Luther Price, whose intense, haunted assemblages of found footage made him a key figure in the experimental film scene, has died at 58. New York’s Callicoon Fine Arts gallery, which represents Price, confirmed his death of causes not yet known.
Born in 1962, Price tested the ways that viewers might ascribe emotion to cinematic images with work full of odd montages of appropriated material that can be by turns disturbing and extremely moving. So densely edited as to be nearly entirely abstract, his films are oblique and strange—and visually dazzling too. Film programmer Ed Halter—who as cofounder (along with Thomas Beard) of Brooklyn’s Light Industry microcinema has championed the artist’s work—once called Price “Brakhage after Punk.”
Among Price’s most famous works is Sodom (1989), which includes hundreds of images in a 13-minute duration, many of them shots of men having sex. The shots came from gay porn found by Price in dumpsters in an area of Boston that once was home to a strip of theaters showing X-rated films. Alongside those images are clips lifted from biblical epics, with a soundtrack of Gregorian chants lending the film a bizarre ritualistic quality.
While Sodom effectively put Price on the radar of many who follow underground filmmaking, Price pushed against the reputation he developed because of that film. “I became known as this gritty, badass, gay filmmaker and… I’m not,” he told Big, Red, and Shiny. “Yeah, I’m gay, I like to look at guys’ asses, but Sodom is not a pornographic film to me. It’s just very fleshy and visceral, and it talks about a story.”
The spirit that led to Sodom’s making guided much of Price’s work in the ’80s, which saw him undertaking various personae after having experienced an accidental gunshot to the stomach. Pseudonyms he adopted included Brigk Aethy, Fag, and Tom Rhoads, the last of which was credited for films focused on the nuclear family and motherhood, with violent and sexual elements involved.
Most of Price’s works involve an intensive process reliant upon dirtying and degrading celluloid, as if to force his films to self-destruct upon their projection. (Price’s prints are original objects—they cannot be reproduced, and so, if one is destroyed mid-projection, the work ceases to exist entirely.) A viewer is constantly aware of the fragile state of Price’s films while watching, with images edited in such a way that they feel tenuous. The soundtracks, too, hint at this; because Price worked his celluloid so intensely, he effectively sometimes turned it inside out and occasionally allowed the sprockets on the side of film strip to act as the soundtrack for his work.
Price claimed that he placed aesthetics over ideas, but his films could have clear emotional content. In 1996, when he learned that his mother, his father, and another family member all had cancer, Price embarked on a series known as the “Cancer Home Movie Films,” which evoke the mortality of his loved ones through semi-destroyed family photos. A sense of death is ever-present in much of Price’s work: neither people nor the images of them that we cherish can last forever.
Luther Price was born in 1962 in Revere, Massachusetts, and was based in Boston for much of his life. He received a B.F.A. degree from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, where he studied with Saul Levine, one of the most important early experimental filmmakers.
Mainstream art institutions began taking notice of Price after his work appeared in the 2012 Whitney Biennial in New York. Price showed slide works made with film that had been buried underground. Once it was dug up, he applied various elements (including bugs and ice cream sprinkles) to the slides and exhibited the results. In her New York Times review, critic Roberta Smith called Price “one of the Biennial’s stars,” writing of his offering: “In these entrancingly delicate, implicitly violent works, life, chance, obsessive art making and an intense artistic psyche descended from Pollock, Rauschenberg and Jack Smith—if not Hercules Segers—flashes before your eyes.”
Price once said that he prized slides because they replicate the way that objects can shift states over time. “Think of it like a snow globe that you shake up,” he said. “It constantly changes.”