"Howl" is written in crude brush letters on the canvas. Allen Ginsberg's motto as graffito in a thicket of gesturally muddled colors. The 1959 painting is by no means intended as an homage: the colors do not shimmer psychedelically, but appear dull, dull or simply dirty gray. The areas at the bottom of the picture look like fermented blood; they are more reminiscent of slaughterhouse walls than of jauntily painted messages of the Beat generation. In front of it lies a "NO! sculpture" on a red Persian carpet, which NO! art head Boris Lurie produced together with Sam Goodman for the New York Gertrude Stein Gallery in 1964: a modeled pile of shit in an appropriate paint job.
Between "Howl" and this pile of plaster is the history of NO!art, a provocative group of artists from the Lower Hast Side of the early sixties, which the NGBK has extensively reappraised as a retrospective. The development of the group is shown in the Galerie-Schlauch on Oranienstrasse, while the Haus am Kleistpark is dedicated exclusively to Boris Lurie. Today, the 71-year-old Lurie manages the estate of a movement that has been all but forgotten alongside the incomparably smarter Pop Art.
As with the Situationists, the same applies to the anarchist scene around NO!art: few were inside, and many wanted to belong. The Japanese Yayoi Kusama, for example, only exhibited her obscure plaster penis beards at a show in 1962 as part of NO!art, most of Isser Aronovici's commune scenes were created five years after the end of the group, and Allan D'Arcangelo's "American Madonna" (1962) would have been immediately discarded as bourgeois ingratiation with pro-American Pop art (in 1972 he produced posters for the Olympic Games).
Meanwhile, the relationship has reversed. While Goodman and Stanley Fisher, the other two co-founders of NO!art, have long since died, Lurie is belatedly seeking allies in the art world. But Happening artist Allan Kaprow never came into contact with NO!art, except for a recent exchange of letters, and Wolf Vostell sent Lurie a warm greeting for the catalog, without mentioning any possible collaboration: "In the meantime, I'm looking again at the Spanish sand, which immediately reminds me of art." There his gaze wanders from El Greco to Picasso's "Guernica," and Goodman, Fisher, and Lurie with their ugly everyday trash are quickly forgotten.
Despite the desired connection, Boris Lurie is characterized by an anti-attitude that refuses any market or taste: porn is collaged with starving children, pin-ups are pasted on cardboard boxes next to concentration camp victims, advertising posters are transformed into obscene toilet scribblings. The whole thing is buried under layers of spray paint, cauterized, ripped up, and violently edited. Above black and white S&M photos of artfully tied up women, there is only one word: NO. Part of the trove of material Boris Lurie draws on; the other leads back to the Holocaust.
Lurie, born in Leningrad in 1924, spent the last four years of the war in the concentration camps of Riga and Lenta, then in Stutthof and the Buchenwald subcamp. His mother perished in the camp. When Lurie emigrated to New York in 1946, the extermination of the Jews became a central motif in his artistic work. At first he painted pictures of emaciated prisoners sweeping the prison yard; then pictures such as "Dismembered Woman" (1955), in which concrete-colored arms circle around a female torso without binding. The dismemberment seems more drastic than in Fernand Leger's work, the flesh more decayed than in pictures by Francis Bacon. In the early sixties, the suffering turns into hatred, the victims are paired with advertising images from magazines. The obscenity conceals deep despair: Lurie is shocked by the military involvement of the USA in Korea. Even more strongly, the works are directed against the repression of the Holocaust.
Although the Eichmann trial has once again confronted the whole world with the extent of the extermination, even in the Jewish community of the Lower East Side, to which Lurie belongs, people want to forget. Thus the collages of piles of corpses and women's thighs are not only intended to shock, but also to admonish people not to go over to business as usual. To this day, Lurie considers the U.S. complicit in the Holocaust because it did not bomb the transport routes to the camps soon enough. But even when Wilhelm Reich, Horkheimer, and Adorno are brought into the field against art after Auschwitz and the double sexual morality of the U.S. Americans, the artistic strategy is quickly seen through. Lurie's approach to the material is no less voyeuristic than the one he wants to expose, for instance, in sex magazines. The collages of thousands and thousands of naked women exploit the female body as an object and involuntarily become agents of pornography.
Yet for all his obsessiveness, Lurie at least names the stereotypes of his time. The image of the pin-up and the sex bomb goes hand in hand with the rise of the USA as a nuclear power.
Boris Lurie and NO!art, through Nov. 26 at Haus am Kleistpark, Grunewaldstrasse 6-7,
and NGBK, Oranienstraße 25; catalog 50 DM
Published in: die tageszeitung, taz-Berlin, Nr. 4763, Seite 27 vom 2.11.1995