Boris Lurie is an East Village artist, writer, poet and Holocaust survivor who, for more than 60 years, has expressed uncomfortable truths about the nature of art, history and society through his painting, collage and sculpture, truths that often placed him in opposition to the critics and curators of his day, but, in retrospect, now make for a powerful body of aesthetic work, rich in content, contradiction and controversy, and well ahead of its time. His recent inclusion in an ongoing group show at the Clayton Gallery & Outlaw Art Museum, at 161 Essex St., The 80s, 326 Years Of Hip, along with three other octogenarian artists, Taylor Mead, Mary Beach and the late Herbert Huncke, has served to refocus attention on the raw, uncompromising nature of his art, and his courageous, at times obstinate, refusal to cater to the tastes and trends of the art market and the gallery system.
Born in Leningrad in 1924 into an educated, highly cultured Jewish family, Lurie grew up in Riga, Latvia, and was recognized as having artistic talent at an early age. After the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941, his family was swept up in the maelstrom of the Second World War. At 16 he and his father were captured by the Germans and began a hellish journey through the ghettos and concentration camps of Riga, Salapils, Stutthof and finally Buchenwald-Magdeburg in Germany. His mother, sister and grandmother were murdered, painful losses that immensely affected Lurie and were later to prove central to many of the themes and motifs of his work.
Liberated in 1945, Lurie remained in Germany for a year and worked for the U.S. Army Counter-Intelligence. He moved to New York City in 1946 and began his art career there, with figurative paintings in which he refused to flinch from dealing with his experiences in the camps, despite a postwar reluctance among survivors to dwell on, or even mention publicly, their wartime ordeal. Paintings like Back From Work (1946), and Roll Call in Concentration Camp (1946), with their ghostly, skeletal figures, fluid lines and pearl and sepia tones recall El Greco and Goya; Entrance (1946), his portrait of two sonderkommandos, the doomed gangs of inmates forced to remove the victims from the gas chambers, flanking the walkway to a crematorium, is as bleak as it is poignant in its depiction of shards of dignity amid hopelessness.
Under the influence of Picasso, De Kooning and later Pollock and other Abstract Expressionists, Lurie abandoned strictly figurative painting, and through the late ’40s and ’50s worked in a number of disparate styles and modes. A sequence of paintings called the Feel Paintings speak to his fascination with American symbols of libertine femininity like burlesque dancers, dancehall girls and pinup girls, to Lurie, a highly charged symbol of American big city life that he returned to in the early ’70s.
Lurie’s role during the ’60s, and ’70s, as a founding member and prima mobila of the NO!art movement elicited some of his most striking, exciting and contentious works. Founded in 1959 by Lurie, Stanley Fisher and Sam Goodman, in cooperation with the March gallery in the Tenth Street in New York, (later known as the March Group), NO!art was a visceral reaction to the dominant movements of the era: Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art.
NO!art’s self-proclaimed principle was to bring back into art “the subjects of real life,”which for Lurie, Fisher, Goodman and the others were issues of repression, destruction, depravity, sex, occupation, colonialism, imperialism, racism and sexism; the deep stuff, the psychological, edgy, discomforting material that makes people squirm; the kind of paintings you won’t find hanging, color-coordinated, over the wine-colored leather couch in a living room out in the Hamptons.
Lurie freely admits that, like many artistic rebellions, NO!art started “out of desperation; I mean it wasn’t an intellectual program, philosophic program worked out by some philosophers or in some university,” he said recently, while uncharacteristically decamped above 14th St., at a friend’s Park Ave. apartment, recovering from a quadruple bypass surgery, while his chaotic and art-crammed East Village apartment is being renovated.
“It started out of desperation because we were already some time in the art world, and finally we saw what was going on and we said: To hell with you, we want to be artists but we’ll do it for ourselves, we won’t be involved with them. And if they want to they can try to get us.”
The basic ideological and aesthetic thrust, was “total self-expression, and inclusion of any kind of social or political activity that was in the world, that took place in the world,” Lurie explained. “Total freedom of expression, and also what was favored was like a protest, an outcry, anything that might be considered a radical expression, that doesn’t necessarily coincide with the expression that was permitted under the then current aesthetics.” Or to put it another way: “The aesthetics was to strongly react against anything that’s bugging you.”
For Lurie that reaction was deeply and understandably connected with his experiences in the Holocaust, and he created different series of works that commented, directly and indirectly, upon those experiences. Most notorious, and to some, offensive, was his 1959 Railroad Collage, an elaboration of his Flatcar Assemblage by Adolf Hitler (1945), an appropriated photograph of a stack of corpses on a flatcar at Buchenwald. His sarcastic renaming of that horrific image wasn’t enough for Lurie; he took it one step further in “Railroad Collage” by superimposing a cutout shot from a girlie magazine showing the backside of an attractive woman lowering her panties and exposing her ass.
Were these works a comment on pornography and the Holocaust, or the Holocaust as the ultimate pornography? Was it a callous denigration of the victims, or a celebration of eroticism, the life force, Eros, in the midst of an unsentimental and unsparing depiction of death; or was it simply an unvarnished expression of contempt for the diminished humanity of their depraved killers?
Whatever it was, the results, in 1959, were shock and outrage: people leaving the gallery in a rage, letters to editors, condemnation, controversy, uproar everything a serious artist dreams of provoking.
“I would say they were shocked,” Lurie, said. “When you combine extremes like death, or injury, and all that with sexual aspects, it shocks even today. Because we tend to think different in this way, despite the fact there’s an involvement between sex and death also and so forth. In other words, if you use pinup girls in order to comment on serious things, it’s confusing because the closed-minded person would react to this semi-pornography in a very hostile way. The person whose mind is more open, would laugh it off. But they wouldn’t take it seriously.”
This was especially true at the end of the ’50s, when, before the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Holocaust was still a taboo subject, the word itself barely established as the universal term for the Nazi program for the extermination of the Jews. “Nobody spoke about it,” said Lurie. “Most of the people that I knew in the art world, and my friends, never knew that I was in a concentration camp. It was never talked about. So in that time that everything was opened up, there was also a general historical background to this that happened during this time when Castro won the civil war in Cuba; and it happened at the time when Khrushchev became the head of the Soviet Union and loosened everything up. All over the world there was an atmosphere of loosening up.”
Lurie continued to explore the implications of the Holocaust, both directly and indirectly, in the years to come, with etchings like Stars of David on Swastika (1962), a series of “NO-Sculptures” (1964-’66), some made of excrement; various assemblages incorporating the infamous iconography of the Jewish Yellow Star; an entire series of “Chain Works” in 1973, including Chained Female Shoes, Chained Roses and Chained Toilet Paper. His 1964 Death Sculpture, chicken heads entrapped in a block of synthetic resin, anticipates Damien Hirst’s modern sculptures of sharks and sheep suspended in formaldehyde.
For the most part, critics and curators of the day rejected Lurie and NO!art, a circumstance perhaps responsible for Lurie’s at-times caustic “The art market is nothing but a racket” yet brutally honest views of the business of art, views he has made clear in a number of writings and letters, including notably his great critique, MOMA as Manipulator (1970), and the Statement for the Exhibition ‘Art And Politics" at Karlsruhe Kunstverein, Germany” (1970), which constitutes a sort of NO!art manifesto:
NO!art is anti worldmarket - investment art: (artworldmarket-investment art equals cultural manipulation).
NO!art is against “clinical,” “scientific” estheticism’s: (such estheticism’s are not art).
NO!art is against the pyramiding of artworldmarket-investment-fashion-decorations (“minimal,” “color field,” “conceptual”): such games-decorations are the sleeping pills of culture. It is against “phantasy” in the service of the artmarket.
NO!art is against all artworldmarket “salon” art.
NO!art is anti Pop-art: (Pop-art is reactionary - it celebrates the glories of consumer society, and it mocks only at what the lower classes consume - the can of soup, the cheap shirt. Pop-art is chauvinistic. It sabotages and detracts from a social art for all.)
At 80, Lurie is as sharp, opinionated and insightful as artists a third of his age, and is still realistic and truthful, perhaps too truthful, about the relationship between aesthetics and commerce in a capitalist society: “Well, an art dealer is a businessman like any other businessman, and his job in this economic society is to furnish goods and to try to make a profit at it,” Lurie noted. “And it doesn’t work any different than selling shoes or anything else. It might be decorated with a lot of big talk and philosophical talk and what not, but it doesn’t make any difference. Because he has to support a gallery, he has to pay a secretary, so a certain reality comes in. So somebody who doesn’t like the artist X, may still deal in him because he can make some money on him. And he may really believe in artist XYZ, and not touch him at all because he can’t make any money, and he can’t waste any time on him.
“Say he likes two artists,” Lurie continued, “they’re working in the same area, more or less, their work is very similar, they’re both very good according to him. One of them is a terrific salesman, and the other one is a completely, he sits at home, and doesn’t know anybody and just keeps on working and so forth. He’s incapable of promoting himself. So as an art dealer, the one who is a terrific salesman, is a much better deal for you because he takes some of the burden off your shoulders.”
Ironically, Lurie has found a great deal of success in the country to which he owes much of his angst-ridden subject matter: Germany, where NO!art is celebrated as a major movement in the history of 20th-century and with Lurie’s 2004 exhibition, OPTIMISTIC - DISEASE - FACILITY, at Haus am Kleistpark, Berlin-Schöneberg 21st-century art.