Lothar Osterburg: Interview
Non-Native New York
Linn Edwards and Brian Bell Co-Curators Non-Native New York
2010 Non-Native New York
Step into Lothar Osterburg’s studio in the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood, and you might find yourself lost in his world. Small-scale models hang from the ceiling, speaking to familiar imagery like brownstones and subways, but also include imaginary planets populated with tall-sail ships, globes divided by wandering fences, tiny ancient planes and mini high-rise buildings cloaked in orange construction fencing.
Lothar builds models that speak to universal history and individual memories, photographs them on location or in the studio, then produces the images via photogravures, etching the images into copper plates. The resulting prints are lush and velvety with infinite tones of gray. On first glance the prints tell stories from a long-ago time but with upon closer look, reveal reminders of the contemporary world, created by an artist who is, after thirty years of art-making, clearly in love with the creative process and tirelessly exploring new ideas.
NNNY: Describe your experience moving to the United States.
Lothar: I have been living in the United States for 25 year. I lived for 7 years in San Francisco, then I moved to New York about 18 years ago. I am a printmaker, photographer, sculptor, little bit of film, I dabble a little in all those things and try to combine them as well.
NNNY: What was the evolution of you becoming an artist?
Lothar: I was always interested in art, liked to draw, but was basically geared to become a musician, I played double-bass and piano. Six months before my application to the conservatory was due, my double-bass teacher took me & my parents aside and said “you should really re-think the double-bass because…you don’t practice enough, you only play by ear, you only read the music, you’re kind of lazy.”
It was hard at that time, I was 18, so I did the next best thing, and applied to art school. First spent a year in military service, but I was a consciencious objector so did civil service, and had the luck of meeting another fellow there who helped me put my portfolio together. I found in the first semester in art school what I never found in the double-bass, the love of the work itself: going to the studio and completely forgetting time, just drawing and painting and completely getting immersed in the work.
The specialization of printmaking happened pretty early; I was very good at the technical aspect of it so within a year I had a student-teacher position. In art school I started making prints for other artists, but before I finished, I felt I needed to get some more experience. I had only lived in my hometown where I was born in Northern German. So in the last year of university I took an opportunity of an exchange program in San Francisco, and that opened a lot of years for me.
I got a job at Crown Point Press in San Francisco to survive, had a couple of shows, then luckily I was laid off in the big art recession in 1993. It opened up opportunities because I moved to NY and opened my own studio.
NNNY: Describe your studio practice.
Lothar: Primarily working from memory. I take memories, and recreate them after some time, so they are cleared of superfluous, emotional detail and try to boil them down to the essence. The process goes through model-making, where I’m building small-scale models, which I stage in my studio or outdoors.
I then look work with a (Hasselblad film) camera and recreate that scene with light & camera angle, and rebuilding the model. Ultimately I make photogravure prints, which is a 19th century photographic etching process in which a photograph is etched into a copper plate, into a continuous tone print, (not a half-tone dot which most photographic prints have) so it is a very beautiful, rich tonal range.
NNNY: What successes and difficulties have you had as a foreign–born artist in New York?
Lothar: I think being a foreigner has forced me to work harder, in certain aspects, because I didn’t have any support network here. I had to be more diligent and disciplined about my practice of working and getting my foot in, and I’ve kept that up. So inadvertently, because I’m a foreigner, I had to work a little harder, so I got a little further.
A lot of people wonder why I moved away from Germany as an artist, because there is so much funding in Germany for arts, especially in the 80’s/90’s, when I left, but Germany is so set in their ways, they are not open to the new, I find. Here I had a lot more opportunities to do what I wanted to do, so I still think the United States is the land of opportunity.
NNNY: How has moving to the United States influenced your art?
Lothar: I’m always coming back to why am I doing these things, last 5-10 years my subject matter has become more directed. I do feel like there is openness to anything new, curiosity towards anything new, is much greater here. Being a printer, in Germany people were like, “oh, we have our own printers here,” but here I was received with open arms, people tried me out, and came back to work with me.
I got some great opportunities, I was a fellow at the MacDowell Colony, where I met my wife, who is a composer. I was there three times altogether; I met her the first time. There is nothing quite comparable to that in Germany, where you really feel you are appreciated as an artist, and anything you do is valid. You get there and you don’t have to justify yourself. The working energy is really enormous among the fellows. I got a couple of NYFA grant, I recently got Guggenheim Grant, Academy of Arts and Letters. This country has been really open to me, instead of just giving to their own. You have to fight for it, and the competition is high, but I think the great strength of the United States is historically the diversity and the constant influx of people from all around the world coming in and adding new twists and new ideas and new energy, rather than being this homogeneous pot where everyone thinks alike and becomes very stagnant. So, I think that what Arizona is doing, they’ve lost the boat; it’s the fear of the difference.
NNNY: What are your upcoming shows, projects, etc?
Lothar: I have upcoming shows at Center for Photography at Woodstock, and Rockland Center for the Arts.
For more information on Lothar Osterburg please visit his website: www.lotharosterburgphotogravure.com