I was startled to see that the centerpiece of this show is a half dozen pieces that are quite literally "Holocaust pom" - my pet term for art that would deserve trashing. But these searingly original works are part of what makes this one of the best exhibits of 2001.
NO!art was a pointedly confrontational New York movement that came together around 1959. Since these artists' work was political at a time - when high art was not supposed to be, and since part of the groups intent was to attack the market-oriented art world, rejection by that world should not have come as a big surprise. But their exclusion from subsequent histories - the three founders were nowhere to be found in the Whitney Museum of American Art's survey of the beat movement a few years back - its outrageous, particularly considering how prescient much of the work seems today. Curator Estera Milman hoped to rectify that omission by organizing this traveling show for Northwestern's Block Museum, which initiates it.
NO!art was raw, aggressive, even "ugly"; by contrast Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein, critic Harold Rosenberg wrote in 1974, were "housetrained kittens." Haunted by the Holocaust in the past and fear of the bomb in the present, these artists sought to jar viewers out of complacency. Only one of the three founders is alive today. Boris Lurie was exhibiting in co-op galleries on East Tenth-Street, he told me, when artists Sam Goodman and Stanley Fisher approached him because they liked his work. The trio (all of them Jewish) began exhibiting together along with other artists, taking their name from a caricature of their work that appeared in ARTnews.
Many 20th-century movements broke with convention, but the NO!artists went further than most. Unlike abstract expressionism (which they admired) and pop art (which they did not), their work was not easily assimilated. Most of the 55 pieces on view at the Block Museum would be unimaginable even today in a corporate lobby or shopping mall, locations in which many 20th-century styles are now quite at home. Writing in 1970, Lurie noted with some bitterness that "our acts if noticed at all were rewarded with deathly silence," while "market oriented pop-art and decorative hardedged abstraction" became "a fitting background for Park Avenue cocktail parties" - something that will probably never happen with Lurie´s montages of girlie photos and images of emaciated Holocaust survivors or corpses. (NO!art: Pin-ups, Excrement, Protest, Jew-Art, available for perusal in the gallery, contains a number of such statements by the artists.)
The history of antiart movements is a history of artists who reject the aesthetic only to have it reemerge, as in John Cage's hauntingly beautiful music and Marcel Duchamp's great final piece. By contrast, while much NO!art is visually powerful and expressive, its imagery often repels. Goodman´s Shopping Bag (1962) consists of a metal shopping cart full of cigarette, milk, soap, and beer package - all of which, including the cart, have been flattened and hung on the wall like a painting. One thinks of a shopping trip that ended in disaster, but Goodman might also be referring to critic Clement Greenberg's famous assertion that abstract expressionist paintings were about the flatness of their own surfaces. Goodman, however, equates the transformation of real-life objects into a hangable "picture" with catastrophe.
Fisher´s cluttered Sex is a sprawling painting with collaged photos dominated by thick reds and browns. (Its spray paint and chaotic look suggest graffiti art, one of several developments NO!art anticipated.) Though the wild jumble of forms recalls abstract expressionism, the effect is very different: instead of Pollock's lyrical line, Sex offers a choked and mottled maze; instead of Rothko's transparent colors, it´s muddy and forbidding. At the center is a pair of eyes, adding to the pieces assaultive, confrontational quality. Indeed, much of this work registers as a call to action - though these artists admitted they had no solutions.
Some of the NO!artists´ preoccupations are better understood in their historical context. The many sexual references, from nudes to the title written in biz letters across Sex are efforts to subvert the sexual repression of the time. In a 1961 statement, Fisher compared art to love: "Both are meaningful only insofar as the involvement is passion. " (Highly active sexually, Fisher in the late 60s lived with a group that included several girlfriends, Lurie told me.) Fisher also made the statement, in 1960, that "the earth is a line-drive single to the slaughterhouse" - and the threat of global thermonuclear annihilation gave much of this work its urgency. An untitled 1964 work by Fisher arguably reflects street life far better than any sanitized pop painting: prominent amid an aggressive clutter of genitalia, breasts, and paint is a gas mask, while Christmas-tree lights around the edges ironically reference mass-culture showmanship.
A number of works critique our consumerist culture's celebration of objects. ln an untitled 1964 piece, Wolf Vostell painted over the front and back of a Life magazine, leaving visible only a soldier's head from the cover and a hand holding a soft drink container from the back-page ad, equating selling magazines by exploiting a photo of a wounded soldier with selling soft drinks. In Lady Woolworth (1963) Lil Picard constructs a woman partly out of lipstick tubes, anticipating feminist art by some years in a vary comment on the way women are encouraged to define themselves.
Goodman and Lurie collaborated on a number of pieces, all entitled Shit Sculpture (four are on view here), for the groups 1964 "NO!-sculpture show." Goodman called this effort "my final gesture after 30 years in the art world. This is what I think of it" - and this realistic mounds of painted plaster do undermine the idea of art as a beautiful, desirable commodity. I didn't exactly enjoy looking at them - like much of NO!art they're partly meant to provoke revulsion. But their very harshness, their sense of rupture, causes one to reevaluate one´s expectations of art.
Chaos informs much NO!art. With its mix of news articles and female nudes, Lurie´s dense collage painting Lumumba is Dead (1961) is so disunified that the viewer is forced to confront each fragment separately.
The piece also includes swastikas both large and small, and many of Lurie´s (and Goodman´s) pieces make even more explicit references to the Shoah. Immigrant´s NO-Box (1963) is a rough wooden container that suggests a shipping trunk; an image of an emaciated camp survivor appears on the side and top, and the top also incorporates small, titillating photos of women fighting each other. Two of Lurie's pieces consists of retiteled found photos: he calls another reproduction of the emaciated man on the wooden box From a Happening. 1945 by Adolf Hitler (1963) and an image of a mound of corpses on a train Flatcar Assemblage, 1945 by Adolf Hitler (1963).
Living in Latvia at the outset of World War II, Lurie was sent to Nazi concentration camps, Buchenwald among them. He and his father were the family's only survivors. At the time he began using such imagery, he says, "there was a silent prohibition against anything connected with the Holocaust in the so-called legitimate art world."
Even more troubling are two photographic collages in which Lurie combines images of victims with pinup girls, Buchenwald (circa 1963) and Railroad Collage (1963). By 1963 Lurie had been using pinups for some years, having initially collected them for his pleasure: "Sexual mores were very strong, and it was very hard for a young fellow, especially if he didn't have any money, to get girls," he says. At the same time, earner erotic images were constantly used to advertise products. These works unite very different meanings - they're both erotic and commodifying - but the addition of Holocaust imagery complicates things even more.
Railroad Collage shows a pile of corpses with a cutout nude, seen from the rear dropping her panties. There is a kind of push-pull effect the light colored living flesh beckon, the corpses repel, and the combination violates our sense of decency and respect for the dead. This piece too anticipates the work of artists interested in the work of artists interested in the Holocaust - Claude Lanzmann´s documentary Shoah, for example, and the exquisitely, poetic Monuments of Christian Boltanski, but in contrast to those refined, sacramental treatments, Lurie´s pieces scream for attention, with the goal of bringing the viewer to life's terrible contradictions.
Shocking enough that they ultimately clude aesthetic judgment, Railroad Collage and Buchenwald attain something that avant-garde artists have long sought but rarely achieved they seem to spin a void around meaning, in part because their obvious interpretation - that Hitler was some kind of artist whose victims were like pinup girls - is so distant from the current sanctifying of the Shoah.
Yet Lurie has said, "Eichmann is in you, too," which means he must recognize the murderer in himself. His work implies that all the categories which make, such as art genres - all the images and objects we collect for our pleasure - are akin to Hitler "collecting" corpses. This is a far more troubling view than the now conventional notion of the Shoah as something apart, a view that confirms on moral superiority and denies any new for change. Lurie asks instead that confront the demons in ourselves and in our culture.
Fred Camper is a writer and lecturer on art, film, and photography, whose writing appears regularly in the Chicago Reader. For more information and examples of his writing, go to his Web site http://www.fredcamper.com, where he has also posted a really long "short".