These days when I speak to Boris on the phone and he says “Soo-san!” in his warm and juicy way, I can taste the poignancy of my involvement with the NO!art group 35 years ago. I was 23 with a small daughter, working as a secretary and going to Pratt Institute and the Art Students' League at night. I met Sam Goodman at the Cedar Bar and he became my lover and mentor for three years. He was a purist Abstract-Expressionist and he knew everyone in that art world. He was respected and well known as a ‘painter's painter'. I was a 'green' girl and he told me that I was a 'natural' and that I must put my life into my art. He taught me what he knew about painting. We sat in overstuffed chairs in his railroad flat on Perry Street sipping brandy far into the night and pored over art books. He was a scholar of Japanese art, particularly enthused about the prints meant for the masses. In his own life he was a samurai after the truth. He told me his father had worked in a factory in Toronto and had been the victim of anti-Semitism, a co-worker having dropped a heavy metal object on his head. He told me about the barbarous photographs of Jews in the Holocaust that had passed his surveillance while he did duty at the Canadian Film Board during World War II. When he needed money he would work on the street as a caricaturist, and I would pose for him, to attract customers.
Although our backgrounds differed vastly, I now understand why we found meaning in each other. I had grown up in the Fifties in a house that was built by ancestors on a Revolutionary war land grant, both sides of my family arriving on these shores in the 1600's from England. The town in upstate New York was conservative, the news whitewashed. My parents dissolved a family fortune through previous divorce settlements and they drank up the rest. The family was rife with feuds, sibling rivalries and chaos. My mother called it 'genteel' poverty, but we were destitute. We were in constant debt to my mother's former housekeeper turned grocer. No wonder I found it easy to identify with the fallen aristocracy in the Russian novels, that my scholarly father suggested I read. I fantasized about a Slavic melancholy that I thought creative. When I met Boris Lurie, I felt I had known him before. My mother was a talented artist but a dilettante. Every man in my family had been in a war. When I was 13, I prayed nightly that my favorite brother return safely from Korea. I vowed that if I had sons, they would create, not destroy. The sorrows and waste of my family prepared me to respond to the purpose and Angst of the NO!art movement.
When I met Sam, I was influenced by the German Expressionists and Kaethe Kollwitz. I didn't know other women artists, the ones I heard of lived in the shadow of their better known husbands. There was not sexism among artists; we were all outcasts and our creativity, our commonality. The sexism came from the culture. Although founded by men, the NO!art group encouraged women artists to participate. The artists at the March Gallery were showing what they saw in the culture. There was a strong equation between sex, money and violence in the culture and there still is.
Quickly after Sam and I met, the NO!art movement gained full steam. Stanley Fisher was around making me think of Rabelais, desperate, with a roving eye, and a family man too with a striking wife and two pretty little girls. Sam and Boris were obsessed, passionate and indefatigable. I can see Sam walking down 10th Street, my daughter Betsy running to him, his big tweed overcoat pockets filled with candy, his blue beret, hornrimmed glasses, grinning around his cigar, as he scoops her up. The three of us would try to take walks from the gallery and never get anywhere because Sam would always find something on the street that he had to take back to the gallery to rake an assemblage out of: he was possessed! I remember when he saw a tied bundle in the middle of an empty lot and excitedly carried it to the gallery labelling it "Abortion". To my knowledge, no one ever opened it.
We were poor refuse of a consumer society offered us free materials to work with. I found a whole roll of good quality drawing paper with which to do a series of ink drawings. Seeing the form that a bum's urine made on the street, inspired more paintings. I painted lone women dancing frenetically, the dance of life, bombs that became ejaculations. Our art was hot and in the true spirit of rebellion, visceral, immediate to the feelings that generated it, and meant to shock the public out of it's ennui and denial.
I had a temporary job at the Museum of Modern Art where I met Lucy Lippard. She was not yet politicized and an advocate of socially conscious art. I visited her on the Bowery where she lived with the painter Robert Ryman. I took her to the March Gallery. Riding in the elevator at the Museum of Modern Art, I overheard William Seitz, then the curator of modern painting, while looking over a list of shows for consideration: ''Not Lurie and Goodman - absolutely not!" Art history was being fabricated. NO!art was being dropped into the abyss, between hot Abstract-expressionism and freeze-dried Pop-art. The dye was cast.
Sam and I went our separate ways in those fevered times. I went to Mexico with a poet, then to San Francisco for the Summer of Love and later to Seattle. The last time I heard Sam's voice was when I walked the three flights of iron steps on the outside of a brick building to the pay phone outside a bar overlooking Puget Sound. I called Sam at the hospital where he was dying of throat cancer. He croaked into the phone: "Where are you? Come back."
The beat goes on. The very night of the morning that I started these recollections, I went to the local university to attend a presentation by a visiting artist to a group of "Master of Fine Arts" graduate students. She showed her series of shit-sculptures, done ten years ago, to that group of students born after Sam and Boris's show of Shit Sculptures at the Gertrude Stein Gallery. To me it was an act of blatant plagiarism. She represented everything that Sam had abhorred: non-committal, ambiguous, trendy, esoteric. She offered no reason for doing the sculptures, during the discussion that followed and was arrogant in her avoidance of their meaning. I felt like a ghost in that room, with my history buried.
About SUZANNE LONG (Harriet Wood): Born in 1937, in Jacksonville, Florida. Studies at Pratt Institute and Art Students League in New York. Since 1959 participation in NO!art manifestations and exhibitions in the Tenth Street (March Group). Many exhibitions in the USA. Since 1978 professor at different institutions. Is involved in problems of the social reality and in landscapes. Lives in Vermont. | MORE