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THE ARTIST AS PROVOCATEUR
DAVID H. KATZ confronts the challenging work of Boris Lurie
Published in: Jewish Quarterly, London, Autumn 2005, Number 199
Boris Lurie was born in Leningrad in 1924 into an educated, highly cultured Jewish community. He and his family moved to Riga, Latvia, in 1925-6, where his talent as an artist was recognized at an early age. In 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, Lurie and his father were taken prisoner. For the next four years they endured a hellish passage through the ghettos and concentration camps of Riga, Salapils, Stutthof, and finally Buchenwald-Magdeburg in Germany. His mother, sister and grandmother were all murdered. These primal losses, the Holocaust and all its psychological ramifications became essential and indelible themes in Lurie’s painting, sculpture, writing and poetry, themes that he neither subliminated nor shied away from.
NO!art, the movement Lurie founded in 1959, ‘out of desperation’, along with Sam Goodman and Stanley Fisher, set out to explore certain uncomfortable truths about the nature of art, commerce, history and society - truths that art dealers, museums, patrons, collectors and the general public did not necessarily want to hear, especially in an era of prosperity and conformity. NO!art represented a visceral reaction to two of art’s most celebrated and commercially dominant movements: Abstract Expressionism, which was on the wane, and Pop Art, which in the 1960s became the dominant visual paradigm for the rest of the century. While influenced by both movements, NO!art opposed an Internationalist style, which, as it had in architecture, effectively drained national, cultural and political significance from painting, and elevated pure formalism to an aesthetic dogma. As such, Abstract Expressionism was in perfect synch with America’s economic and political dominance after the Second World War: it had no nationality, no politics and, after the initial shock faded, was taken up by the media and became as pleasing and innocuous in a townhouse in Omaha as in a hotel lobby in Kuala Lumpur.
Then came Pop Art, which appropriated and transmuted traditionally commercial and ‘low’ art into a ‘fine’ art that was instantly recognizable, archly self-referencing, clever and witty, and yet easily understood, since it sprang from common images. Thus, it was eminently marketable and quickly validated by the public, and by collectors, galleries, museums and critics, who passed over its apolitical, non-confrontational content by extolling its irony, its coolness and the hip detachment with which it mirrored the youth culture of the early sixties.
NO!art’s self-proclaimed aim was to bring the ‘subjects of real life’ back into art. For Lurie, Fisher, Goodman and their fellow malcontents, these were the difficult, dangerous issues of repression, destruction, depravity, sex, occupation, colonialism, imperialism, racism and sexism - the kind of edgy, discomforting, in-your-face content that makes people put down their plastic glass of Chardonnay and walk out of galleries. It’s not the kind of art that ends up on bed sheets or shower curtains, or hanging tastefully in limited editions in suburban homes; and this was especially true when Lurie based his raw and uncompromising work on his personal encounter with the Final Solution. The results were invariably shocking, disturbing and provocative - and, of course, controversial.
From the beginning, when he resumed his painting career in New York in 1946, Lurie refused to flinch from putting his experiences in the camps on canvas, despite a reluctance among survivors to dwell on, or even publicly refer to, their wartime ordeal. In paintings like ‘Back From Work’ (1946), and ‘Roll Call in Concentration Camp’ (1946), Lurie’s stretched skeletal figures, fluid lines and deep tonal palette evoke El Greco and Goya; ‘Entrance’ (1946), a portrait of two wasted Sonderkommandos flanking the walkway to the crematorium into which they are about to shovel bodies, is a poignant depiction of the degradation of human dignity to which the SS aspired.
Under the influence of de Kooning and later Jackson Pollack and other Abstract Expressionists, Lurie abandoned figurative painting in the 1950s to explore a number of disparate styles and modes. His series of ‘Dismembered Women’ deals with the loss of the female members of his family. A suite of ‘Feel Paintings’ begins his long obsession with American symbols of libertine femininity: burlesque dancers, dancehall girls, centerfold models and pin-ups. This was an obsession he returned to, big time, in the 1970s, when he combined blatantly pornographic images from girlie magazines with typography to produce a series of powerful poster collages called ‘Hard Writings’.
In the late 1950s Lurie began a series of works heavily informed by his experiences as an involuntary guest in Hitler’s Europe, the most notorious of which was his 1959 ‘Railroad Collage’, an elaboration of an earlier work, ‘Flatcar Assemblage by Adolph Hitler 1945’, a Dadaesque appropriation of a horrifying photograph of stacked corpses on a flatcar at Buchenwald. His ironic repositioning of that image wasn’t quite enough for Lurie; he elaborated it further by superimposing a cut-out from a girlie magazine showing an attractive woman lowering her panties and called it ‘Railroad Collage’.
'Saturation Painting BUCHENWALD’, also from 1959, surrounds the celebrated photograph of emaciated Buchenwald survivors staring numbly out from behind a barbed wire fence with cut-outs of nude and semi-nude women drawn from the girlie magazines that, led by Playboy, were then emerging from below the counter into the culture of modern urban America.
Naturally, in 1959, Lurie’s juxtapositions of pornography and Nazism, of pin-ups and death carts, of vulvas and gas chambers, provoked spasms of shock and outrage: it gave voice to the unspeakable affinities between sex and sadism, volition and violation, pleasure and torment, love and death. People fled the gallery in a rage, letters were sent to editors, there was condemnation, controversy, uproar everything a serious artist seeks to provoke.
‘I would say they were shocked,’ says Lurie. ‘When you combine extremes like death or injury with sexual themes, it shocks even today. If you use pin-up 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.’
In the years to come, Lurie continued to explore the long shadow of the Holocaust, in etchings like ‘Stars of David on Swastika’ (1962) and a series of ‘No-Sculptures’ (1964-6), some made of excrement. He also created assemblages incorporating the infamous iconography of the yellow Star of David and, in 1973, a provocative series of ‘Chain Works’: ‘Bowl of Chains’, ‘Chained Dress’, ‘Dried Meat Box with Chains’, ‘Chained Female Shoes’, ‘Chained Image’, ‘Chained Rope’, ‘Chained Roses’ and ‘Chained Toilet Paper’. His 1964 ‘Death Sculpture’, consisting of chicken heads entrapped in a block of synthetic resin, which Lurie says ‘had something to do with the sudden death of my father’, anticipates Damien Hirst’s modern sculptures of sharks and sheep suspended in formaldehyde. Why chicken heads? ‘I wanted to encapsulate death, and that was the only thing that was easily available.’
Lurie’s brutally honest - some would say cynical, others self-serving - opinions on the business of art were made clear in 1970, in a statement written for the exhibition Art and Politics at the Karlsruhe Kunstverein in Germany, where, in a peculiar and fitting irony, the NO!art Movement is celebrated and studied as one of the major art movements of the mid-twentieth century:
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.)
And so on.
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Earlier this year, along with photographer, archivist, gallery owner and friend ►Clayton Patterson, I interviewed Lurie as he recuperated from quadruple bypass surgery at a friend’s Park Avenue apartment, while his chaotic and art-crammed East Village apartment was being renovated. His recent inclusion in a group show at the Clayton Gallery & Outlaw Art Museum, New York, entitled ►The 80’s: 326 Years of Hip, along with Taylor Mead, Mary Beach and the late Herbert Huncke, three other notable octogenarian artists, served to refocus attention on the raw energy and the uncompromising nature of his art. At 80, Lurie was as sharp, incisive and opinionated as artists a third of his age. He is, and remains, as provocative as his art.
David Katz: Boris, in your writing you have said that ‘courage is the secret ingredient of all art’. Why is that so?
Why did you start the NO!art movement?
And the aesthetics, was it more from the eye or more from the head?
When you came to America and resumed your life as an artist, were you intent on getting into the art movements of the time, or were you interested in making art about your experiences, or was it simply to start a new life and forget these experiences?
But it doesn’t seem to me from the kind of work that you did that you cared at all for the art market, I mean some of the things you did were obviously calculated not to be in the art market.
And the people who formed these co-ops, they were like-minded, aesthetically?
And what was the basic ideological or theoretical thrust?
Was Judaism a part of your particular personal expression?
Were people shocked when you did these juxtapositions of Holocaust imagery and pin-ups?
Why were you so interested in girlie magazine imagery?
You know there’s a school of thought that the Holocaust is beyond art, or even beyond comprehension.
People feel it is a subject that dwarfs artistic interpretation or aesthetic investigation.
Clayton Patterson: But what can happen is you end up with something like Spiegelman’s Maus, in which Jews in the concentration camp were portrayed as mice, the lowest form of rodent. Boris was very offended by that.
David Katz: Was it intuition, because a lot of people didn’t know but sensed something very bad was going to happen?
How much of survival do you think was cunning and intelligence and how much was luck?
You don’t have that postmodern, end-of-history, ironic, everything’s-been-done attitude?
All we have now is a proliferation of styles?
Is what attracts you in art something that is direct and immediate?
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David H. Katz is an artist, photographer and writer working in New York City. His artwork has been published in Zeek Web magazine, and exhibited at Makor Gallery, and Diamonds and Oranges Gallery in New York. His work also appears on his website ZtakArchives.com, as well as a number of other on-line galleries. - He has also written for a wide variety of publications, including The New Statesman, High Times, TANK, The Villager, The Portable Lower East Side, Leg World, Rap Express and Jewish Quarterly. His Infoir, The Father Fades, appeared in Transformation, A Journal of Literature, Ideas and the Arts, Spring, 2005.