Lucas Samaras (born September 14, 1936) is not the best-known artist in America, but among the cognoscenti 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. Samaras stands out from the crowd in part because he tends to work with unique subject matter—himself. He has interviewed himself, photographed himself, sculpted himself, and decorated himself and, in doing so, he has always seemed to be a work in progress. Samaras is not necessarily a narcissist, even though one of his retrospectives was titled “Unrepentant Ego.” He is an intrepid self-investigator and he has made acareer out of mutating his own image and likeness.
Samaras was born in Greece in 1936 and emigrated to the United States with his family when he was 11. He won a scholarship to study art at Rutgers University, enrolling in 1955, at a time when the Rutgers art department was a hotbed of innovation, with a faculty that included Alan Kaprow, who organized the first Happenings, and Geoffrey Hendricks, who, along with Kaprow, George Segal, Roy Lichtenstein, and students like Robert Whitman, was instrumental in the Fluxus movement. Upon graduation, Samaras received a fellowship to attend Columbia University’s graduate department of art history, which afforded him the chance to get involved with New York City’s burgeoning Happenings scene, where he met artists such as Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, and Red Grooms. His interest in performance also led him to study acting with Stella Adler.
Samaras’s first art exhibition, in 1959, earned raves, and, two years later, one of his pieces was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. He was a significant figure in the New York art world early on, and Andy Warhol once recalled Samaras as being part of a fledgling rock band he tried to join in the ’60s that included Claes and Patti Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, La Monte Young, and Walter De Maria. Over the years, Samaras has made drawings, paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs, furniture, and jewelry. He has been extraordinarily innovative in media, learning to manipulate Polaroids before the dyes set, or employing materials such as razor blades, chicken wire, beads, and gold.
Samaras is known for a series of “Auto-Interviews,” in which he interrogates himself, but for Interview this notorious loner spoke to his longtime friend and dealer Arne Glimcher, who may be the person who knows him best. The occasion is yet another remarkable body of work—this one 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.