Fellows News

Grand Central Terminal celebrates 100 years with Lothar Osterburg’s Zeppelins in Grand Central

Feb 3, 2013

The work of photogravure master printer, sculptor, and filmmaker Lothar Osterburg is driven by images that are burned into his memory and persistently resurface. He recreates these images by building small-scale scenes quickly and intuitively from readily available, found materials. Continually undoing and redoing, Mr. Osterburg allows his imagination to fill gaps in his knowledge or to completely transform the image. He then photographs the scenes and finally prints them as photogravures.

Your beautiful photogravure Zeppelins in Grand Central has been selected by New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority to be part of its exhibition On Time/Grand Central at 100 and to be one of the featured Artcards it posts in its many subway cars.  Congratulations!  Was it commissioned by the MTA or was your choice of subject serendipitous?

I got lucky that Amy Hausmann from MTA Arts in Transit saw my show Yesterday’s City of Tomorrow at Lesley Heller Gallery last February. I initially was invited to participate in the show On Time Grand Central at 100, which is opening in March. After seeing my proposal and what I was working on I was commissioned for the Artcard. I had great freedom to create what I wanted as long as it fit into the difficult panorama format.

I have to say that the idea of zeppelins in Grand Central Terminal took me aback.  Was the almost coincident births of this airship and GCT what suggested the image to you?

Several things came together, by pure chance: The inspiration came less from the coincidental birth of both around the same time, and more from period photographs from the 1920s and 1930s, including the fictitious docking of a zeppelin at the Empire State building, currently on view in the Metropolitan Museum exhibit Faking It. I had been working with zeppelins on other projects before, and just happened to place one on the model when working on the Grand Central project. The scale of an airship hangar has always fascinated me, and building the grand concourse model made me think of it. I was thinking of Grand Central Terminal not as a static place with a static purpose, but as one that, like Roman ruins, would be re-purposed in the future. Rather than letting it fall into ruin I thought it would make a great transfer point for local, or even mid- to long-range zeppelins—much more convenient than JFK.

In the end one could look at the scene from either of two perspectives: as a visionary in 1913 might imagine Grand Central would look like in 1984, or as an archaeologist who had unearthed the remains of Grand Central might speculate about the activities that went on there for an article in the March 2513 issue of National Geographic.

Like Grand Central, your images are carefully and beautifully constructed, incorporating amazing detail.  They also often feature modes of transportation as principal elements and have a kind of surreal or dreamlike quality to them.  Could you describe your creative process?

My images are based on memory, not necessarily a specific, clear one but a vague, often collective memory. The Grand Central Project is still part of my Guggenheim project in which I am looking at New York like Piranesi looked at Rome in his Carceri series. I am looking at the city in which I have been living for the past twenty years with the eyes of an immigrant, as the city that is grander from afar than it really is, a city that is rooted in its own glorified past, potential, and myths. As I did in Yesterday’s City of Tomorrow, I am imagining New York as if its history had taken a different turn.

When creating a piece I am working purely from memory, allowing for mistakes or inaccuracies while giving my feelings and emotion more emphasis (i.e., I gave Grand Central’s concourse seven sets of windows instead of five and made them taller and pointed instead of squat and round). I am building small-scale models without measuring, much like sketching, using found and everyday materials, inventing as I go the things I don’t remember in order to make it work. This creates a tension between dream and reality, form and function, cleared of superfluous detail. The resulting model becomes an amalgam of fact and fiction. During this process I frequently look at the model through a camera lens and ultimately photograph it from the vantage point of a participant in the scene. My images do not have people in them, just vessels for them that frequently have a personality of their own. By keeping the scenes devoid of people, which often become mere illustrations in artworks, I am inviting the viewer to become part of what he sees.

Ultimately I make a copperplate photogravure plate and print the image on an etching press. I keep and reuse a lot of my models, and frequently become inspired by an accidental unlikely juxtaposition.

Most people associate the photogravure process with the late nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century, for example, in Edward Curtis’s The North American Indian (1907-1930) and Doris Ullman’s Roll, Jordan, Roll (1933).  The process is time-consuming and exacting, and some would say dated.  What draws you to it, and what do you think it lets you accomplish as an artist that other, simpler processes wouldn’t?

In my background as a printmaker I always loved the tactile, materialness of a print. Photography—especially the more conventional gelatin silver prints, C-Prints, and more recently digital prints did not interest me because of their industrially manufactured surface. Photographic prints lacked a physical presence, and were just an illusion on the surface. This changed in 1989 when as a master printer at Crown Point Press in San Francisco I started learning the photogravure process for the portfolio Gymnasium Chases by Christian Boltanski. Fascinated by the process I started making my own photogravures, and have not stopped since.

The process also suits my work well, as it is not of our time, but of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a time that is influencing my work heavily. The wide tonal range as well as its inherent softness enhance the moodiness I seek. My crudely built models keep the final work from becoming too photographic.

I sometimes also work back into the copper of the finished photogravure plates with regular etching processes. The hand takes my images even further away from pure photography, and allows me to play with parallel alternate solutions of the same ideas, something that is only possible in printmaking, film, and digital art. The plate is only the matrix from which the edition has been printed. It can be reworked for a related or even completely different edition. I was inspired for this by the two states that exist for Piranesi’s Carceri, which he did about twenty years apart.

You often collaborate with your wife, Elizabeth Brown, who is also a Guggenheim Fellow (Music Composition, 2007).  How do your talents complement each other’s work?  Are there any common threads among your many joint projects? 

Both of us work with memory, work intuitively, obsessively honing to express an emotion or mood that has been within us rather than being conceptual or analytical. We work with found, everyday material—both sounds and building materials. We both try to create a direct emotional resonance between the work and the audience. Her music greatly enhances what I try to convey in my videos, and her music expands through the visual aspect I create. We worked next to each other, inspired and critiqued each other’s work, for nine years before our first collaboration, and we have a deep mutual respect and understanding of each other.

We both have opened up new audiences for each other’s work. Audiences experiencing our work have told us that the visual and audio is inseparable. Elizabeth is frequently inspired by visual art (Piranesi was her idea). I am a retired musician (I played piano and double bass until I was nineteen) and think of the timing in my videos as fused with the music.

What do you hope people who see your work take away from it?

In all my work, but especially in the Artcard I hope viewers will have a multilayered experience. It will be on view for an entire year, and people may spend a good bit of time with it when commuting.

I don’t want to illustrate my personal ideas, and show the world just as I see it, but allow enough ambiguity for viewers to discover and explore the piece over time and be transported from their mundane, everyday commute into a world of possibilities and their own imaginations.