Campus has an eastern European Jewish family background; his father was Romanian, a doctor, while his mother was Ukrainian. Campus was born in 1937 and brought up in New York, but his mother died when he was aged seven, an event that coloured Campus’ youth and family life. Several family members worked in the art world and he developed an early interest in photography, which his father taught him, and painting. Campus cites the influential experience of watching Michael Powell movies as a teenager. He decided to study experimental psychology at Ohio State University, where he earned his degree in 1960.
After military service, Campus studied film editing and worked in the film industry as a production manager and editor, making documentaries until the early 1970s. During this period he developed an interest in Minimal Art, becoming friends with the sculptor Robert Grosvenor. He worked with Otto Piene and Aldo Tambellini at the Black Gate Theatre in East Village, New York. Charles Ross became a mentor and Campus worked as co-editor on Ross’ Sunlight Dispersion. Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, Bruce Nauman, Yvonne Rainer and Joan Jonas were influential figures in his decision to begin making his own art. In 1970, aged 33, Campus purchased his first video equipment.
Campus achieved rapid acclaim for a series of seminal video works that explored issues of identity/reality and subversion of the relationship between the viewer and the work. In his early period, Campus made both single channel video tape works and interactive closed-circuit television installations. Campus’ first video tape Dynamic Field Series (1971), used a camera suspended far above the artist as he manipulated its movements with ropes while lying down beneath it. In Double Vision (1971), Campus used two cameras and superimposition, marking the beginnings of a more formal experimentation with the medium itself, a characteristic that recurs in his work to this day. These first works also show Campus’ developing interest into the questioning of reality.
His critically acclaimed interactive closed circuit television works include Kiva (1971), Interface (1972), Stasis (1973), Shadow Projection and Negative Crossing (1974), mem and dor (1975), Mask Projections, lus and num (1976) and aen (1977). In A History of Video Art, Chris Meigh-Andrews describes these as works that sought to “deliberately confront the viewer with a self-image that defied or challenged normal expectations. In an important sense, these works were participatory and sculptural in that they invited or even required audience participation.”. They employed a wide variety of installation formats, which included the use of close-circuit live feedback television, projection, mirroring, image distortion and shadow projection. Campus’ interactive works have received significant critical attention and a wide range of different critical interpretations. These perspectives include discussion of the complex issues of body identity, reality and virtuality, self-transformation, presence and absence, the relationship of the viewer to the work of art which he/she completes, passivity and activity in the viewer, existentialism, the uncanny and narcissism.
Other 1970s video work includes the influential video tape Three Transitions (1973) in which the artist transforms his image in three different sequences. In this tape, Campus experiments with ‘blue screen’ technology, superimposing one image of himself upon another, with one image bleeding through into the other. The artist can be seen climbing through his own body, or breaking through his own image. In Third Tape (1976), Campus constructs and manipulates his own virtual self-image into an abstract self-portrait by filming his reflection as he progressively throws a disordered array of small mirror tiles upon a table. Campus says of this work "This man tries to abstract himself using age-old methods reminiscent of German Expressionism, Cubism and Surrealism. Art issues of line and plane are dredged up. Perhaps to be subtitled: the war between man and man-made objects."
Toward the end of the 1970s, Campus had large solo shows in Cologne and Berlin, but it was also at this time he began to move away from interactive work toward large scale projection and an investigation of the head as image. Head of a man with death on his mind (1978) is a 12 minute video of the face of a man looking directly into the camera. Both the title of the work and the image itself invite viewers to a confrontation with dark inner contemplation. A further piece Man’s Head and Woman’s Head (1979) consisted of stark photo-projection of heads. At this time Campus had a personal crisis and stopped producing video work until 1995.
There is a radical shift in Campus’ work from 1979 through the 1980s. He stopped working with video entirely and took up traditional still photography. There is also a major shift in subject matter as he moved away from the body and self and begun to look outside, to nature and landscape photography. “For me what was important was not the switch from video to photography, but from the interior to the exterior. The interior examinations became overwhelming…. I got very interested in nature. A lot of it was an escape from what was going on in the city. It was a place where all the things that were bothering me would disappear. Then, very quickly, about 1982, it became the subject of my work.”. These photographs feature many images of stones, plus buildings, bridges, landscapes, trees and sticks, subjects that persisted in his work throughout the 1980s. Campus describes his search in these works as “looking for what I called “resonance” in what I was feeling.”
In 1982 Campus began teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design, and moved to New York University in 1983.
In Inside Out (1987), Campus worked with photographed ‘floating’ stones using enlarged photo-projection from a slide projector. This work superimposes the light of the projector upon the natural light of images of stones. It reflects Campus’ desire to poeticise the everyday, to “discover timelessness in everyday life. ”
In 1988 he started working with computer imaging, producing a series of still works, renewing an interest in experimentation with the structural characteristics of the digital imaging medium, using photo-montage, digital drawing and digital image manipulation. Many of these experimental techniques would lead into his next period of work with a series of new moving image video pieces.
In 1995, Campus began to work with video once again, producing Olivebridge and Mont Desert, working for the first time with digital video and non-linear editing. This marked the beginning of a series of significant new video works throughout the 1990s and 2000s (decade), many presented in multi-screen monitor formations. These include Winter Journal (1997), By Degrees (1998), Video Ergo Sum (1999) Death Threat (2000), Six Movies (2001) and Time’s Friction (2004–2005). These works explore a complex range of personal themes – loss, memory, death, nature and landscape, the passing of time. Their formal characteristics are marked by Campus’ highly experimental approach to the digital video medium. He uses a range of techniques including multi-layering, superimposition, colour inversion, vanishings and appearances, chroma keying, colourisation, image mapping, pixelation and time manipulation.
In 2009, Peter Campus had a major retrospective show, Opticks at the British Film Institute in London. Alongside several earlier works, he showed Inflections: changes in light and colour around Ponquogue Bay (2009), a high definition multi-screen installation consisting of digitally transformed natural landscape studies, reflecting Campus’ aim to “to abstract from reality and leave just colour, movement and light.” This process has continually evolved as evident in his 2010 exhibition Calling For Shantih at Cristin Tierney, New York, NY and his 2012 exhibition now and then at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York, NY.
Peter Campus is a Clinical Associate Professor of Art and Art Education and Artist in Residence at NYU Steinhardt. The artist works on the South shore of Long Island where he resides with his wife Kathleen Graves, who is also an accomplished artist.