David H. Katz:
The Artist as Provocateur
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.
(An extensive selection of his work and that of the other NO!art artists may be found at ►www.no-art.info).
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?
Boris Lurie: Because you have to do what you really feel is right, not look back at what is popular at the time or what you think people might like — or, to be more exact, a small group of people, because those are the ones who dominate the art world. The art world is not dominated by democracy; 99.9 per cent of the people don’t even understand what the aesthetes are talking about, and often they themselves don’t understand what they’re talking about. So it’s a very exclusive club, it’s a little club. And the young artist is directly or indirectly aware of it, because he sees some people are going someplace, and other people are going no place, so he’s looking at the work they’re doing; there must be a reason. If he decides to go his own way as much as possible, and to disregard all that, he must have a lot of courage, because he might get no place. And these are not easy decisions for a young artist to make, because if everything in the art market were completely false, then it would be easy to stay away. But a lot of good things seep through into the art market.
Why did you start the NO!art movement?
We started it out of desperation. It wasn’t an intellectual programme worked out by some philosophers or in some university. It started out of desperation because we were already some time in the art world, and finally we saw what was going on and said ‘To hell with you, we want to be artists but we’ll do it for ourselves, we won’t be involved with you.’ And if they want to, they can try to get us.
And the aesthetics, was it more from the eye or more from the head?
The aesthetics was to strongly react against anything that’s bugging you. [Laughs] Also, not to be exclusive in art, especially the aesthetic in art of that period that was going into abstraction. For instance, Clement Greenberg was a powerful critic at the time, dealing with all kinds of aesthetic questions about the two-dimensional surface of art, with the making of a form, formalism. So art became very formalistic and a completely separate area, away from everyday life, from history or anything, outside the real world.
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?
I was young, I had been painting ever since I was a kid, I was sort of recognized in school as the artist in the class, and if something had to be drawn, then I was asked to do it. And I made some money on illustrations even in Soviet Latvia, made good money, very good money. I was 16 years old, so I had a little professional work, like book covers and illustrations for a newspaper. When I came here, I tried to continue and do my own work, and the first subjects were indeed what I had seen or imagined.
But if I wanted to be a ‘professional’ artist, I had to know something about art history and learn how to relate to it in some form. Then, for instance, Picasso was the big contemporary star, so you had to deal with him. You were obviously influenced by him, everybody was influenced by him, so you had to kind of work your way through that. And, in a very childish way, I believed that art is something where you can tell what’s good and what’s bad, just like what’s a good car and what’s a bad car. I believed that there are experts who really know what art is, the people in the museums or wherever, and they dictate what’s good and what’s bad - they know and I know nothing. And that led to the art market, why this gallery is considered so great and another one considered nothing. What is the reason for it?
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.
But that came later in the 60s and the late 50s when we kind of rebelled against the whole thing, and one reason was because we found a foothold among the co-operative galleries on East 10th street. Different groups of artists would rent a place, the rentals were comparatively cheap - 10 or 15 dollars would rent a place - and they would run a gallery, a regular gallery, and everybody would be able to exhibit work.
No dealers. You’d hire a girl or a boy to sit there and keep it open, and of course hardly anything was sold. But there was an awful lot of attendance because they were all located in one area and at one time there must have been twenty or thirty galleries. So when there was an opening, there were big crowds, it was very good.
And the people who formed these co-ops, they were like-minded, aesthetically?
Well, no, actually they were different; the majority were Abstract Expressionists, young Abstract Expressionists, under the influence of Pollock and Klein . . .
The March Gallery was a little different in that it opened its doors to any kind of movement, even going back to representational, it actually favoured more representational. The paintings that I showed there at the beginning were sort of semi-representational figurative paintings. And then the people gradually lost interest. After the March Gallery broke up we had the March Group, which was the same thing as NO!art, with Stanley Fischer and Sam Goodman and about ten or fifteen more that participated in exhibitions.
And what was the basic ideological or theoretical thrust?
The basic one was total self-expression, and inclusion of any kind of social or political activity that was in the world, that took place in the world. What was also favoured was a kind of protest, an outcry, anything that might be considered a radical expression, and that didn’t necessarily coincide with what was permitted under the then current aesthetics.
Was Judaism a part of your particular personal expression?
Yeah, but it wasn’t only Judaism, it was sexual problems, personal problems, the family, anything, anything at all.
Were people shocked when you did these juxtapositions of Holocaust imagery and pin-ups?
Yeah, they were. I would say they were shocked. Everybody was shocked about the exhibition. They were shocked, that’s true, and I would say that the ordinary artists were the ones who liked it least because they felt threatened by this . . . After the war in America and even in New York it was a taboo subject. Probably the Jews just didn’t want to hear about it any more. Most of the people that I knew in the art world never knew that I was in a concentration camp. It was never talked about.
So at that time everything opened up. There was also a general historical background to this, when Castro won the war in Cuba and Khrushchev became the head of the Soviet Union and loosened everything up. All over the world there was an atmosphere of loosening up.
Why were you so interested in girlie magazine imagery?
If there was one symbol of American big city life it would be the pin-up girl and all that implies. In the first place, the pin-up girl was a symbol you couldn’t avoid. It was all around, used in advertising, wherever you went; even in the Second World War it was put on the bomber planes. In addition to that, the post-war period was very puritan; I came from abroad, from Europe and Germany, which sexually was completely free and open . . .
When I came here after the war, all of a sudden sexual intercourse was based on your ability to spend! If you wanted to go on a date, the minimum that you had to spend was 10 dollars. You had to spend some money, or the girl wouldn’t go with you, simple as that. So there was tremendous sexual pressure, especially if you were a young man and you came from Europe, where everything was wide open. According to our thinking this should also come out in art, it shouldn’t be hidden under the carpet.
You know there’s a school of thought that the Holocaust is beyond art, or even beyond comprehension.
You mean that the reaction of the older generation and some younger people is that the Holocaust is something holy, that shouldn’t be touched . . .
People feel it is a subject that dwarfs artistic interpretation or aesthetic investigation.
If the people who lived through that era want the remembrance and teaching of the Holocaust to continue, they have to turn it over to new generations, which view it from different points of view.
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.
That is really insulting. To me that is pornography, the real pornography, not a woman being laid by a man. Maus is a packaged thing, in which Spiegelman calls the Jews mice, the few Jews who had the courage to go into hiding - and you had to have courage to go into hiding, because the fear was that, if you were caught, they would shoot you on the spot. It could happen and I believe it did happen. In order to hide for two years you had to have a lot of courage - you’re not a mouse. It’s your own volition, it’s your own will.
David Katz: Was it intuition, because a lot of people didn’t know but sensed something very bad was going to happen?
By 1943 you knew what would happen, at the beginning you didn’t know what was going to happen. So some people took the initiative upon themselves, voluntarily, to go into hiding. You had to have a lot of guts, and you had to have some money or some goods, or some contact with Christian people who would hide you. But you had to have a strong character to say ‘I’m not going along, I’m going into hiding.’ And this guy describes it as sort of a joke, they’re fearful people, they’re mice hiding in mouseholes.
Nevertheless, this book has been adopted by the liberal establishment, because it avoids everything. They don’t care whether you call a person a mouse who’s been hiding from the law for many years in Poland.
How much of survival do you think was cunning and intelligence and how much was luck?
Luck was the main thing, obviously luck. And cunning and intelligence were, let’s say, second. Cunning and intelligence wouldn’t have helped you one iota without luck.
You don’t have that postmodern, end-of-history, ironic, everything’s-been-done attitude?
That’s absolute nonsense. As far as I’m concerned somebody can be a terrific painter and can paint like an Abstract Expressionist today, it’s perfectly valid, but they want to divide it all up into neat little categories. But what it’s really about is not history or even art history, what it’s really about is fashion. You’ve got to come out with a new model and make it successful and then immediately - don’t let it get old, don’t let it develop - go onto a new thing.
All we have now is a proliferation of styles?
There is a proliferation of styles, but it doesn’t mean that there is no reality underneath. I think even the guy who coined the phrase about the End of History [Francis Fukuyama] renounced it. You’re living with slogans, Saatchi Art, this art and that art, and after a while it all means nothing . . . after a short while.
Is what attracts you in art something that is direct and immediate?
I think it’s nothing more or less than basic personal expression, which can be associated with great philosophical and historical movements. But basically it has to be very simple and direct and personal and not thought out and justified by all kinds of theories. In other words, if you’re half-way knowledgeable about art and know something about art history and you see something that grabs you for some reason, then it’s meaningful. If it doesn’t grab you, then it’s nothing, it’s just canvas with some paint on it. And if it grabs you, then usually it is because, well, the artist himself was grabbed by it.
Source: Jewish Quarterly, London, Autumn 2005, Number 199
DAVID H. KATZ is an artist, photographer and writer. He lives and works in New York City and writes for a variety of publications, including The New Statesman, High Times, TANK, The Villager, The Portable Lower East Side, Leg World, Rap Express, and Jewish Quarterly.