In the bleak winter light filtering through a snow-covered skylight, Boris Lurie´s little studio on E. 6th St. is almost impassably cluttered with the kind of mess an artist accumulates over 30 years.
The shadows are dense with rolled canvasses, pieces of stretchers, cans of paint, brushes standing in jars, interesting flotsam picked up on the streets, haphazardly stacked drawings, pages torn from magazines, worktables piled with less identifiable junk, a mattress on the floor, a toilet that doesn´t look like it works, and over everything that kind of furry, hat-gray dust it takes years of dedicated neglect to build up. All four burners on a little gas stove are lit, but they don't penetrate either the gloam of the cold. Someone's plumbing upstairs is busted, and there's a steady, desultory drip of brown water through a spot in the ceiling.
Lurie finds a narrow space and a few broken little chairs to settle into. In his late 60s, he has rounded, sad-eyed, Russian-Jewish good looks accentuated by a trim gray moustache and the soft vestiges of an accent in his speech. He's dressed like a stevedore against the cold, in a wool watch cap and heavy sweater. As we talk we flick our cigarettes into a rusty tin can on the concrete floor between us. It bothers me a little to watch him smoke; he's just been in the hospital for a pacemaker operation.
Until recently, I'd never heard of Lurie, last summer in the Essex St. storefront of Clayton Hats, Clayton Patterson staged a kind of micro-mini art exhibit called NO!art. It was a small show of maybe a dozen pieces, but there was no missing the tone - ugly, negativist, the-world-sucks-man. The painting was intentionally “bad.” The messy collages of images ripped from tabloids and old porn were slapped in the viewer’s face as angry reminders of everything vulgar and filthy in the world just outside. The kind of art the Whitney calls “abject,” only more aggressively so.
I told Patterson I thought it was nice of him to give a few punky East Village artists a little space for a show. He explained that yes, the work was East Village all right but it all dated from 1959 to 1964. As far as Patterson knew this was the first time any of it had been shown in the U.S. in almost 30 years.
NO!art was a moment in art history that art history has chosen to forget. Like the roughly coterminous Pop Art crowd, Lurie and the NO!artists worked with commercial and pop culture imagery. But where Pop Art was essentially the work of ironists exulting in the sleek surfaces of Camelot consumerist culture, the NO!art group burrowed into the dark and cloacal downside of that booster zeitgeist.
NO!artists burned dolls and melted toy soldiers and scrawled NO! like a graffiti tag across their canvasses. They were pro-Castro and anti-military. They organized group exhibitions with titles like “Doom Show” (protesting JFK´s nuclear build-up) and “The American Way of Death,” an installation of coffins and mortuary art. They constructed ugly sculptures of smashed televisions and street garbage, desecrated crucifixes and the American flag, and, in one infamous show, filled an Uptown gallery with sculptures that looked like piles of feces - the “Shit Show.”
Had it been the early 90s rather than the early 60s, there’s little doubt that NO!art would have become some kind of media demon-darling. NO!art did get some press - some of it even mildly supportive - but its ultimate legacy was best summed up by New York Times and Art in America critic Brian O'Doherty, writing in 1971:
It is extremely difficult to produce a kind of art that histories will pass over in silence, that the art magazines will dismiss, that will embarrass collectors and be offensive to most other artists. [NO!art] succeeded in achieving this large negative.
Today, the only book devoted to documenting the scene is the one Lurie produced himself with the help of hipster chronicler Seymour Krim. Lurie began it in 1969 and spent two decades failing to find a publisher for it. It finally came out as a fat paperback, simply called NO!art, published in Germany in 1988 and never distributed here. The copy loaned to me by Patterson sheds a few more pages every lime I open it - more traces vanishing before my eyes.
That Lurie was in New York at all in the 1950s was a bit of a miracle. He was born in Leningrad and was growing up in the port city of Riga (in what became later Latvia) when it was overrun by the Nazis in 1941. He was 16, and spent the next four years in several concentration camps, including Buchenwald. Despite his in-your-face use of Buchenwald imagery in his collages, he speaks about it reluctantly.
“You are condemned to death, and you know it very well,” he tells me, with a fatalistic shrug and a flick of ashes. “You try to cheat the fates and play your luck. It’s all accident whether you succeed or not. I guess it helped to have a robust constitution and a certain amount of brains, too, but it was more luck than anything else. It was totally unpredictable.”
In 1945, as the Allies penetrated Germany, the camp guards fled. Lurie escaped along with other prisoners, hiding in the woods, pursued by local police from the nearby town of Magdeburg, until “finally the Occupation troops arrived.” Since he spoke English, young Lurie was employed as a translator by U.S. Army counter-intelligence.
In ´46 “I got the papers to come over here. My sister was already in New York... I was very impressed with New York. Especially coming from Germany, which was totally destroyed, the cities completely flattened. The last place we were stationed was near Frankfurt. Frankfurt was nothing, just stones. So to come to New York was a shocking experience.”
He and an artist friend got a cold water flat on Columbia St. on the Lower East Side. “We took out the walls and made a studio out of it. It was $15 a month. But no electric at all, no hot water. I was really amazed that in New York they'd have buildings with no electricity. That was the real Lower East Side. I saw the Lower East Side in the very last, short period of its existence. Within a couple of years it was all gone. They all moved to the suburbs or whatever.”
Lurie´s art, largely self-taught, didn’t fit a 50s art scene increasingly dominated by the Abstract Expressionists (de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko, et al.). His work was figurative as opposed to abstract. He wanted art to be socially engaged; they were making art that was spiritual, transcendental and removed.
Surrealist joke-heroicism, with Goodman it was more like he was flinging the junk back in your face. (At the height of his “heat” and inspiration, Lurie writes in his book, he strangely began to look like garbage himself, magnetically attracted to refuse cans on the street...) Battered hubcaps became picture frames for roughly cut-out photos of gorillas and praying Madonnas; a hideously Burned baby doll lay down next to a cash register; a grotesque Female Fetish wore a dirty Shirley Temple wig and hanging bombshell teats.
The “NO!show” consisted of that word splashed and stencilled all over paintings, walls, photos of politicians, Planks of wood, etc. It prompted a critic to nickname the group’s esthetic NO!art, which stuck. As more artists participated, the shows completely filled up the basement with haphazard environments, a big and spontaneous art-mess. Swastikas and hand grenades, torn and defaced posters, newspaper headlines, dead flowers, hundreds of plaster-cast penises, mushroom clouds, and Esther Gilman’s Christ in a Mousetrap, which I find remarkably prefigurative of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ.
“But there’s one big difference,” Lurie notes Serrano “does very esthetically beautiful photographs. He takes a great deal of effort to get the colors right and so forth. So it has the so-called esthetic aspect.” NO!artists “didn't have that. They just wanted to throw it out, keep it as informal as possible - even as ugly is possible. Make it direct.”
For a movement that has vanished from history, it’s worth noting that these shows drew healthy crowds. Mostly other artists, but also some pretty high-powered art press - O'Doherty, Dore Ashton, Thomas Hess of Art News, Tom Wolfe.
“Everybody came to the March Gallery,” Lurie says. “They made the scene. All the Pop artists came.” James Rosenquist (The F-111) was a friend of some NO!artists; Warhol was there. “They went around looking at what was going on.” Some Abstract Expressionists, like de Kooning and Franz Kline, “were very sympathetic personally, but they weren't knocking themselves out to help us.” Though Lurie adds that Elaine de Kooning, “in spite of the fact that she was not too sympathetic to what we were doing, conveyed to Hess that this was something important.”
How did they all react?
“People were very upset,” he replies with a grin. ”that went for practically everybody. The Abstract Expressionists didn't like it, and the Pop artists didn't like it. They felt threatened by it, on two counts. First, they were all hoping to get into the mainstream, the galleries Uptown. They really felt that we were rocking the boat, ruining their chances. And second, they didn't like the social propagandistic aspects of it.”
The thing is, had the Lurie crowd aimed more to please than to dismay, the early 60s was a good time for a new, identifiable art movement to make its presence felt in New York.
”The novelty of Abstract Expressionism had given out,” Lurie explains. Art investors and promoters ”were looking for a new product. Unfortunately for NO!art the new product had to be as different as possible, but at the same time not insulting... something that is pleasant, that affords good conversation, that's easy to understand.”
And that, he says, was Pop.
Like NO!art, Pop was a rejection of Abstract Impressionism’s esthetic purism and other worldliness; like NO!art, Pop Art imagery came straight out of the real world of fighter jets and sexy advertising and commercial graphics - ”but they used it in a con-trary sense. ” Lurie says. ”Pop cleaned it up. They made it palatable. Also, Pop had a campy attitude, which we didn´t like at all. It was sort of tongue-in-cheek, no political or social subject matter... We always felt that Pop Art was celebrating the environment of consumers, not knocking it in any way. ” In his book he characterizes Pop as a fitting background for Park Avenue cocktail parties.
Agreeing with Wolfe’s sarcastic chronicles of that era, Lurie firmly declares that ”Pop Art was a 100 percent businesslike promoted project... The process of organization I witnessed myself. It was exactly the same as you promote a new stock on the New York Stock Exchange. The group was assembled, the people who would promote it bought it up at very low prices, and then they promoted it. They were investors.”
The main collectors and Medician patrons of Pop - Robert Scull, Leon Kraushaar, Dick Bellamy, names that became legendary in art-money history - were businessmen. They used Leo Castelli´s gallery (and Castelli himself came from a business background), but Lurie insists ”it wasn’t Castelli who started it. People think that’s how Pop Art started, because Castelli promoted it. He offered the space, and I guess he liked it, but the real push was by his group of very cold-blooded investors.”
And, he says, ”They were very smart in promoting it - even as a protest movement. So they had it both ways. They promoted it differently in this country than in Europe. For instance, Andy Warhol had that series of photographs of death chambers. This was not shown here. They showed it in Paris. The people in Paris thought it was social criticism. What was shown here was the cans of soup. They were very careful about how they did that.”
NO!art did have its own more modest runs at fame and glory. In 1962, Lurie took some of the work on a European tour. In Rome, the show was attended by 10,000 viewers, ”the most attended show ever in Rome by young artists”, he says. He writes:
Police barred entrance to minors, after lengthy negotiations with Signor Liverani, owner of the gallery ”La Salita,” instead of confiscating all works as they had threatened [because of the porn imagery]. The ”Sophisticates” (the esthetic culturati, homosexuals, and ”Dolce Vita” contingents) paradoxically supported the show, whereas the ”Communists” (i.e. progressives, communists and left-wing intellectuals) generally attacked it violently...
Unfortunately, the crowds and controversy ”didn't do us any good at all in terms of representation here, because nothing was sold,” Lurie tells me. ”The art field is very different from, for instance, literature. Maybe it's more like movies. The final success or failure is judged entirely by whether it sells. The rest disappears.”
On the other hand, he also declares, ”After we started NO!art, we really didn’t care if we sold anything. And furthermore,” he smiles, ”we didn't sell anything.”
He took the show to Milan, where ”there was a rumor that we were the next chosen group for New York, the next ones picked by the New York establishment. That aroused a lot of attention.” Lurie smiles wryly. ”After that I came to Paris, and at first got a terrific reception from various critics. Within no time, they got the news that it was not us who were the chosen ones in New York.” That is, that Pop was the Next Big Thing. After that, he says with that fatalistic shrug, ”Everyone completely shoved me aside.”
Back in New York, an art collector with the iconic name of Gertrude Stein came to the March Gallery shows and, unlike most other collectors, liked what she saw. But then she was an unusual collector. A New York native, she came from a family tradition of anarcho-syndicalism; the revolutionary Emma Goldman was her godmother - although ”she didn’t believe in God,” Stein notes.
A student of art from her youth, Stein began collecting at the age of 16, using her allowance to pay for the work in installments. ”Art was cheap in those days,” she says. Today, her apartment facing Central Park is open, white and sunlit like a gallery, and she lives among paintings and sculptures - like an original De Chirico hanging behind a sofa - that she picked up for nearly nothing back then. There’s also a Lurie painting, a beautifully rough construction of planks crusted with blobs of paint and scrawled with the emblematic NO.
Stein agrees with Lurie that most other artists and the art cognoscenti ”were repulsed” by NO!art. ”They truly were repulsed by it.” She liked its protesting and revolutionary spirit; as art, meanwhile, ”the thing that has always interested me most is innovation. Innovators change the way we see the world.” NO!art, she says, ”didn't make a positive statement,” but it “made you open your eyes”.
In 1963 she opened Gallery Gertrude Stein in a basement on 81st St near Madison Ave. She sold things like Kandinsky and Klee out of a back room, but the front space was devoted to bringing NO!art Uptown.
Their short reign there culminated in '64 with the NO!Sculpture Show, aka the ”Shit Show.” Goodman and Lurie filled the space with what seemed to be piles of excrement - actually, sculptures of plaster extruded from plastic bags and pipes and then realistically painted. All different kinds of shit, from long, firm logs to a mountainous 500-lb. bloody stool to squishy-looking splatters that formed the signature NO! logo.
In the Times, O'Doherty declared it the ultimate revolution of the subject matter. Stein remembers that people came into the gallery, thought it was real shit, and actually imagined that they could smell the stink. ”They were very angry about it.”
When I say to Lurie that the appearance of NO!art must have been something of a bombshell in the Uptown gallery environment, he replies, ”Yeah, but it was a quiet bombshell in some instances, when we got reviews it pulled in some people, but otherwise there weren´t hordes like we had on 10th St.” And Uptown drew a different kind of people, he writes: not artistes, but a middle-aged crowd of what appeared pleasure-seeking ”neurotic” well-off types, a crowd hard to define, amorphous, jellylike.
Tom Wolfe noted in his review of the show: Shocking the bourgeoisie is getting tougher and tougher... These people are frustrating. They still won't come right out and be shocked. They, the culturati of the New York art world, look right at the mounds lying there on the floor and talk about them in terms of the usual, their mass, their tension, their thrust, their plastic ambience and so forth.
A quiet bombshell.
”The only ones at that time who could help promote our work was that Pop group,” Lurie says. That was Gertrude Stein’s hope, that they would come in and start to buy something. This was nixed immediately by Scull, who came in and didn’t say a word. After he left Gertrude Stein came up to me and said, ´You might as well pack up. Forget about the whole show. Nothing is gonna happen.´”
Then again, when they put on the ”Shit Show,” Kraushaar ”was very interested,” Lurie says. "He wanted to buy some pieces.” Pop’s backers, he claims, wanted to spread out to more galleries ”to show that Pop Art is a very wide, popular movement. They were looking for kind of satellite galleries they could use for second stringers. So Kraushaar had his eye on the Gallery Gertrude Stein. What they would have done, most likely, would be to pick one or two people out of us and help them a little bit, and at the same time squash the whole team.”
In his book, he relates that when Kraushaar came up to Goodman and congratulated him personally, Sam Goodman retorted unexpectedly: ”I shit on you, too!” A short self-conscious aggressive and defensive man, Kraushaar turned green and walked out.
The ”Shit Show” was, perhaps inevitably, the NO!art group's last excremental fling. I'd like it understood, Goodman declared, this is my final gesture after 30 years in the art world. This is what I think of it.
”It fell apart,” Lurie says. ”Gertrude Stein continued on her own with a couple of shows” (and continued to have a gallery, now run by her son at Madison Ave. and 77th St.). Lurie became preoccupied by personal and family crises. Goodman died of cancer in '67, his passing unnoted in the press, and ”Stanley Fisher went off on a different tack. He got into Zen, organized a commune.” He died in 1980. A few NO!art participants found success doing other kinds of art: Dorothy Gillespie, Michelle Stuart, Jerome Rothenberg, Allan Kaprow, the sculptor Kusama.
”I haven’t shown in New York ever since then,” Lurie says. ”In the first place, nobody was chasing after me asking me to show,” he laughs. ”And I didn't organize anything on my own. I didn't have anybody to work with. I got involved in other areas. And I thought also that it was a totally desperate situation at the time, because the Pop Art had taken over absolutely everything, so there was no hope.”
He didn't stop working, and his style is largely unchanged. He has continued to show in Europe, most recently in Cologne in 1988. In Germany, a certain level of interest in and support for NO!art was maintained by the art publishing house Edition Hundertmark, which eventually published Lurie´s book NO!art and promoted other avant-fringe movements like Fluxus and the controversial Austrian Aktion artist Hermann Nitsch. In the U.S., meanwhile, NO!art ”was mentioned by certain people, like Lucy Lippard in her book on Pop Art, but basically it totally disappeared.”
While it's a question how influential NO!art was, it's interesting how predictive it turned out to be - from anti-war imagery of the later 60s to punk to the funky East Village art of the 80s to all the S/M, sex-and-death stuff of the 90s. Still, when I ask Stein how she thinks people would react if NO!art were to appear now, she says, ”They'd put it down, put it down and put it down again. You know why? Because it´s very scary. People don't want to feel. People can't feel. They have to be abused. NO!art touches them where they live.”
Lurie saw the ”Abject Art” show at the Whitney last year, and not surprisingly wasn't too impressed. He liked the politics, but the work struck him as too neat, too high-
esthetic, too grandiose in execution. ”I think there's something a little bit appalling, a preciousness involved.... I think it is like an academic digression. It's the old stuff, only it’s been cleaned up and okayed. I have a feeling it comes from the universities.
The NO!art book pulls together a lot of short texts: various manifestos by the group, critical responses, a be-bopping obit for Goodman by Krim, and letters from various artsy figures ranging from Beat poet Jack Micheline to artist Lil Picard to Surrealist Louis Aragon. In one of them, the Paris art Dealer Iris Clert writes:
Art for me is an escape from reality and not an awful realism which shows the horrors of our mad civilization. - We are surrounded with ugliness, dirt, pollution, horrid posters, vulgarity: why take all these horrors, put them together and make a protest? The real protest is to show beauty and purity!... I would really be convinced, if the Non-Artists [sic] would go as far as burning themselves with their work in the face of the public.
When I ask him if he buys any part of that argument, Lurie gives me a hooded look and takes a long thought. ”Do I buy the idea that art is supposed to be removed from everything? I tell ya, I'm concerned with the net result. If somebody can remove himself completely, and I'm still affected by it, it means something to me, well okay. But most of it I don't like because I think it's a boring esoteric exercise.”
He resists my efforts to draw parallels between NO!art and art that's being made now. The art world has changed too much. NO!art existed in a context where art was created for a small and knowing audience, ”almost a secret society,” he says. ”If you were an artist who was not an Abstract Expressionist, if two or three people within that group didn't like you, you were out. You didn't have a chance. The same thing for Pop Art.
”Now - and I think this is the most important thing to understand - it's totally different because it's such a huge market. Things are being devoured, mainly to feed that market. The drive is entirely different. This engine has to be fed constantly. People get tired of novelty much quicker than before. Sometimes novelty is a good spark, but mostly I think now it's just production for the industry.”
Another important change, he believes, is that a lot of the weight in the art establishment has shifted from the artists cliques and gallery owners who ”monopolized” it in the 60s to museums and hired-gun curators who can create popular, well-hyped exhibitions. ”People are standing in huge lines [outside museums], and it's not important what they show. They'll come anyway... It's gotten much worse for art in that sense. It's hyped much more than before.”
He's had his E. 6th St. studio since 1960, so he's seen the neighborhood go through several changes, including the boom and bust of the East Village gallery scene in the 80s. ”During the high time” of that scene, he recalls ”there were eight, 10 galleries on this block right here.” There are none now. ”Now it's a comparatively nice neighborhood, but then it was a horrible neighborhood. You'd take your life in your hands to walk out here at night. Yet I walked out of here one day and there was a Rolls Royce parked there, with a chauffeur. There was a gallery out front. These people had heard something was going on.”
At least the Sculls and Kraushaars had been educated patrons. By the 80s, Lurie feels, things had degenerated to where anyone with some money to invest, without any particular interest in or knowledge of art, was looking to buy into the most hyped artist du jour. (In the revised '91 edition of The Shock of the New, grumpy mandarin Robert Hughes agrees. The 80s produced a vast new class of nouveaux riches, he writes, and this army of potential collectors realized that art was the only commodity that you could spend limitless amounts of money on without looking coarse and ostentatious... The more art you bought, the more of a prince you seemed.)
Between the fast money and the short-attention-span hype, Lurie says, the career arc of a young artist today is pretty much like that of a young rock musician - conditions not very conducive to producing a lot of meaningful new work.
Then again, one obvious by-product of short attention spans and novelty-hungry media is the way that all previous cultural epochs and all the art they produced have been put in constant circulation. As bell-bottoms and The Brady Bunch prove - and as Pop Art in its way predicted - anything can come back into style, at least as kitsch or nostalgia. Forgotten art movements may be rediscovered.
Lurie wouldn't mind, of course, if NO!art were to benefit from a little of that.
”It would be good for me personally,” he smiles, ”but it would also be good for clarifying art history. And for art education - because everybody learns from someone else.
”Also,” he adds, it would be good ”because unless something becomes established, it goes in the garbage can. It disappears. Sam Goodman's work, much of it is lost. I managed only to save maybe one-half. The rest is ruined.”
He's got that Goodman stuff, and works by himself and other NO!artists, in storage. He does know of two NO!art exhibitions planned to occur over the next couple of years. One will be in a Berlin museum, and one at the University of Iowa, which mounted an important Fluxus show recently. Gertrude Stein is working with them on it, and helping Lurie with a foundation that might ensure that some of the work will be preserved.
In the statement for a show in Germany in 1970, Lurie wrote: The time for Yes-art is not at all at hand. Who knows? Maybe NO!art's time is yet to come.
About JOHN STRAUSBAUGH: He is an author and journalist who has been a regular contributor to the New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New York Press. Strausbaugh worked as a contributor and editor of The New York Press from 1990 until late 2002, when the paper was sold to Avalon Equity Partners. He has since produced several non-fiction works on American popular culture. His books include E: Reflections on the Birth of the Elvis Faith (1995), Rock 'Til You Drop (2003), on rock and roll nostalgia, and Black Like You (2006), an exploration of race relations in American pop culture.