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Gerard Gassiot-Talabot:
NO-Artists Rebel

Little is known in Europe about a movement that was born in New York in 1959, developed in a coherent way over about five years and continues to be represented by very active artists such as Boris Lurie. Sam Goodman, his fellow traveler, died in 1967. An exhibition in the Schwarz Gallery in September 1962, a painting by Lurie b the recent "Aspects of Racism" event, a study that E. and R. Schwartz have just published in "Leonardo" on this phenomenon of "American psycho-social art", it is about all that we have, with some clippings of the Italian press, to realize us what represented this virulent demonstration of protest in the post-McCarthyism, or moment or the Pop Art was about to occupy of his giant productions the picture rails of all the museums of modern art of the world. It is that, precisely, the development of NO!art according to a trajectory that Boris Lurie defines, in the title of a book to be published, as going "from the pin-ups to the excrements" constitutes a kind of shameful, nauseating and in any case deeply indecent demonstration in the conformism and the American formalism of the Sixties. One remains stunned by the violence of this outburst which was expressed, out of all fashion, at a time when the integration of the artist into the system was not only achieved, but desired, and while avant-garde research was moving, in the line of post-dadaism, towards a critique of vision and an iconographic renewal based on the objects of consumer society. And yet the need for a protest reading was such that, in Europe, when Warhol's first soup cans and Lichtenstein's first comics appeared, and when Oldenburg offered us windows filled with giant dummies, most critics thought they saw in this phenomenon not only a new hygiene of vision, but a much more fundamental work, dealing with the disruption of values, and a vast undertaking of self-criticism. They were soon disillusioned, because the commissioners of the Parisian critics, who immediately made the trip to New York, were able to ascertain from certain sources that this was not the case and that it was not a criticism of urban and industrial society, but rather a kind of distant and intelligent fascination. This was very much appreciated in Germany and elsewhere, and the phenomenon of NO!art, which Schwarz tried to publicize in Milan, passed off as folkloric exasperation. The affinities with certain types of European creation were however flagrant. Simply one found this very particular way of acting in the first degree in which the Americans are masters. Lurie and Goodman, then also Stanley Fisher, seemed to take the opposite side of the iconographic conventions of Pop art: they represented a collection of pin-ups but particularly vulgar, aggressive, ignoble; they accumulated dirt and soiling of all kinds, but in a radically irrecoverable way: When we compare them, for example, to Rauschenberg's image scrambles and montages, the latter, which seemed aggressive ten years ago, seem to us today almost mannered and aesthetic.

From the iconographic profanation treated at the level of a society of underprivileged, the NO!artists passed to the excremental exhibition. There too, some of the proliferation and enlargement of Pop Art seemed to be treated with derision. The intentions could seem to approach the new realists at their beginnings, even if those never tried to exceed the phenomena of the quantitative taking of possession of the world. About fifteen artists participated in the group's demonstrations, among them John Fisher, Allan Kaprow, Erro, J.-J. Lebel, Gloria Graves and Kusama.

Unfortunately, this enormous provocation had few resources at its disposal. A few New York galleries hosted Lurie and his friends in exhibitions from 1960 to 1964 and received an embarrassed and ironic reception from the press. Thomas Hess wrote a text for the Schwarz catalog in which he showed lucid sympathy for the behavior of Goodman and Lurie: "They interrupt the relatively polite conversations in the lounge car by blindly rushing to the alarm bell. With their art, with the enormous human heaps of art history and aesthetic thoughts, they have found the way to scream, to shout the visual truth".

It is indeed of howling, indeed, that it is about. The NO!artists shoot in all the plans, put the feet in all the dishes: graffiti, objects piled up, assembled, crushed, excrements piled up on the floor of the galleries, threatening arrangements of grenades, shocking images, outrageous sexual realism, irony that bursts in sarcasms; it is the denunciatory revolt in the pure state. This spray of violence was smothered in Pop's refrigerators; the galleries closed and the museums refused any dialogue with people who were decidedly too ill-bred and who could always be expected to "spit in the soup". Of course Boris Lurie, a persecuted Jew from the ghettos of Europe, when he inscribed in giant letters this protesting "NO" or entitled an exhibition "Farewell America", was aiming, beyond the immediate realities, at a recent past that we see resurfacing here and there in his work in the form of the very explicit and generally swastika symbols and anti-Zionist inscriptions collected on the walls of New York. But there is nothing retrospective about his work, and even if it may seem at times divergent in its aims, almost muddled, we must attribute this apparent confusion to the urgency of a protest action of which Boris Lurie and his friends were the rare representatives in the America of the early 1960s. They wanted to do it quickly and shout loudly, and if it is difficult to measure today the precise impact that their work had on those who visited their exhibitions at the time (they had a definite influence on the underground), we can consider, outside of any museographic crystallization, that they were singularly courageous and devilishly lucid.

Source: Lurie, Boris; Krim, Seymour: NO!art, Cologne 1988

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GERARD GASSIOT-TALABOT (1929-2002) is a French art critic and writer particularly devoted to popularizing neglected critical anti-establishment art of the Sixties and Seventies.

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