Luther Price (1962-2020)

Green (1988)
Warm Broth (1988)
Sodom (1989)
Jellyfish Sandwich (1994)
Run (1994)

Luther Price, Experimental Artist and Filmmaker, Dies at 58
By Roberta Smith
New York Times
Published July 19, 2020

Luther Price, a multimedia artist and prolific experimental filmmaker known for his haunting, often transgressive work — as well as for never revealing his real name — died on June 13 at his home in Revere, Mass. He was 58.

His death was announced by Callicoon Fine Arts, his New York representative, which did not give the cause.

Mr. Price’s films were distinguished by his use of found footage and his unusually hands-on approach. His themes were variously domestic, sexual and autobiographical and always visceral, even when his work was abstract. His styles ranged from expressionistic to quasi-documentary. Some of his films explored his childhood and featured members of his family, especially his mother (or, sometimes, the artist himself dressed to resemble her).

The through lines were fragmented narratives, startling juxtapositions and suggestions of physical decay, often combined to nightmarish effect. Mr. Price’s best films were never less than gripping.

Lia Gangitano, the independent curator who gave him his first solo exhibition in 1999 at Thread Waxing Space in SoHo and another in 2014 at Participant, a nonprofit space she had founded on the Lower East Side, wrote in an email:

“Luther Price made films that aren’t like anyone else’s. They inspire devotion. He embraced a particularly unapologetic set of working-class values, and pushed his chosen medium to its limits to produce an uncompromising and cyclical view of bodily, familial and societal damage.”

Mr. Price was probably best known for “Sodom” (1988-89), a Super 8 film that combined excerpts from gay pornographic films (discarded by X-rated bookstores in Boston) with footage from biblical epics, set to Gregorian chant played backward.

He created the illusion of intersecting films — and bodies — by using hole punches to excise tiny circles of celluloid from individual frames and replacing them with other images. It was a painstaking technique even for an artist who had studied jewelry making in art school. Multiple images jumped feverishly back and forth, almost as if the film were trying to escape the projector.

His films rarely let viewers forget the mechanical nature — the objectness — of film. The Estate of Luther Price and Callicoon Fine Arts, New York

Presented without benefit of titles or credits, often with a soundtrack of clacking projectors or sprockets, Mr. Price’s films rarely let viewers forget the mechanical nature — the objectness — of film. Through trial and error, he learned to clean up his worked-over celluloid so that it could be screened without falling apart or ruining projectors. Many of his films existed only as what he called “handmade originals.”

Despite the often gritty, often disheveled look of his films, Mr. Price was extremely organized. The studio in his small house in Revere, northeast of Boston, was lined with files devoted to films that he had found and dissected.

He was equally fastidious in appearance — always neatly dressed, his hair and beard carefully trimmed — although his style could change markedly. In one photograph he wears a high-collared black coat that, blending with his dark beard, gives him a priestly look. In a video of a lecture he gave at the California College of the Arts in Oakland, he is professorial, in a well-fitted sports jacket and a turtleneck.

Studying sculpture and performance and installation art at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, where he later taught, Mr. Price first took up the camera to record his performance work. (He often adopted the persona of a malevolent clown, which figured in his later films.) The camera became his primary tool after 1985, when, during a semester abroad in Nicaragua, he suffered an accidental gunshot wound that left him in chronic pain and with a limp.

He approached filmmaking sculpturally, altering his film not only with elaborate splicing but also by scratching and scraping the celluloid with pins and razors, subjecting it to bleach and other chemicals, and embellishing it with paint, glitter, ink and olive oil. He left it out in the sun and buried it underground to absorb the deteriorating effects of dirt, mold and moisture.

These tactics became more eccentric with his more abstract films of the last 15 years, including his extended “Inkblot” series, and with the tiny collages that he pieced together in glass slides, combining outtakes from his films with hair, dirt and insects. These images might be enlarged into digital C-prints or become part of works consisting of a carousel of sequenced slides that, when projected, suggested both slowed-down films and sped-up paintings.

His earliest films, made with Super 8 equipment while he was at MassArt, where he studied with Saul Levine and Ericka Beckman, all but announced a mature sensibility. “Warm Broth” (1987-88) seemed cobbled together from home movies of different vintages, but it was shot almost entirely by Mr. Price using a dirty lens and other devices to create the illusion of distant childhood memories.

“Warm Broth” (1987-88) seemed cobbled together from home movies of different vintages, but it was shot almost entirely by Mr. Price. Luther Price/Callicoon Fine Arts

The artist known as Luther Price was born on Jan. 26, 1962, in Marlborough, Mass., the eldest of three siblings in a Roman Catholic family. His parents’ names are not known, nor is how they made their living. He grew up mostly in Revere, a working-class North Shore town, in a house whose backyard sloped up to a sea wall, which was sometimes a backdrop in his films. He drew from an early age and was also interested in music, especially country music.

He began to use different aliases in art school, making his first films as “Tom Rhoads.” When he was making “Sodom,” he found the name too innocent-sounding, so he devised “Luther Price” as a kind of sacred-profane homage to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the actor Vincent Price, best known in horror films.

After graduating from MassArt in 1987, Mr. Price began teaching there almost immediately. He lived for several years with a group of friends and other artists in a house in Cambridge, often collaborating on performances and pop-up exhibitions.

In the late 1990s, Mr. Price’s parents and sister all learned they had cancer. To be close to them, he moved back to Revere, to a small beach bungalow that was once his grandmother’s home. He lived there for the rest of his life.

His survivors include a brother, John, whose last name was not provided.

Returning to his origins gave Mr. Price’s art new urgency, notably in his “Cancer Home Movie Films,” among them “Mother,” “Home,” “I’ll Cry Tomorrow,” “Ritual 629” and “Door #2-37.”

After his mother’s death in 2001, he found himself at a dead end with autobiographical films and uninterested in even picking up a camera. He immersed himself in found footage, which allowed him more distance while “still dealing with human suffering and content,” he said in a 2012 interview with the online magazine Idiom.

“Fancy” (2006), made with medical footage of minor surgeries seen up close, maintained the shock value of his earlier films. “Shelley Winters” (2010), 11 minutes of blank white accompanied by tape recordings of men and women discussing their different views on domestic violence, offered an abstract but wrenching view of marriage.

A gentler if still unsettling view of family life prevailed in Mr. Price’s so-called Biscuit films (2005-8), which used 13 identical copies of a 1970s segment from “Say Brother,” WGBH’s long-running documentary series (now called “Basic Black”) about African-Americans.

For “The Biscuit Day,” he excised three brief scenes that follow a faltering old woman in a red-checked housecoat: as she is helped onto a shuttle by a group of relatives; as she is driven through town; and as she arrives at a nursing home in Boston, welcomed by staff and spirited through the front door. Each scene repeats numerous times, elongating the event into a ritualized rite of passage, if not agony. With each repetition, the transition gains in emotional weight and finality.

In the last decade, Mr. Price’s energies were absorbed primarily by his abstract work. “The things eating away at me were now resolved,” he said in the Idiom interview. “I felt I needed to move on. So I dove into a more abstract world of decomposing film by rotting it in my garden.” This brought him, he said, to a different kind of “visceral beautiful turbulent place.”