From December 1998 until spring 1999, the Buchenwald Memorial showed a retrospective of Boris Lurie's visual art works in its art museum. Although Lurie's first works were created shortly after the end of the war, this was his first comprehensive solo exhibition in Germany. There had previously been two exhibitions devoted to NO!art, which included works by Lurie as a founder of this artistic movement that emerged in New York in the second half of the 1950s: in 1973 at Galerie René Block and in 1995 at the Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst Berlin. In 1988, Edition Hundertmark, Cologne, had published an anthology on "NO!art" designed as an artist's book by ►Dietmar Kirves and edited by Boris Lurie and Seymour Krim.(1)
I still remember well the mixture of horror and fascination that befell me when I leafed through this book, which Thomas Howeg had brought to my attention in Zurich shortly after its publication. Obviously, Lurie's work in particular was based on the concrete experience of the Second World War and the Nazi concentration and extermination camps. Quite obviously, these experiences came through in the works again and again. And quite obviously - and therein lay the disturbing thing - Lurie used all his strength to keep these experiences in their raw state, as it were, and to reproduce them, i.e. without adding meaning and without giving the impression that these experiences could be even approximately appropriately historicized, which at the same time means symbolized. Anyone who wanted to get involved with NO!art was required to come to terms with National Socialism as a history that had been overcome but was still unfinished, and to confront a world in which violence remained violence, cynicism cynicism, pain pain, dirt dirt, suffering suffering, and lies lies. Sublimation did not exist in this world, nor did a notion of love that was still conceivable regardless of the marketing of (women's) bodies and desire. Here, art was not a synonym for the beautiful, the good and the true, but a form of expression for the ugliness, evil and insincerity that existed in reality; it was garbage, it was destruction, it was self-destruction by its own means and at the same time - paradoxically - self-assertion.
Boris Lurie was born in Leningrad in 1924 into a wealthy Jewish merchant family. In 1924/25 the family moved to Riga. After the occupation of the Baltic States by German troops, in 1941 they were captured and deported to various concentration camps, including Riga, Lenta and Stutthof near Gdansk. Only the father and Lurie himself, who had initially been deferred from murder because of his suitability for forced labor, survived. Mother, sister, and other relatives were murdered in the death camps in the East. In 1945, Lurie was liberated in a subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp in Magdeburg. He was prisoner number 95966(2) there. In 1946, he and his father emigrated to the United States. New York has been the topographic and social center of his life ever since. This is where his first paintings were created. With the means of classical oil painting they tried to give expression to the concentration camp experience. Back from Work 1946/47(3) shows a stream of people reduced to their creatureliness, dissolving into distortion, drawn in jet-black surroundings as if by flames through a camp gate that is also a crematorium furnace opening. The world has ceased to exist in this image. Being violently engulfed is the only reality. Entrance(4) is from the same period and is an epitaph. Two skeletally emaciated Muselmänner, as those prisoners were called in the camp language, in whom every spark of life had been extinguished, stand sadly and melancholically, gray in gray, guarding the entrance to a room with a burning crematorium furnace. The faces haggard but spiritualized, the bones pointed under the skin, the ribs countable and scrawny, the hands almost clawed, buckets on their heads, clumsy wooden shoes on their feet, broom-like fronds shouldered, they stand there, two grotesque angels, keeping vigil for the dead. "The sky above Auschwitz was empty," another artist who survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald, the Pole Jozéf Szajna, keeps saying. No God, no historical teleology, nothing saving far and wide, only people among people, persecutors and persecuted, only loneliness, absence, loss, i.e. death that does not get beyond itself, because the mass murder based on racial biology can no longer be tied back into the frames of reference of political, religious or national martyrdom. Towards this naked, sheer death, which would have been his own and which was that of his mother and his sister, Lurie's Entrance is an attempt at farewell and appreciation without self-deception and hasty, i.e., pre-stabilized, consolation in the sense indicated above, without self-deception and hasty consolation, not for himself, not for us, not for anyone.
It is only logical that Lurie radicalizes his means of expression after this also technically high-ranking deployment of oil-painting, panel-painting means from the clay tone painting of the 19th century to the surrealism of the 20th. In 1947 he created the work Liste(5), a readymade of radical evil. In 1962 he reprints in enlargement a photograph showing a prisoner after the liberation in the so-called Small Camp, a special zone of misery and death in the Buchenwald concentration camp, created in 1942/43, and calls the work Happening by Adolf Hitler(6). He had probably previously worked in the same technique on a photograph by Magret Burke-White showing bodies stacked on the back of a trailer in the courtyard of the crematorium at Buchenwald concentration camp, as they had been found there by American soldiers after the liberation on April 11, 1945. Flatcar Assemblage, 1945 by Adolf Hitler(7) is the bitter, only superficially cynical title with which the artist Lurie pays tribute to and at the same time exposes his "colleague" Hitler, the failed and then so terribly successful Viennese art aspirant and völkisch-antisemitic bohemian. Art, art of memory, is now for Lurie synonymous with outcry and confrontation. It no longer arises from the attempt to transfer the recognized artistic means, which are to a certain extent ennobled by tradition and habit, to the horrific object of the camp reality by mustering all one's strength; on the contrary, it arises precisely from its deliberate and targeted reduction as well as the associated recourse to visual fragments from the fund of mass cultural representations of this reality, mostly newspaper photographs. Here, Boris Lurie is like Art Spiegelmann's father (in his Auschwitz comic "Mouse", V. K.): "He vomits out history," writes Georg Bussmann, "and as someone born after the fact, you watch. Of course, this watching is not everything. But it is first of all the most important thing, the thing that brings the work and oneself to the limit again and again. Everything else is then the attempt to talk oneself into a 'critical' distance and frame with words."(8)
It would be missing Lurie's aesthetic intentions and the autonomy of artistic reflection if one were to attribute the upheaval in Lurie's work outlined above solely to the experience of the National Socialist camps, or even understand it as an inevitable consequence of the traumatization associated with it. At the end of the forties and the beginning of the fifties, Lurie could have made a different decision regarding his artistic future. For as early as 1947, he also produced abstract works - some of them very large in format - that are formally reminiscent of Legèr and sometimes also of Matisse. In reference to these, the New York Times wrote on May 15, 1952: "The current show of paintings at the Hotel Barbizon Plaza contains a wide variety of work, all by one artist, Boris Lurie. His style is totally abstract though tempered at moments with visual reminisence, and he will jump from small water-color of the slow stain variety to a huge canvas that must be 15 by 10 feet and is filled with capering geometrical shapes. Color is restricted to a small number of pure tones emphasizing their strong contrasts, and forms are everywhere decisive." The photograph added to the article shows the twenty-eight-year-old Lurie in a jacket in front of the "Composition, 1952," which the caption qualifies as "a high point of interest." At the same time, attention is drawn to the fact that Lurie has already had several solo exhibitions. There would be nothing to say about this photo from 1952 if it did not show Lurie exactly according to the role model that he publicly refused to follow only a short time later, namely that of the modern, avant-garde, post-war intellectual East Coast artist who knows how to combine self-will and social success. From Lurie's perspective, the names Jasper Johns or Jackson Pollock could be read as ciphers for this type.
If we ask Boris Lurie or the autobiographical or art and social reflection texts he has written what caused him not to take the path suggested by the photograph, we get four answers. art- and society-reflecting texts, what caused him not to take the path suggested by the photograph, then one receives four answers: The inherent futility of consumer society, the economization of art in its context, the symbiotic connection between avant-garde artists, gallery owners, and investment-oriented collectors and its repercussions on the public understanding of "good art" and "good artists," and finally, the intersection of Pop Art and the u.s. sense of validity and superiority in both national political and cultural terms. (9)
NO!art is the direct answer to this art- and society-critical diagnosis. It means the attempt to rescue art, as it were, from art in what is at first sight unattractive, ugly, obscene, both on the level of the material, as of the form, as of the content. "Where is the great artistic deed? Not necessarily, hardly, rarely in so-called art. The `art' hides outside."(10)
For Lurie, this NO!art understanding of art, which is unmistakably in the Romantic tradition, has tangible practical consequences. First, he refuses - to this day - to expose his works to the market, i.e. to live from their sale, and henceforth lives from stock market speculation. Art is art, money is money, shares are shares. The amalgamation of art and business is a betrayal of art. His questions are: "Should art production be exhibited at all? ... The second point is whether one should sell works at all? ... The third point is whether one should continue making art at all, given what is happening in the art world and the world."(11) His conclusion in a three-liner dated April 3, 1999: "New law of economics: everything that is sold is lost." (12)
Secondly, from the mid-fifties on, he increasingly understands artistic work as a group-creative process, as - in a double sense of the word - the emergence of a network of like-minded artist friends who produce NO!art with very different means and thereby create in nuce a counter-world to bad facticity. The intensive collaboration with Stanley Fischer and Sam Goodman, with whom he founded the "March Group" in 1959, stand for this, as does the selection he made of works by friends, which, although they were not exhibited in the memorial, belonged for him indispensably in this volume. Thirdly, his hope is that art in the non-affirmative, non-commodity sense may be preserved by the marginalized, those who refuse the mainstream, the self-conscious outsiders and excluded of society. Lurie speaks of the lumpenproletariat.
It would be to shorten the meaning of this term in Lurie's work if one were to see in it nothing more than a naïve descendant of the post-Marxist search for the revolutionary social subject, as it was also expressed in the phenomenon of the fringe group movement in the Federal Republic after 1968. When Lurie speaks of the lumpenproletariat or the lumpenproletarian as the subject of art, then, for all its iridescence, this has at least two meanings. On the one hand, he means social and artistic milieus that are not satisfied with the role of fools tolerated or even desired by the cultural establishment, nor do they confuse this role with real avant-garde. "Hordes of aspirants are coming to the Soho and Lower East Side mecca (...) Galleries are blossoming and fading en masse. The newborn artist likes to be regarded almost as a pop-music star. But the lads and lasses are badly tormented. The cost of living is very high: it takes almost $800 a month to rent a studio or an apartment on the Lower East Side, and then some for food and clothes and, yes, entertainment. A hamburger with Coca-Cola costs $5 in the new cafes, and suburban kids are used to eating well. They don't just come in the usual jeans and fancy poverty wear, they come complete with their cafes, boutiques and galleries. The effete Beatles generation is not used to the lumpenproletarian."(13)
On the other hand - and in this view, which also shines through in some of the poems presented here, an essential element of his life story culminates - the lumpenproletariat stands for those who have been betrayed twice, those who have been completely or almost pulverized between Hitler and Stalin in the violent history of the twentieth century, those who can no longer find a home in an ideology, regardless of whether it is of Eastern or Western political provenance. What remains for them is stubbornness, for which, however, a high price must be paid, not least in the form of existential loneliness. "Painting comes out of a box / of confections / into which a Star of David with a hammer-sickle has been melted / under starry swastikas."(14)
The fourth element of NO!art as a counter-design is what the Jewish members of the NO!art network have called "Jew-Art". "Jew Art", not jewish art - this term refers to an unbroken aesthetic tradition - is founded in the experience of Auschwitz. I.e., speaking with Jaspers, it is founded in the experience that the absolute denunciation of the basic solidarity of man with man as man from Germany on the German and European Jews has become a historical possibility, a historical possibility beyond the concrete history of National Socialism. This experience, which can be understood as the experience of the factual unsecuring and groundlessness of human relationships, also closes itself off to any interpretation where art attempts to give expression to it. At best, it could have been shared in situ and at the price of one's own life. "Jew Art" accordingly does not want to be interpreted at all, but to be endured. Its goal is not, as I said at the beginning, to create meaning, but confrontation and exposure. It does not aim at pity, but at fright. At best, the poles between which "Jew Art" oscillates can be stated in the words of Boris Lurie: "Where are we to fill / the fears / when mother bones are so splintered?" - "Just tell me quietly, / quietly haying / bird, / lifting, / I am comrade to you."(15)
What makes much of "Jew Art" so hard to bear is the intersection of images of Nazi atrocities with the obscene, the pornographic. Pin-ups on piles of corpses appear as a subsequent sin against the dignity of the victims. But if one reconsiders the first affect of defense, it becomes clear that with these works Lurie hits the center of mass cultural and mass media memory. Flip through a postwar illustrated magazine or a contemporary one, and the representations of suffering and cruelty are well-matched with those of sex, and both together promote sales. Voyeurism and the memory of the unaffected are probably difficult to separate, but their connection can be made conscious through the thematization of their simultaneity.
It is probably an abbreviation of Lurie to understand works such as Railroad Collage(16) 1963 or Saturation Painting (Buchenwald)(17) 1959-64 in this sense exclusively as a critique of reception. Probably one will have to accept the cultural-critical thought - and Lurie would not be the first to formulate it - that desire can be realized through Eros as well as by means of violence. Probably, one will have to accept the thought that Lurie also gives expression to love longing in his very own, rugged way. The melodious rhythm of his collages, especially his very large-format ones, seems to me to stand for this, through all the horror and obscenity on their surface. Outrage, in any case, does as little justice to these works as their celebration as an anti-authoritarian liberation strike or blasting open the superficial political correctness of commemorative culture. If one follows Lurie, then the Jewish star remains a badge of honor and a stone on the neck(18) and "Jew Art" a burden that wants to be carried.(19)
The dialogue with Boris Lurie in preparation for the Buchenwald exhibition began in 1997, supported by his friends Eckhart Holzboog and Dietmar Kirves. The medium of the conversation was the fax machine, which guaranteed closeness and distance as well as immediacy and a probing approach. One day, instead of an ordinary letter, a poem came through the wire, in which I saw Lurie's actual commitment to engage in an exhibition in Buchenwald, and which at the same time conveyed that, in addition to making pictures, he had always also - and especially the more concrete the exhibition project became - written. Finally, Lurie then proposed to publish this "written" and "poem" instead of an ordinary catalog, set in Gothic letters and combined with images of the works shown in Buchenwald and works of his friends. Dietmar Kirves was to - and did - design the book. Eckhart Holzboog was to - and did - publish it. All the poems are first publications, which bring a rough, quite stubborn, one might say literally unpolished tone into the increasingly routine and smooth speaking of memory, as if spoken with a tongue of sandpaper. "What is in my blood," Lurie notes, "is the Baltic German language (which almost no one speaks today), it belongs to me, although I wanted to forget it after the war and almost succeeded in doing so. It is in my German (Russian-Jewish) bloodstream. That's why I get such a 'kick' now to write in my Himmeldeutsch! Just wait until I make speeches in German in the stripped Reichstag, then next to my good Uncle Hitler."(20)
* Quote from Boris Lurie
1 Boris Lurie & Seymour Krim: NO!art, Pin-Ups, Excrement, Protest, Jew-Art, Cologne 1988.
2 Boris Lurie: Geschriebigtes - Gedichtigtes, Stuttgart, p. 420.
3 Ibidem, p. 6.
4 Ibidem, p. 2
5 Ibidem, p. 22
6 Ibidem, p. 10
7 Ibidem, p. 12
8 Georg Bussmann: Jew-Art, in: Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst, Berlin (ed.): NO!art, catalog for the exhibition of the same name at the Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst and the Haus am Kleistpark, Berlin, October 21-November 26, 1995, p. 63 (p. 61 - p. 65).
9 Boris Lurie: Notes on Art and Life, in Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst, Berlin (ed.), NO!art, catalog for the exhibition of the same name at Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst and Haus am Kleistpark, Berlin, October 21 to November 26, 1995, pp. 119 - 128.
10 Ibidem, p. 123
11 Ibidem, p. 128
12 Ibidem, p. 317
13 NGBK catalog, Berlin 1995, p. 119
14 In this book, p. 210
15 In this book, p. 221
16 Ibidem, p. 158
17 Ibidem, p. 167
18 Ibidem, p. 8
19 Ibidem, p. XXIV
20 NO!, Berlin 1995, p. 120
Published in: ►Boris Lurie, Geschriebigtes/Gedichtigtes, Stuttgart 2003.
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Volkhard Knigge (* 1954 in Bielefeld) is a German historian and didactician of history. Since 1994 he has headed the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation for the former Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora concentration camps and for Special Camp No. 2 Buchenwald near Weimar. ►more