Originals and Reproductions


Based in the Berlin district of Friedrichshain Michael Luther’s studio consists of one room - a nearly square work space coolly lit by neon lights on the ceiling. The floor in chequerboard pattern, the bookshelves and some canvases, painted side facing the wall, suggest a working atmosphere of a focused, precise and at the same time restlessly contemplating mind. The eye-catching round bar in the rear of the studio is not only a place of much needed recreation but also serves as a retreat for the artist from where he is able to review his work, reproductions and originals - part of a reality that has fallen into doubt.

Even though this introduction describes a real studio situation it can also be interpreted as a painting created by Luther in 2006 on the studio topic. Besides the painter’s tools (such as ladder, easel, paints) this small scale studio scene also shows the unfinished work “art” – hence it refers back to the classical topos of “picture-in-picture”. While the representation of the studio itself hints at the tension between real life working conditions and imaginary production, those moments of artistic self-reflection are taken further and are finally radicalised by the cover quote of the art magazine “art”.

It becomes immediately obvious what this is about and it is simple and complex at the same time and absolutely essential for the artist: It is about art, about the conditions of its production, its perception and marketing in terms of “art” (art sales) and in “art” (media). Significantly enough Luther uses an issue of the art magazine (no. 6/June 2004) featuring a work by the Leipzig-based artist Tim Eitel. The topic of Eitel’s original – a landscape format by the way – is the beholder’s expectation to identify a recognisable and interpretable object. Defined and clear at first sight – or so it seems – the girl’s looking through a camera takes the object into the distance far outside the painting. Even though Luther dispenses with the magazine’s title (“Beautiful Escapes – The New Trend towards Perfect Idyll in Painting and Photography”) the barcode in the right-hand margin clearly alludes to the commodity character of art, to the close relationship between production, reception and economic marketing.

Yet another subject level of the studio painting is disclosed by a further „picture-in-picture“ standing on an easel and symbolising the extremes of Luther’s artistic work: photorealistic representationalism and colour abstraction. Here colour in the form of brushstrokes is absorbed by an undefinable centre of blurred colour streaks and is transformed energetically at the same time. In addition to the above-mentioned refection of the (external) context in which art is created, “brushstrokes 1” focuses on the (intrinsic) artistic production, the transformation of colours into mere abstraction – or positively put – into mere representation. Here the nexus between creation and reception, artist and beholder becomes evident. A finished product to the eye of the beholder, the work of art is part of an all-encompassing temporal, meditative and living process the dynamics of which Luther conveys by contrasting the unfinished work “art” to the colour-abstract work “brushstrokes 1” within the framework of a photorealistic studio painting. With the studio painting – featuring the place where his art is created - Luther takes stock of his artistic career so far which could not be more heterogeneous from a formal point of view.

Born in 1964 in Bad Saulgau the artist made his mark creating his monumental photorealistic colour compositions such as “Colourado” or “Great Love”. Here the subject is the paint itself which Luther squeezes out of tubes, puts into various layers, photographs selected details and transfers those to the canvas. For “Great Love” for instance this approach meant taking approx. 1,500 photos from which the artist chose his models for the realisation on canvas. In “Colourado”, a work of gigantic scale measuring 3 x 13.3 metres, the masses of paint pile up to create an eruptive mountain landscape. The paint, the means of painting the very material that gave painting its name, becomes the object of the painting. In the face of this pathos formula of pure painting one cannot help wondering about means and motive and about the windows this highlight of illusionism almost in the style of the old masters will open. The enthrallment of Luther’s art lies in the fact that he does not stop at the nowadays almost mandatory self-refection of painting as painting (his ironic employment of Tim Eitel’s painting comes to mind) – the sine qua non of the current art scene. By monumentalizing the format and by bewilderingly turning the motif into the representation of a mountain landscape – eo ipso preserving the legibility of the by itself abstract masses of paint – Luther creates a worldliness in his painting of literally metaphysical impact. Beauty and rawness clash, refined painting and archaic sensuality seduce the beholder undermining his aesthetic distance. The over-dimensional magnification of the paint, the seemingly random choice of motif and the coarse forms play havoc with the beholders’ expectations orienting towards proportion and correspondency; an irritation all the more fundamental as Luther does not portray his fantasy’s virtual products but “real things” with meticulous precision. Not least because of this double strategy concerning the effect of his paintings, of beauty and rawness, Luther eludes the commercialization so common in today’s art scene and reflects this existential disproportion in his paintings.

With “2 x blue” Luther compares two works which at first glance appear to confront representational and abstract painting. In both paintings he uses exactly the same ten colours, the predominant colour being blue in all the mixtures. Even if sky and water are indeed intended to be spontaneous associations, the artist does not aim at depicting a certain motif but rather at showing the potential of colour, its material, elementary and dramatic consolidation and ethereal delimitation. Hence the title marks the colour blue as a borderline experience of natural, aesthetic perception – an experience of elemental and spiritual forces the wholeness of which is constituted by using ten identical colours. Formal art historical classifications such as representational or abstract become obsolete due to their interchangeability against the universal background of the colour blue and its manifestation of extreme states of being.

Someone like Luther who sees painting as a transcendental art, i. e. someone who reflects on the condition of the possibility to produce art, is bound to broach the issue of art historicity and its translation into the present alongside with its means. When comparing his most recent work “secluded and alone” to its original, Caspar David Friedrich’s “The Monk by the Sea” of 1808/09, Luther’s strategy of adoption becomes evident: reduplication of the motif and miniaturisation. Luther’s adoption is the demystification of an allegory once described by Kleist with the words “when viewing it, it is as if one’s eyelids had been cut away” - the allegory of popular romantic painting which has long since become post card kitsch, and its restoration without sentimentality. For the respect Luther shows for the original ironically lies in its reduplication and realisation on a smaller scale. Far from a mere copy Luther’s adoption is a meditative and creative process which he performs twice with the same concentration in order to create two almost identical reproductions. The miniaturisation of the motif, forcing the beholder to take a close look also prevents the former from being sentimentally wrapped up in whatever cosmic way. Therefore “secluded and alone” is also the story of a relationship alluding to the unsatisfiability of the romantic motive of longing.

Adopting Paul Cézanne’s “Three Skull on an Oriental Rug” of 1904 Luther takes another decisive step. This time it is not meditative reproduction but a reformulation and translation into modern times. In contrast to Friedrich’s “Monk” the artist doubles the scale of the painting – from 54 x 64 cm to 110 x 130 cm. A morbid memento mori depiction, symbol of disintegration and decay, is transformed into the presentation of three skulls of daunting and aggressive presence with “Hundred Years – After Cézanne”. While in Cézanne’s painting skulls and flowers seem to grow out of the many folds of the Oriental rug, Luther’s drapery is more reminiscent of a cratered landscape which bulges out into the foreground as if to grab for the beholder. The skulls baring their teeth, bathed in cool light appear to stare at the beholder holding their fate of violence and death against him.

At the latest when looking at “Hundred Years – After Cézanne” does one wonder whether the platonic separation of original and reproduction can be maintained at all when it comes to Michael Luther’s work. Given the massive consumption of virtual images in our media age and the primary experiences connected, reproductions turn into originals and originals lose their singular aura becoming reproductions in turn. In this house of mirrors of medial refraction and interpretation of images, Luther goes his own unwavering way the stylistic heterogeneity of which is just as vexing as it increases awareness for simultaneity in a realm of nonsimultaneity and for the dialectics of originals and reproductions.  

German original ”Urbilder und Abbilder“ by Velten Wagner
Tranlated by Sirka Sander, Berlin