In 1983 Muniz moved to the United States, first to Chicago, and later to New York in 1986. There he studied theater direction and set design. In 1987, he created Relics a set of sculptures made of found objects and simulated archaeological discoveries. After seeing the sculptures photographed, he decided not to show the original pieces but rather to present the prints that documented them. These photographs were presented in his first solo exhibition at Stux Gallery (New York, 1988). Subseqently photography would often be his preferred medium for his art.
This was corroborated in The Best of Life (1989), a series produced from drawings made from the memories he recalled of the images he had studied a few years back from a book that compiled the bests photographs published by Life magazine. The out of focus photographic records of these drawings, were presented as the final work. For the series Individuals (1992) Muniz built sculptures in clay, documented them photographically, destroyed the sculptures and reused the broken pieces. Later he produced Equivalents (1993), a series of sculptures made from cotton and produced with elaborate lighting and suspension tricks to resemble the fleeting images we usually identify with clouds. This line of work continued with Pictures of Wire and Pictures of Thread (1994), photographs of still lives drawn with wire and landscapes made with yarn. The landscapes, which copied nineteenth-century landscapes by Courbet, Corot and Lorrain, revealed a growing complexity in the development of Muniz’s photographed models.
The series Sugar Children (1996) constituted a step forward as they depicted portraits of Caribbean children—children of low-paid workers from the sugar industry—made of sugar sprinkled on paper. In addition to addressing, for the first time in his work), a social issue, he used for the first time a material that was related to the subject matter. In Pictures of Chocolate (1997) the liquid chocolate used to draw the images inspired a wide range of relationships between them and the symbolic meaning of chocolate. In Aftermath (1998) he portrayed orphans from São Paulo whose poses imitated classical portraits. His medium was sand and garbage collected the day after Carnival had taken place. This series was presented at the XXIV São Paulo Biennial at a time when Muniz had already achieved international recognition.
In the year 2000 Muniz continued to develop his unique method. Although the themes and the materials varied he continued to use photography as his preferred medium. For Pictures of Ink (2000) he drew by hand famous images drawn from photojournalism amplifying the dots that characterize the printing process. In Pictures of Dust (2000) he drew a series of minimalistic sculptures from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York using the dust collected by the janitors while cleaning the original works. In Pictures of Color (2002) images were built with Pantone color samples simulating pixels of digital photography. For a special series inspired by land art called Pictures of Earthworks (2002) he created monumental drawings using domestic objects laying them in the middle of the debris of an iron mine in Brazil, which he photographed from a helicopter. He later repeated the same drawings on paper in small format which he photographed using the same camera. Once both series were printed and shown side by side it was extremely difficult to identify which one was which.
In 2003 he produced a series that synthetized and fine-tuned his ideas and methods. He took as a starting point the concept of monads used by Leibniz to designate primary and indivisible metaphysical particles that make up the essence of all things. Muniz identified this concept with the process he had been using since Sugar Children: the creation of an image or the expression of a theme using a medium that relates to it in a material, iconographic or symbolic matter. This idea inspired Monads, a drawing of a boy soldier at the time of the Secession War made with plastic toy soldiers. Other series included Rebus, for which he used different plastic toys to make portraits of children and a self-portrait; Pictures of Magazines, portraits of celebrities made with the residue left from perforating magazines; Pictures of Caviar and Pictures of Diamonds (2003), portraits of celebrities from the film industry made of caviar and diamonds; Pictures of Junk (2006), mythological scenes inspired by European paintings made with trash; and Pictures of Garbage (2008), portraits of the inhabitants of a dump in Rio de Janeiro made with the trash they collected to make a living.
Parallel to this line of work Muniz has developed other series including Verso (2008), photographs of the obverses of well-known masterpieces. On the other hand the series Sand Castle (2014), connected to Pictures of Earthworks, seemed to revert the process of the Monads. Using an electronic microscope he drew a series of castles on minuscule particles of sand, impossible to be seen by the human eye, photographed them, amplified them and printed them to create the final works. In 2015 he participated in the LVI Venice Biennial with the floating installation Lampedusa, a scale model paper boat reminiscent of the traditional Venitian vaporettos, which he also photographed.
Vik Muniz lives and works in New York.