Boris was complex and conflicted. He had secrets, including one bombshell that didn't drop until after he died. He dressed Lower East Side, working class, cheap, like his clothes came from K-Mart, but he carried himself like an aristocrat. There was an elegance to the way he stood, a regal stature, the way he held his cigarette. He'd been born into privilege and wealth, after all, and it showed. You pictured him in a tux looking around the ballroom. Dash Snow had a similar affect. He could walk into the Whitney wearing torn jeans and a ripped-up jacket, but his body language said he deserved to be there, and he always got in. Boris had that. Not arrogance, but a self-assured presence.
When Boris and his father arrived in New York, his father invested in real estate. Boris was handsome, young, the rich man's son. They called him Boris the Lion. He had a German shepherd, drove a sports car, went around with an aristocratic French woman, very elegant, who was in the upper echelons in fashion or advertising.
When Boris' father died in 1964 he left Boris a building on East 77th Street on the Upper East Side. That's something Boris did not reveal to John as they huddled in his East 6th Street studio. He also didn't tell him that he actually lived in an apartment on East 66th Street just off Madison Avenue. It was the Upper East Side, the wealthiest neighborhood in Manhattan, about as far from the Lower East Side as you could get. But his apartment was as cluttered and unkempt as the studio. All kinds of paperwork plastered on the wall and stacked up around an old typewriter. More tin cans for ashtrays. Stove blackened from years of use without ever being cleaned. Rust stain in the porcelain sink from a drip that had dripped for years. Mice running in and out from under the bed, which was hardly ever changed. An old couch and a little tv in the living room. Everything impoverished and degraded. It was like he was recreating a barracks in a concentration camp.
I don't think he was playing the starving artist, but he did feign being poor. He pinched pennies until they hollered. He lived like a man of no means. Dinner for him was a can of sardines. He permitted no luxury in his life. I think he was living in the concentration camp in his head. It was a prison survival lifestyle.
But he really was conflicted. As much as he acted like he rejected the mainstream art world, he got very excited in 1993 when a curator of the Whitney Museum's upcoming "Abject Art" group show contacted him about including a few of his pieces. Boris got the pieces organized, and then somehow, the way I understood it, the Whitney never came to collect them. I put together a NO!art show in my gallery. It ran at the same time as the Whitney one.
And there's this: You know who else lived on East 66th Street? Andy Warhol. He lived a few doors down from Boris. To me that suggests that as much as Boris railed against Pop Art, at least a part of him wanted that success, wanted to be in that crowd. I think he was always hedging his bets, the way his father had.
He didn't preserve his own art. When the curator Estera Milman was planning the Boris exhibition that would be mounted in Iowa in 1999, they found his artwork crammed into the basement of the 66th Street building. A lot of it was stuck together because water had been dripping on it, because Boris rarely fixed the pipes or anything else. His friend Dietmar Kirves came over with his son. Dietmar is an artist who'd worked with Joseph Beuys before meeting Boris in 1978. Boris and Dietmar were very deeply kindred spirits. Dietmar is a very German, very hard-edged anarchist of the old school, no compromise. He hooked No!Art up with the German publisher Edition Hundertmark. Dietmar understands the No!Art philosophy implicitly and was instrumental in inspiring Boris to continue it. He and his son spent a lot of time separating the works and repairing them. In 1999 Dietmar started the No!Art website, an extraordinarily deep and meticulous archive of everything and everyone associated with the movement. (https://no-art.info/index.html) Boris declared Dietmar the director of No!Art's eastern headquarters, Clayton its western HQ.
In the mid-1990s, when I was traveling in Germany and Austria with the Wildstyle & Tattoo festival I helped organize, I went to Stuttgart to buy a stack of No!Art books from Edition Hundertmark. Boris asked me to take a copy to the director of the Pompidou Center. I took a night train from Berlin to Paris, met this gentleman, handed him the book, explained briefly about Boris and No!Art. He was very gracious, considering that he must have been thinking what the hell. I took a train straight back to Berlin.
I also went to Buchenwald for Boris, to reconnoiter it for an exhibition of Boris' art. The director of Buchenwald Memorial, Dr. Volkhard Knigge, walked me around the camp and I sized up the exhibition space.
I should point out that I did all this on my own dime. Boris never offered to reimburse me for any of it.
In late 1998 I flew with Boris to Germany for the opening of his show at the Buchenwald Memorial, "Boris Lurie: Works 1946-1998." The Memorial must have paid for our airfare. I know Boris didn't. We stayed in the captain's quarters. Buchenwald was cleaned up but it wasn't dressed up yet. East Germany was still deep in debt and going through lots of other problems. If you visit the concentration camp memorials now, I'm not saying it's like going to Macy's, but they're much more fixed up than they were then.
Boris strutted around Buchenwald like the returning victor. He was in high spirits, swaggering, Boris the strongman, Boris the invincible. "I'm back you fuckers!" He was delighted to see they had his old prisoner serial number, 95966, on the wall. "Look, Clayton, that's me!" The show was his triumphant return, his triumph over the Nazis, over death, and he made them pay and pay. It was the most difficult and expensive show they'd ever mounted there.
Then came the day, one of the most unforgettable of my life, when I watched all that swagger, all that bravado get crushed out of him. It wasn't at Buchenwald, but at Dora, a camp nearby, where prisoners were used as slave labor to build Wernher von Braun's V-2 rockets in the mine shafts. It was a cold, damp, morbid day, fog shrouding the trees, a single railroad car like the ones they used to transport prisoners. We were met by a young former East German guy, a cliched intellectual, skinny, long white fingers, in a trenchcoat. He led us around, describing the inhuman things that went on there in heavy, depressing, Edgar Allen Poe detail. He took us into the mountain. It was even damper and colder in there, oppressively gloomy, with incandescent lights strung up overheard on their wires, like a construction site.
The young man went on about how many thousands of prisoners died inside this mountain working on the rockets. And as he talked, I watched the weight of it all crush Boris. It penetrated his psyche. He'd always had this steely discipline, this defense in his mind that let him talk about the Holocaust and make his ugly art without betraying emotion, much less weakness. I watched it crumble that day in the mine, and he was never the same after that. It was like he was shell-shocked. After this he started breaking down physically -- his legs started to go, he had his first stroke. Something had fractured in his head and broken his spirit. He had lost his imperviousness. We've all known older people who were powering along, doing fine, and then something happens -- a trip on the stairs, say. It shakes their confidence, and suddenly they're an old person. They lose their spirit, their drive. I think that's what happened to Boris. Everything about the inside of that mountain was the perfect environment to make that happen.
His health deteriorated a lot in his last few years. He died in 2008. That's when his biggest secret of all came to light. When he died, Boris the cheap, penniless artist left an estate worth 80 million dollars! He'd made it playing penny stocks on Wall Street. Eighty million dollars! Eating sardines out of the can. Living in squalor.
Maybe he never escaped the concentration camp after all.