cut-up, crushed, ground, and marked with hand-applied ink and other surface manipulations, then reassembled into new works. Throughout his career, Samaras’s own body has remained central to his work. In 1982, he began to make panoramic photographs that combine self-portraits, the nude, and the still-life. He has continued to use his anatomy and countenance as a medium and subject, investigating themes of sexuality, exultation, terror, identity, and mortality, while experimenting with unconventional materials to explore the depths of physical and psychological transformation. More recently, Samaras has used computer technology and digital imagery to continue an exploration of his body and physical distortion.