Lucas Reiner

How to describe these paintings? How to interpret them? Allow them to “take root in the mind of the viewer”! Imagine the room in which these small, wonderful paintings in oil and wax are lined up along the walls like trees on a boulevard. We stroll past, linger, and we look at and experience their presence. How sensitively and sensually they are painted. In terms of subjects, brushwork, color, and light, they are reminiscent of old masters and yet are anything but traditional landscape painting. Tree for tree, individually, like portraits, removed from their surroundings: without soil and without horizon. They grow out of the lower edge of the painting and fill nearly the entire canvas. They spread their branches into a plane of many grays that also include other colors: blue, violet, pink, modeled matte and velvety. In the repetition of the composition unfolds an all but inexhaustible variety of colors and forms. Slowness and care, thought and emotion are inscribed in these paintings. The pathos of the history of painting and something very contemporary merge. Their beauty, their grace and melancholy are seductive. “The brushwork, lines and contours are carefully and delicate, drawing on the sheer love for painterly tradition and accomplishment as if the brazen iconographic humor of Guston were somehow transmuted back through the strategies of Italian Renaissance,” writes Fred Dewey. Let’s accept their invitation to observe them attentively and contemplate them.

Lucas Reiner’s paintings communicate immediately through the aesthetic pleasure of painting and through their subject: the tree. We recognize it as an object in the real world and, looking and understanding, we bring in the absent: the city. Anyone who knows Los Angeles will have filled in, in his or her imagination, the “voids” of the painting. (oder besser: “projects into the un-filled-in space”?)The trees, crooked, mistreated, strangely trimmed, pruned into shape by the traffic, grazed by the truck, cut back to clear the view of the billboards, alienated by signs, Christmas decorations, or graffiti. Fragile yet tenacious, vying for space: sideways against the wall of the building, upward against the power lines. That is the story this cycle seems to tell: of the relationship of people to creation, of the domestication of nature by civilization, of survival in an urban context.

Trees are often natural manifestations of our everyday world. For years, Lucas Reiner tells us in an unpublished lecture, he passed countless trees and never saw them; then he describes how his eyes were opened in 2001 on a trip through Michigan: “amazing trees in the woods . . . captured my attention. I felt for the first time, kind of late in life, I’ll admit, the power of nature without man. An unmanicured landscape.” Back in Los Angeles he saw what he had never perceived before. The city of images passes by him in his car like a film; when he sees a tree he likes, he stops and makes small drawings in his sketchbook and takes photographs.

In a sudden obsession, he begins to “adopt” trees, to “visit” them, and to take an interest in their history. Most of them, by the way, are not native to the place. They have been imported to Los Angeles from the entire world. Lucas Reiner sees them as “people”. “I started to see the trees all over the city as portraits. Their shapes were the result of their interaction with the needs of civilization, of the environment. And I thought, that’s similar to how we are. We are marked by civilization. So I’ll paint them as portraits.” Each of them has its own face and its own character: introverted, sensitive, depressive, airily cheerful, proud, deformed, eccentric, defiant.

As individual and unique as each painting may be, it also joins with the others to form a series of conceptual rigor. This complex of works seems like an “inventory,” starting out from a consistent “experimental setup”: initially all the paintings had the same format: fourteen by twelve inches. The “figure” extends from the lower edge of the painting nearly to the upper, thus filling the entire canvas, which always has a background in shades of gray. Karl Blossfeldt may come to mind, and it would be fascinating to see Lucas Reiner’s Trees next to Blossfeldt’s photographs of plants, taken over more than three decades with the same camera and in the same style. His Urformen der Kunst (Ur-forms of art) was a serial work whose publication in 1928 caused a sensation. “Whereas Blossfeldt magnified the plant to fill the frame and placed it in front of a neutral sheet of cardboard, I have reduced the tree, leaving space around it and placed it within a grayish background reminiscent of the polluted Los Angeles sky. ” (L.R.)

Lucas Reiner is a painter. Observation, drawing, photograph, film—all these things are sources, material to inspire him. However, the topic is painting. What can it achieve? And what can the artist add to what already exists? For the tree is in fact not an unusual theme in the long history of art. It is less about the phenomenology of the tree than about the possibilities of painting.

After his minimalist paintings of the 1990s—reduction as a reaction against the daily flood of images—in which only occasional letters point to the “cultural landscape,” Lucas Reiner is now bringing the object back into his painting. His “trees” refer to the reality, and yet at the same time they are distant from it, even though the titles of the works locate them precisely and indicate their provenance. On Ocean Park Boulevard, On Packard Street, Western Avenue, On Canyon Drive … Nor are they copies from photographs like those of Gerhard Richter, whose photographs collected in his Atlas represent the store of images for his paintings. Lucas Reiner insists on the integrity of his photographs and on the “liberation” of his painting from its source.

And more and more he breaks away from the “real” conditions. He realizes: “I can take liberties.” One tree is joined by a second; an ensemble of four results; the formats grow. In the process, the “object” that is spread over the canvas remains almost the same size within the space that is expanding around it. Later it abandons its position hitherto on the lower edge of the painting and begins to float: as in On Alameda Ave. #1 (SCF), “this tree that is in exile.” The colors of the background become more powerful, luminous, even radiant orange and bright red. “I would like the painting to allow space not only for what has been eliminated, but also for what is yet to come, and, of course, for the viewers themselves.”

In the Project Room at Roberts & Tilton Gallery in Los Angeles in 2002 painting after painting in the same format were lined up around the walls. At Claudia Gian Ferrari Arte Contemporanea in Milan two years later, the dimensions of the works varied, and the gaze out the window enticingly drew nature into the exhibition. At Pocket Utopia in Brooklyn in 2007, the artist supplemented the paintings for the first time with drawings, photographs, and film to create an installation. This sort of proximity of various media is also planned for the exhibition at the Galerie Biedermann in Munich. When seen together with other media, the special light and uniqueness of the painting become all too clear. “The painting is not the end, it points to something, it is broadening.” The painting can be convalescence for the soul, “refuge and shelter.” (L.R.)

Perhaps the paintings touch us inwardly in part because their subject opens up a wealth of associations that feed on diverse symbolic references of countless cultures and religions. The tree is a universal symbol of the sacred: the tree of life planted in paradise, the vertical, symbol of growth, of constant renewal, of victory over death; the tree that straightens up in freedom, that grows up to the heavens, the world tree as an image of the cosmos. Christ’s cross, the wood of death, which becomes the symbol of resurrection, the sign of salvation. The appearance of this archetype in our dreams interprets the dream symbolism as a sign of the soul’s maturing process, and the faith in a relationship between human beings and trees is deeply rooted.

Western painting is full of trees, and with an eye made keener by the Los Angeles Trees, we see them immediately: growing out of the painting, flowering or with fruit, stumps from which new green grows …, tree of knowledge, tree of the Fall, the wood of the cross, the apocalyptic tree of life; the apple tree with ripe fruit as symbol of Christ which reminds of the Song of Solomon: “As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons.” The tree is inscribed in our collective memory, and even today its power to fascinate remains unbroken in recent painting and in contemporary photography as well: we need only think of Lee Friedlander, Jitka Hanzlová’s Forest, Michael Kenna’s Hokkaido series, and many others.

Lucas Reiner’s paintings offer “narrative” and “symbol” and are at the same time “nonrepresentional.” Just as the figurative paintings of Giorgio Morandi, whom he admires, are not about merely depicting vessels, so Sean Scully’s definitive abstract works have narrative structures when they evoke associations of figure and landscape, of window and mirror, or of religious forms and themes such as altar or resurrection. Is de Kooning’s Tree in Naples of 1960, which we see in MoMA in New York, abstract or figurative? “Abstract—figurative: it is not a battle anymore. It is about life, it is about humanity!” (L.R.)

Reiner’s oeuvre combines the European tradition of painting—the pathos of history, the desire for an emotional aura and poetry—and American art movements such as minimalism. Likewise, the artist’s origins reflect the coming together of these two continents: His grandfather was, like Paul Celan, from Czernowitz (now Chernivtsi)—a watchmaker who once produced a precious watch on a ring for Emperor Franz Joseph. He and his wife emigrated to New York after the turn of the century, where Lucas’s father, Carl Reiner, the actor, author and director, and his mother, Estelle, a painter and a singer, were born. Lucas was born in Los Angeles and grew up in the film world—his brother, Rob Reiner is also a director, his sister Annie Reiner a poet- and studied in New York and Paris.

Although there is a new group of works, the Firework Paintings, the tree could stay rooted in Lucas Reiner’s oeuvre for some time. He is exploring the tree as a subject for a cycle of paintings called Stations of the Cross for St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. Surely several other works with “trees” will emerge from his study of Renaissance painting on recent trips to Italy. “Within the limitations [of a subject] you can find the infinite which enables you to keep going.” (L.R.)

Lawrence Carroll was certainly right when years ago he announced that his friend Lucas would visit Munich with the words: “He is a terrific painter”!


The Lucas Reiner quotations are taken from his lecture “At Farmlab” (November 2007) and from conversations with the author in Munich (2004/ 2007), New York (October 2007), Venice (February 2008), and Los Angeles (April 2008).

Petra Giloy-Hirtz
Translation Steven Lindberg


Born 1960 in Los Angeles
Lives and works in Los Angeles

1986Parsons School of Design, Paris
1982-85Parsons School of Design, New York
1982-85Otis Art Institute, Los Angeles
1978-79New School for Social, Research, New York

Solo Exhibitions

2010Galleria Traghetto, Rome
Galerie Peter Bauemler, Regensberg
Harris Gallery, University of La Verne, California
2009Long Beach City College Gallery, Long Beach, California
Dinter Fine Art, New York City
Washington Adams, PDC, Los Angeles
(collaboration with John Millei)
Galleria Traghetto, Venice/Italy
2008Los Angeles Trees, Galerie Biedermann, Munich
Envoi, Kips Gallery, New York
2007Trees: Painting, Photograph, Film, Pocket Utopia, Brooklyn
2005Fireworks, Carl Berg Gallery, Los Angeles
2004Alberi, Claudia Gian Ferrari Arte Contemporanea, Milan
2003Trees, Roberts & Tilton Project Room, Los Angeles
2001Mylar Drawings, Florimbi/Gipe Projects, Santa Barbara
1999Paintings, Tricia Collins Contemporary Art, New York
1998Starting with the Flower, Griffin Contemporary Exhibitions, Los Angeles
1996Milk, Piss Blood, Rust, Dirt, Tricia Collins • Grand Salon, New York
1995Paintings and Drawings, Bennett Roberts Fine Art, Los Angeles
1985While We Play, Onyx Café, Los Angeles

Group Exhibitions

2008Tree Service, Domestic Setting, Los Angeles
2007Mar Vista, Domestic Setting, Los Angeles
Its Gouache and Gouache Only, gathered by Geoffrey Young, Andrea Meislin Gallery, New York
Its Gouache and Gouache Only, Geoffrey Young Gallery, New Barrington, CT.
2006Close, Dinter Fine Art, New York
Summer Hours, Dinter Fine Art, New York
Gift Shop, Another Year in LA, Los Angeles
9 Generations of Otis, Otis Alumni Exhibition, Barnsdall Municipal Gallery, L.A.
Planer, Torrence Art Museum, Los Angeles
Impression/Ism, City of Brea Art Gallery, Los Angeles
2005Rogue Wave II, L.A. Louver Gallery, Los Angeles
West Coast Painting, Galerie Biedermann, Munich
Opening Bloom, Barbara Davis Gallery, Houston
Frank Pictures, Media Rare Gallery, Los Angeles
2004Arboretum, Cirrus Gallery, Los Angeles
Bäume, Galerie Biedermann, Munich
Observations, Carl Berg Gallery, Los Angeles
Behind Door #9, University Art Museum, Santa Barbara
Kunst im Palais am Lenbachplatz, Credit Suisse, Munich
Crazy Thoughts Have Quick Wings, Cirrus Gallery, Los Angeles
Open Proposition, The Proposition, New York
2003Tinseltown, Domestic Setting, Los Angeles
Super Nature, Overtones, Los Angeles
International Unplugged, Los Angeles Internationale, Los Angeles
Wet Paint, Brea Gallery, Los Angeles
Sequel, domestic setting, Los Angeles
L.A Hot, Barbara Davis Gallery, Houston
2002Monoprints, Garner Tullis, New York
Utopian Grids, Coagula Gallery, Los Angeles
200008 - 30 - 00, Gallery 138, Kent State University, Ohio
Urban Hymns, Luckman Gallery, California State University, Los Angeles
Summertime, Tricia Collins Contemporary Art, New York
1999Stretching the Intimate, Motta Gallery, London
Mod, Tricia Collins Contemporary Art, New York
Selected Works, Atelier Richard Tullis, Santa Barbara
1998Over the Mantle, Over the Couch, Tricia Collins, New York
Cine Sur, La Paz, Bolivia
Viktoria Reveals Secrets, Hannover
1997Duremos, Let’s Last, Art and Idea, Mexico City
Prima Vera Video, Universidad Buenos Aires, Argentina
Viktoria Reveals Secrets, Gallery 242, New York
domestic setting, Post, Los Angeles
Cereijido Summer Video Festival, Tricia Collins Contemporary Art, New York
Conversion, Tricia Collins • Grand Salon, New York
1996Hodgepodge Lodge East, Hovel, New York
Group Show, Tricia Collins • Grand Salon, New York
Green, Factory Place Gallery, Los Angeles
1995Painting Beyond the Idea, Manny Silverman Gallery, Los Angeles
Cover to Cover, The Work Space, New York
Pink and Innocent, Tricia Collins • Grand Salon, New York
Group Exhibition, domestic setting, Los Angeles
The Spirit of the Matter, Tricia Collins • Grand Salon, New York
A Working Title, E-space, Los Angeles
1994a perhaps hand, Thomas Solomon’s Garage, Los Angeles
L.A. Mail, Jose Friere Gallery, New York
1993Return of the Cadavre Exquis, The Drawing Center, New York
1992Sammons Center for the Arts, Dallas, Texas