Main Street Magazine— The Many Planets of Lothar Osterburg

By Leora Armstrong

Stepping into the red barn where Lothar Osterburg and his wife, Elizabeth Brown, live feels otherworldly; one has the sense of a journey’s beginning. After migrating from Brooklyn, they rebuilt their home and studios into this hand-hewn building – a shared collaboration of space, life, and creativity. Elizabeth is an extraordinary musician, composer, and teacher, while Lothar works on his visual and collaborative practice when not teaching at Bard College.

One is hard-pressed not to feel enveloped by their spirit of work. Amid nooks for reading and spaces filled with artwork, one’s eye continually wanders. While standing on an upper landing, Osterburg’s precisely made model planets circle overhead; these planets of the geographer reflect his emigration from Germany to the United States. 

Early life

Lothar Osterburg grew up in Braunschweig, Germany, where he fulfilled his civil service and ignited an early passion for printmaking and filmmaking. Rejecting an offer from Berlin Art Academy, both disappointed with a neglected printmaking department buried in the basement and unappeased by the doctrine of German expressionists, he studied free art and painting at the Braunschweig University of Art under Malte Sartorius, an open-minded mentor whose focus on realism unlatched another doorway. 

Feeling at odds with an overwhelming claustrophobic small town, Osterburg leaped at a student-exchange opportunity for San Francisco State University. In these studies, he worked with Ernest De Soto’s workshop and at Graphic Studio, ultimately landing at the experimental workshop Crownpoint Press, where he stayed for four years. Here, Osterburg collaborated with Christian Bolanski on a portfolio of 24 photogravure copperplate photographs. This 19th-century photographic intaglio process, with its continuous tone, intrigued him. “I used the process of photography as a sketchbook, working around the camera, taking photos of whatever interested me; however, the photographs’ manufactured surface held no interest. Intaglio has a tactile surface; its essence and shadows are deeply etched into the plate, and through the highlights, the underlying paper shines with subtle transparency.”

The next chapters

Leaving Crown Press in the early 1990s, Osterberg established his first print shop shortly after the markets collapsed, later migrating to New York, where he leased a studio space amongst the West 26th Street warehouses. Today, when Osterburg is not teaching at Bard, he continues collaborating with artists as a master printer in intaglio and as a platemaker, working in the 19th-century process of dust grain copperplate photogravure.

I was able to sit down with Lothar to learn more about his work and process.

What is your work for?

“My art practice has been building objects and arranging them for my photogravure photographs rather than going out with a camera. I construct each piece as I would build a composition of a drawing or a painting. Preferring not to make investment objects, I strive to delight people, trigger something in people’s minds, and create stories of a place. I reduce the narrative to such an essence that viewers can create their own story. The emotional memory, more than the specific memory, is the appeal, a feeling more than the actual place.”

Osterburg’s work transports the viewer intimately into his minute to large-scale sculptures. When peering closely through a photographic lens, the images appear life sized, in authentic places, assembled with incredible precision and delicate handling of found objects and repurposed materials. His delight in attention to detail is infectious. When he showed me minute tubes of paint set on the artist’s bench, splattered with decades of paint, it felt all too familiar. 

Viewing his work is potent. Through these tiny camera orbs, whole worlds appear, encouraging the viewer to reimagine and review the narratives within the small space. I question, “Are they real?” of his Library of Books, etched out of different soaps. Osterburg utilizes materiality to an extraordinary extent. Delightedly, I see a rust-covered metal model boat, which has spent a few winters outside after an unexpected flood, rediscovered under the culvert across the road, to be repurposed into his next project. This collaboration of reusing and recycling resonates strongly in his practice. 

His Tower of Babel 2015 is created from a multiplicity of languages, torn from pages of discarded foreign books, narratives conversing as one, touching on the diversity of place and unification through language.

“Showing at the Re Institute Gallery, owner Henry Klimowicz kindly offered that I use the crawlspace behind the gallery walls, beneath the tilted roofline. It is fascinating to make work this way, observing the scenes through a tiny camera lens embedded into the wall, excluding everything except the experience of the scene behind the wall. Writers do the same thing, creating absurd and fictional worlds that become believable when immersed in the moment.”

What motivates your practice?

“One significant motivating factor is always having a show coming up, which gives me permission to prioritize my work. Secondly, I am constantly considering the memory of places, specifically memories that impart powerful emotional impressions. I work through those memories, filtering them through time. So instead of remembering all the superfluous details, I idealize the image in my mind. Our memory is different from what we think, so sometimes parts are omitted when creating the work. Nevertheless, we still recognize the image and see no fault.” 

Showing a perfect sculpture of the Flatiron building, he points out, smiling, that the top floor is different in reality; I wonder how easily we forget details. Travel in all forms permeates his studio, notably including an image of Shackleton’s boat held in the ice, like an insect in amber. Without suffering through a winter in the Arctic, Osterburg re-staged Shackleton’s adventure in an iced parking lot at the McDowell colony in New Hampshire. 

“There are stories I love, but I have more of an emotional reaction to places than an exact record of being there. It is interesting to visit these places in one’s mind.”

Lothar and Elizabeth met at a McDowell Colony residency, where they started their long life of collaboration together. They have explored the world of making sound and film images through multiple residencies. This collaboration threads its way through their daily interactions as Elizabeth’s music rehearsal seeped into our conversation whilst we talked.

Can you touch on the collaboration between the visual and the sound and the sound into the visual?

“Elizabeth and I collaborated on Bookmobile for Dreamers, 2012, a multimedia chamber opera for theremin, electronic sound, and video, inspired by the joy of browsing and celebrating the imagination as triggered by the printed word and filmed on Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, where Elizabeth had a residency. I built little boats and used a digital video camera to film them floating on Lake Superior’s waves. Another video collaboration shows the Tower of Babel, 2016, celebrating New York’s constant influx of immigrants, the source of its life, beauty, and diverse culture. The soundscape features Elizabeth’s recordings of Emma Lazarus’ poem from the Statue of Liberty read in numerous accents, while The Babel sculpture is embedded with pages in countless languages from books that had been abandoned on the streets of Brooklyn.”

What advice would you give artists today?

“Through failure, we artists create more work. Here we find our promises; discovery is where we are heading through ‘happy’ accidents. Sometimes, I leave a ‘log’ in the way, so I trip. Otherwise, work becomes too slick and bland; never get too comfortable in your space.

“Growing up pre-Internet and pre-iPhone, I cannot imagine those distractions; they can numb curiosity. Make mistakes and learn to pivot when the roads lead to a dead end.”

So, how did you end up here after embedding in city life?

“It is a typical New York story: When rents became inflated for a studio in the old American Factory in Brooklyn, we elected for more open spaces. I had bookmarked this barn on my computer. However, Elizabeth never wanted to leave the city, so moving here was a secret dream. But, one day, she said, ‘I don’t have much work in New York; I can compose anywhere, if I can have a great garden I would go anywhere with you.’ Two years later, we converted this barn into a livable workspace. Now we are both the happiest clams up here.”

As we talk, the elongated shadows from minute-leaning telegraph polls next to a railway fall across the wall behind us. On opposing walls, shadows of the airplane wings and a zeppelin, brought to life with a faint breeze, fly across the ceiling; one can faintly hear a hum. It feels as if you are inside one of Lothar’s works. It is just us in this giant sculpture as he continues to shape the world around him. However, we can create our narratives entering his world; the minute filing cabinets in Cabinet of Wonders 2021 are filled with his dreams but could also be a reservoir for yours.

Where can people see your work?

“On April 13, 2024, I have a solo show at Pamela Salisbury in Hudson, NY, which will show some older work as well as new pieces. I am also delighted to be showing at Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Braunschweig, Germany, one of the oldest public museums in Europe, holding a fantastic print collection. After an eight-year dialogue, this will happen in the spring of 2026.”