June 30, 2020 • William E. Jones
I FIRST HEARD OF LUTHER PRICE long before I saw him in person. Sodom (1989), his film juxtaposing Gregorian chants and gay porn footage that he had mutilated with a hole punch and then painstakingly put back together, earned him a legendary reputation in experimental film circles. We met in 2006 at Cinematexas, a disorganized festival on its last legs, and he was livid when his films were not presented as he wished. A negligent projectionist nearly destroyed one, which would have been a disaster, as the print was irreplaceable. Luther refused the convenient reproducibility of photographic media; each film print was a unique art object, and even in the case of works available in multiple copies, he altered them so that no two were identical. In the end, his screenings were a triumph under adverse circumstances, and he rejoiced. His films made demands upon spectators, but he didn’t feign indifference to their reactions. Luther was tough yet sensitive; exigent as an artist, but as a friend, he was the soul of kindness.
Luther’s paradoxical combination of qualities was entirely consonant with his work. The films that appeared to be crudely or arbitrarily edited were actually governed by highly sophisticated patterns of mesmerizing complexity. He made elaborate series of films involving repetitions of long duration, all of them produced with an extreme economy of means. Thrift was a cardinal virtue for him.
Prole Art Threat: It was as though Luther lived to embody the phrase coined by Mark E. Smith. This flower of the working class was allowed to blossom at the public art college in Boston, MassArt. Contemporaries from his alma mater attest to his generosity and immense appetite for work. They knew him at first as L. A. (the initials of his birth name); then as Tom Rhoads (who worked in a diner and made the compelling 1988 film Warm Broth); and finally, under the name by which he became widely known, Luther Price, which suggested that he was a swamp Yankee. In fact, he grew up in an Italian Catholic family in Revere, a seaside city just outside Boston. His mother used to call him Vito as a child, and she told stories over and over in slight variations until they became unmoored from reality, a mode of narration that her son would one day exploit to impressive effect.Luther Price, 35-mm slide from Fibroid Family Kitchen, 2005. Courtesy: Estate of Luther Price.
Luther’s family provided him with raw material that he mined, often in harrowing ways, for many of his works. He lost his mother, father and sister to cancer within the space of a little over two years, and he himself nearly died as a young man. In 1985, on the last day of a student cultural exchange with the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, he was accidentally shot in the side and sustained grievous internal injuries. He was evacuated to recover in Boston, and he lost his ability to walk and to travel internationally. After much medical and bureaucratic agony, he made an adequate physical recovery, and much later managed to regain his passport, but pain plagued him for the rest of his life. Death haunted all of his art and even his casual conversations.
Luther started out making large-scale sculptural installations as a student in the early 1980s, but after he was shot, switched to Super-8 film, which required less exertion. Around 2006, he began to fashion decayed slides and scraps of film outtakes into installations involving projection which were first exhibited at the 2012 Whitney Biennial. A major retrospective of his films took place at the Oberhausen Film Festival the following year. He then returned to sculpture with figurative works looking like human remains from Pompeii and fossilized internal organs shown at Participant, Inc. in 2014. Performance—live and in his films, as an actor and as a musician—was a constant from his earliest youth until he no longer had the strength or inclination to leave his house full of the detritus that he transformed into art. As one close friend memorably put it, Luther was always excavating. Over the course of what those who never knew him would call a “career,” but which really amounted to an all-encompassing, obsessive calling, he produced a large and variegated body of work that has only been exhibited in part.
I remember very clearly the last time I saw Luther. After his 2014 REDCAT screening, I was walking down Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles. He was in a moving car, and as he passed by, he leaned out the passenger window, waved, and shouted, “I love you,” which is how he ended all our conversations. I dearly wish I had the opportunity to hear him say those words one more time.
William E. Jones is an artist, filmmaker, and writer living in Los Angeles.