“... The world of 1973 is no better than the world of 1923. It's even worse because of the confusion and the deceit … In any society the artist has a responsibility … to keep … nonconformity alive … I agree with Engels: ‘An artist describes real social relationships with the purpose of destroying the conventional ideas about these relationships, undermining bourgeois optimism and forcing the public to doubt the tenets of the social order.” (Bunuel)
“… Dada was an aristocratic rebellion … that on the street is a mob rebellion.”
(Salvador Dali at Museum of Modern Art opening reception, referring to artists’ protest demonstration)
“I would really be convinced if the NOlartists would go as far as burning themselves
with their work in face of the public.”
(Iris Clert, Paris avant-garde dealer and promoter)
“... Art is much too complicated a subject to be discussed …”
(New York art dealer Sidney Janis to young artist seeking his advice)
The uncomfortable truth of the art world-market in deep crisis is beginning to show its effect: a long drawn-out process having had its beginning in Dada and periodically interrupted by countertendencies - not all of them reactionary in spirit - is nearing its completion. Artificial cultivation of decorative and aesthetic values, reckless investment speculation, aided by large numbers of collaborating artists has brought about a situation reminiscent of the last stage of a bull market on the stock exchange. Aesthetically and philosophically the bottom has already dropped out: the mini-movements cultivating aesthetic facets bypassed by the pioneers of modern art, are being groomed, cultivated, enlarged all out of proportion to their art-historical value; even amputated splinters of old rebellious Dada are being enlarged into acceptable - and saleable aesthetic parlor games. The butchers and grocers and people deathly frightened of inflation pursue their favorite penny stocks now at over inflated values. The theoretical section of the art market consists of museum curators eager to please trustees and the uneducated public, to break meaningless attendance records; artists-university professors promoting their own wares and values to unmolded young minds, thus creating false historical continuity through misinformation; publication and critics, in one mode or another in the pay of the art establishment. The practical work is performed by artists-producers operating enterprises out of five-thousand-square-foot mammoth lofts in the manufacturing areas of New York City, properly insulated in their habitat from any contact with the lives of actual people. At the very top of the pyramid are aristocratic upper-class investment-cultural conditioning interests, their task financed by unaware taxpayers' money to a very large extent (whose opinions on the subject are never solicited), and below that august level, their Kapos, the nouveau-riche liberal investors-speculators and their associated shopkeepers- gallery owners. Art Councils provide additional infusions of public funds … and the FBI takes particular unusual care in guarding art investments from theft and forgery.
A generation of artists is in flight from marketable objects in an exaggerated reaction to their unhappy findings: into the conceptual, sociological investigation, events and street theatre, into a juncture of politics and art, into inexpensive posters as art into caricature, the underground press, into political actions as an art form. Let us hope they will be freer of art-world hang-ups than their older brothers of the McCarthy and the Kennedy periods - and its establishment-fostered pop-art; let's hope they will know better how to handle the American Success-Monster, the Egomania-Monster, the Dog-Eat-Dog Competitive Monster, the In-Group-Homosexual-Camp-Monster.
The first contingent of rebellion starts of desperation, triggered by realization that avoidance of facing facts, isolation and inwardness, escape from reality has to be broken. There is nothing the artist can lose but his chains, the very same chains tying the artist today and yesterday stretch all the way to Renaissance relationships and earlier periods and back into our own era — fraudulently sold as the period of greatest flowering of the arts .. .produced by chained and trained servant artists.
My show Adieu Amerique in 1959, encompassing work done in the preceding couple of years was a statement of rejection: I was about to leave New York for good and I painted this farewell as it all came pouring out. Paradoxically this rejection and negation turned into a hopeful organized activity by a group of artists, Sam Goodman, Stanley Fisher, John Fischer and I, who organized the March group gallery on Tenth Street, a group later to be nick-named NO!artists. The directness, courage of the Beat poets, Castro's insurrection, our own desperation combined to give us courage In the face of the then to us seemingly insurmountably powerful omnipotent art world, to cut the cords attaching us to it in open and public rebellion; we published statements concurrent with our shows intended to make it impossible for us to return to its fold should temptation arise, our strength of rebellion falter. We opposed the mute inefficient chest-beating of the Abstract-Expressionists, the mystifications of their aesthetic, their refusal to be open and concrete, to name names, the covering of their strong emotions in effect with aesthetic sophistries - a fear to confront truth in its totality.
My exhibition Les Lions followed next at the March group, our coop underground basement strong hold. The time: Algerian colonial-civil war; the collage-paintings reflect personal situations insistently attempting psychological resolution through art-action. Political, social questions questioned and worked through, answers arrived at through the work-process itself. Les Lions, - the lions, a photo-page of lions peacefully basking in the sun taken from a French magazine also carrying the drama of the Algerian war. These lions - ready fearlessly ruthlessly to take up the fight - yet perfectly peaceful strong animals otherwise. The lions of Judea - precursors of the uncounted many genuine rebels to appear later. The lions of New York.
The Vulgar Show following Les Lions was a group manifestation, title and objective chosen collectively; works were produced specifically towards the show or existing works included, providing they were in tune with the theme. A spontaneously growing show, as many later exhibitions were to be, where everyone set up works as they became ready, up to the very ending of the showing, so that the exhibition or environment in its beginning stages was utterly different from what it became towards its end. But there actually never was an end, since the existing show naturally flowed into the next exhibit, called forth by new development of thought as we worked along within full public view. Sam Goodman, Stanley Fisher, John Fischer, and I participated. We meant to show, draw attention to, underline the vulgarity within us quite as much as the vulgarity around us, to accept such vulgarity, to absorb it, to become conscious of it, to exorcise it. But unfortunately the next Involvement Show was premature! The idea of involvement, the breaking of isolation, that by itself was all right. Yet our idea of involvement went farther into a premature attempt to embrace all society including our enemies, to embrace all culture currents liberally, to dispense with an opposition attitude, to give up anger. It stemmed from an immature imaginary hopeful belief that since we in our euphoric state seemed to have changed ourselves through the throes of rebellion-art action, seemed to have purified ourselves by moving through these fires - that the world outside must have then, in our wishful fantasy done the same; that we were now ready to embrace, to give love and to receive love. How wrong our assessment of reality had been! For outside nothing had changed at all and our acts if noticed at all were rewarded with deathly silence. As to the outside world - not the minuscule art world - it was not affected in the slightest with our cultural doings. Several years later the Love Children developed similar attitudes along mass lines: and their instinctual striving lead in concrete terms to failure. The time for projecting sentiments of wishful fantasy, of meeting society on such Christian terms unfortunately never did arrive. Yet at the time it seemed to us that the world of the fifties had been done with, buried, silence and cover-ups of that period irrevocably terminated, the Eichman trial powerfully reviving suppressed material preferred to be forgotten by most, had also ruptured the death of silence and fear and conformity of the Cold War and post-war period of suppression. Equally maligned by then avant-garde Abstract-Expressionists as by conservative artists, having been put down by all the aesthetes for making bad art, - a customary tactic to disarm all artists taking a new road, we had to shift absolutely on our own. The pop-art reaction-counterrevolution had not been brought about as yet, their future members busy at the time absorbing ideas - to a large extent from our shows - the art press being in effect closed to us (even the then almost underground Village Voice refused to cover our activities, the editor explaining to me that our stand was too radical), we were obliged to promote our actions ourselves, to become our own information medium.
The Doom Show was a direct attack on atomic war danger at the time of Khrushchev-Kennedy confrontation over Cuba in 1961, when basement air raid shelters were to protect the population from atomic attack, hysteria swept the country, a drastic full circle turn towards total art of political issues canceling with single stroke all subjective introspective values heretofore still practiced. The Doom Show film by Ray Wisniewski introduced into this political commitment a happening atmosphere, unrehearsed spontaneous actions to rock music strains to the growing and changing Doom Show environment. This radical turn into total objective political social issues was an attempt to base a true mass art on popular movements entirely - Sam Goodman's thinking and action thereon was of particular importance. Art was not to serve artists and itself alone any longer selfishly, or serve a small group of the culturally initiated - it should turn all people on, through truly popular art. We believed art can perform such function if wed to a strong popular political base and that such democratic aesthetic was the highest elevation of art ever.
Aesthetes and sophisticates did not agree with the rough language we used, it jarred their ears accustomed to Cezanne, Monet and the suppressed litanies of the Abstract-Expressionist avant-garde. Intellectuals and literati, such as the progressive female liberationist Jill Johnson reviewing the Doom show for the Art News claimed social art, our stand, was quite useless: it only reached people a priori convinced of our views. It was suggested yelling was not chic, silence a truer protestation, inactivity more effective than activity! Such attitude later evolved into cool market oriented pop-art and decorative hard-edge abstraction - a fitting background for Park Avenue cocktail parties. The cognoscenti considered us cynics about art, feasting on ail ugliness like a bunch of savage scavengers. But who could be more cynical than these types, attacking the creative mercilessly and then escaping into their secure cultural mouse holes of studios, the press, foundations, universities and art associations? In fact the much maligned square types were amongst the people who understood and supported us best, plain, middle-class people, religious people, suburbanites, jobholders, students not into art and therefore not caught up in all the fashionable mannerisms and mis-education, a Long island rabbi with undaunted clear emotional feelings: but to the Callas's and Castelli's we were trash.
Arturo Schwartz, the all too self-divided writer, avant-garde promoter, radical, and businessman who I had met in Milan, Italy, was absolutely wild about photos of NOI art works I showed him. He soon came to New York, became even more enthusiastic when he visited the Doom show at the March. He felt our work conformed to his own prognostications on development of art. A large show was sent for exhibition to his Milan gallery. Unfortunately his prophetic favor cooled very soon, when he discovered the work did not sell despite mountains of reviews, mostly negative, and despite the general excitement the show had aroused in Italian art circles; he never showed our work again. The editor of Art News, Thomas B. Hess, in a moment of self-confidence in his own judgment, which he apparently was later to regret, wrote a most enthusiastic introduction to the Italian shows. Several years later in an article published in Art News Annual he proclaimed in a grotesque twist of art-historical fact that pinup-girl collages and social involvement of NO!artists originated from de Kooning's cubist-expressionist Women series paintings!
The show in Milan and particularly right afterwards in Rome was a fantastic success in the real popular sense with thousands attending - about 10,000 - the most widely attended show by young artists in Rome ever. 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. The press was into violent pro and con arguments responding often to Thomas B. Hess' introduction. The Sophisticates (the aesthetic culturati, homosexuals, and Dolce Vita contingents) paradoxically supported the show, whereas the "Communists" (i.e. progressives, communist and left-wing intellectuals) generally attacked it violently... perhaps our work constituted a threat to the socialist realism they were then supporting, or the socio-psychological outpouring was too much for their pragmatic dialectic. The sophisticates thought ours was the very latest New York establishment promoted fare - it was partially for that reason they had initially welcomed the show quite so warmly. Enthusiasm cooled when word filtered through that we were not at all amongst New York's chosen ... in Paris Pierre Restany, the New Realists critic and promoter accorded a similarly gradually cooling reception.
Arturo Schwartz reported to us we had no friends in the New York art establishment, that our name was shit. Nevertheless one inexperienced art dealer, a beginner indifferent about establishment opinion, appeared on the horizon: Sam Goodman wrote me to Paris that Gertrude Stein had visited the March basement several times, that she was wild about the work, was contemplating opening a gallery uptown. We later used the premises of the Gertrude Stein Gallery for shows that were totally under the artists' direction and control. Gertrude Stein underwrote the very modest but nevertheless real expenses. But at times as during the Shit show she had serious doubts about the wisdom of her decision and avoided her own gallery for weeks.
After the move uptown our audience had changed as well. On Tenth Street they were mainly artists, young people. Uptown we wondered who our audience really was: around us was a middle-aged crowd of what appeared pleasure seeking neurotic well-off types, a crowd hard to define, amorphous, jelly-like. At the time young uptown Mods were going wild with pop-art and camp - while the more seriously inclined intellectuals students, and bohemians were quitting the art scene altogether, disappearing into more interesting pursuits: getting into civil rights activism, reappraisal of society in a practical social way, not through art, and into rock music as social expression. The swank uptown galleries certainly were no place for them to congregate. Karl Marx and Steppenwolf were in, the art racket was disdainfully looked down upon: left to the well-groomed clean-shaven tie-and-white-shirt youthful pop-art geniuses then being promoted as standard bearers of the Youth Revolution.
I do not like the idea of treating women-artists or women as a group apart, yet women artists approve of it, perhaps for career reasons. But the works of Michelle Stuart, Esther Gilman, Yaoi Kusama, and Gloria Graves, showing in several NO!art manifestations were truly motivated by the specific situation of women in society. And Gertrude Stein, our dealer who did not sell did have the courage no male dealer possessed.
Still, the people dominating the group were males, not because of their maleness, or male superiority or so-called male chauvinism, but simply because they were the most active, fearless. Women NO!artists were overpoweringly concerned with fear: the female, cold, detached, frozen, as in Michelle Stuart's plaster faces of women in isolated black boxes covered with dark hardly transparent glass, as in Esther Gilman's fearful feminine conflicts with religion, as with Yaoi Kusama's obsession-fears of growing multiplying threatening fields full of penises, and to a lesser extent in Gloria Graves' assemblages and delicate constructions. Determined women artists were warmly welcomed - we felt our circle incomplete without them - but women artists as determined as any male. The feminine situation was one of many subjects, not the sole subject, women's condition one of many conditions. There was no class-warfare between the sexes, only the existing reflection of perversion of competitive society - no adoration of sexless unisex. Male NO!artists embraced woman artists in rebellion.
My No-Posters show followed, an idea conceived in 1962: waste-sheets, used to clean printing presses full of contradictory advertising messages due to layers of overprinting, the accidental artwork of the machine so fully representing consumerism. These poster-size prints were uniformly overprinted in silver with the slogan NO, a large pinup girl kneeling, a group of sadomasochistic bound and gagged humiliation photos. Selection of this material from the library of my symbols was done by Sam Goodman since the result (but not the concept) was to be left of any conscious artistic interference by the author. The purpose was creation of a protest poster, entirely accidentally composed by the poor misused printing presses themselves, NO-advertising posters, NO-secretary posters, NO-travel posters, NO-industrial posters, NO-motel posters, NO-toy posters. Their edition potentially unlimited, yet almost each slightly different - a unique piece - their sales price minimal. True popular protest prints, machine-made, versus pop-art hand-crafted expensive silk-screens for collectors in limited editions masquerading as popular art. To make sure of clarity and understanding of intent, stenciled and exhibited under each poster were the words Anti-Pop. Over painted large subway posters by Herb Brown came next, bringing the subway arcades into an art environment, a precursor of the graffiti craze now rampant in the subways - but with meaning, expressing disgust, the individual's defense against the avalanche assault of unwanted publicity. About that time Isser Aronovici who had not shown with us since the early Involvement Show broke through into his gruesome hippie-theatre on canvas, in supercharged beautiful awkward semi primitive conventional oil paintings; long-haired weird beings, women, children, men, nude - but in cops and hats, engrossed in mad ritual of drugged hopelessness and retreat, a man jumping out a window, head down, children attached by umbilical cords to their parents, parents thus attached to each other ….
Yaoi Kusama's One Thousand Boat Show - but one white penis-covered boat with ours on the gallery floor photos of that same boat covering walls entirely from floor to ceiling, was the next show, her experience of unwanted fertility-energy floating aimlessly on a nonexisting ocean... the woman threatened by all this out-of-kilter sexual power must have escaped the assault, drowned in the gallery floor. The all too male-aggressive female Samurai vanished later into desperate exhibitionistic pursuits...
American Way of Death by Sam Goodman and Dorothy Gillespie followed: realistic environment of a funeral parlor with coffins, burial-lot plans, burial accessories, all faithfully realistically reproduced, scrupulously marked out with payment plans, prices and attractive sales descriptions - precursor of the present sociological art. Coffins with the deceased on display as well: Sam Goodrnan horribly prophetic here, this was next to his last show - a few years later only he died himself in anger to the lost. At his Memorial show at Gertrude Stein's in 1967 we exhibited the very same coffin again next to one of our Shit-sculptures. Hardly anyone of art world people showed up at his Memorial service at the Judson Church organized amongst others by David Amram who composed music for this occasion; for after all, Goodman never did become rich and famous and his thirty years in the New York art world did not make him popular with its career-minded talent less members yet he had been a decisive influence, this pushy little Jew as many saw him, to shove art decisively out of its well-oiled tracks, so it will never be quite the same again. At the height of his heat and inspiration he strangely began looking like garbage himself, magnetically attracted to refuse cans on the streets, searching for the components of his art and forgetting the presence of anyone strolling alongside of him.
A fatal chain of tragic events unfolded for us beginning 1964. I have an idea hard to justify or defend that my Death sculpture, an encapsulation in plastic brick of several chicken-heads might have started it all … and Goodman with his American Way of Death contributed to it further, for 1964 was the death of the NO!art movement as a collective force, though many of its artists continued working and showing individually. My father died, a death that descending upon me, squashed me like a tank and in 1967 Sam Goodman died after having slowly succumbed to his cancer. We get premonitions about tinkering with dynamite and still we are drawn to, must continue tinkering.
The No-Sculpture Show (Shit-show) was an exhibition of sculptures whose subject was excrement made of hard cast plaster and painted; it varied in size from small to mammoth displayed directly on the gallery floors.
Produced in around-the-clock hectic work in the old March gallery basement on Tenth Street by Sam Goodman and me, it was then displayed at the Gertrude Stein Gallery. The sculptures multiplied filling the small basement on Tenth Street, where we had started our collective action; while Sam Goodman was pouring, extruding plaster out of plastic guts, I kept on bringing in more bags of plaster on the luggage rack of my tiny Austin-Sprite, arranging the chicken wire arid burlap structures, painting the finished excrement. We worked in this tempo for several weeks practically day and night driving each other mercilessly to produce more and more and better. I personally felt myself in command of an important decisive raid quite as a military leader. We knew that now all but all the bridges had been burned definitively, if this offensive failed we would fall with it. The ultimate revolution of the subject matter is to be found at the Gertrude Stein Gallery.. .these aggregations of colonic calligraphy contain many formal excellencies for anyone whose purist education forces them to perceive them. But the subject matter puts the joke on those who find formal values in it. Those who do not are forced to deny the legitimacy of values that by now have been inculcated into several college generations. (Brian O’Doherty, New York Times, Dec. 1963) Paradoxically though - to our great amazement and frightening surprise - the pop collectors speculators began to show up professing to like the show, claiming to want to buy and promote it. I believe their feeling was quite sincere in the context of their thought, though they totally misunderstood content and intent. This was a frightening experience, to us, we suspected we possibly had gone wrong, that our intentions had misfired, ricocheted in a way not anticipated, feared our newly found appreciators - and enemies in some twisted yet true way had understood the true content of the work better than we thought we did ourselves: but our doubts were dissipated when they told us their promotion would include a package deal, that we were to follow their aesthetic direction and our gallery had to become a satellite of the pop galleries grouping; an attempt was made to drive a wedge into our united stand by holding out remuneration and gain to some, but not to others. After lengthy violent argument and discussion with the pop people of which Mr. Kraushaar was one, quite unexpectedly - for he had kept silent all along during the fiery exchanges - after Kraushaar 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.
NO!art originally generated by a force of total rejection has sprouted elsewhere into a movement of purification and affirmation. The NO!artists had lived underground all right - their exhibits even took place in basements only - and their art too was kept below ground, bound and gagged, suppressed almost forgotten. Most of its members had been finally silenced having beaten their heads bloody against hard stone walls, had ceased working publicly or had died, or continue struggling in the arts, or have switched to other pursuits. Yet someplace else in same and other media, the planted seed had continued growing and multiplying by the hundreds in the four corners of the world. I have been to a bar recently in a ghetto area around the corner from my Sixth Street studio: collages, cut-outs, photos of current events, messages, slogans on the wall, day-glow paint and black lights: gaudy, gloomy, disturbing, in bad taste: it felt very much like the March basement back in the early sixties.
Source: Lurie, Boris; Krim, Seymour: NO!art, Cologne 1988