Question: How did you meet the NO! artists?
Gertrude Stein: I met Boris through ►Elmer Kline. He was really a crazy writer. He had written an incredible script. It was about a Thanksgiving dinner. A family with a baby had invited these crazy guests .... Anyway, when the housewife went to take the turkey out of the oven at the end, she found the baby in there instead. So, this guy came by my house one day with Boris, and he showed me his work.
... and through him you got to know the other artists at March Gallery, Stanley Fisher, John Fischer, Sam Goodman and so ...
Yes, I lived just around the corner on 9th Street at the time, met them all regularly, and then opened my own gallery at the end of 1963. The first exhibition was Boris'. Then followed the NO!shows, the Shit Show, the Kusama, the Ferro exhibitions and all the others. That was in the basement of East 24 on 81st Street. We had painted the walls black and also used the backyard as an exhibition space for sculptures. The gallery quickly became something special ... and the pop artists came hustling, too. They wanted to get you to engage with them or their work. They were there a lot. They sensed that something was going on, but they remained distant. They hated the NO! artists, yes, ... they really hated them. They came, but they were afraid of them. So they reacted in a hostile way. NO!art was the enemy.
... because of the competition?
No, because they were advocating the opposite of what they were. They kept saying: That's too European. Because Pop Art was the first American art movement of its own. The Abstract Expressionists all came from Russia, Poland, and wherever, except Franz Kline. So again, Pop Art was the first distinct American thing. They had their own special hacks like Rosenberg, their own infrastructure. So NO!art was a constant thorn in their side. And in the end, they had people buying entire exhibitions off them to resell at a higher price. Speculation had arisen ... Yes, the art market history is an extremely interesting thing. That's almost what interests me the most.
Were there actually women involved in the March Gallery shows, like Yayoi Kusama, Gloria Graves, Dorothy Gillespie?
No. The March Gallery was a thing of its own anyway. Nobody wanted to go there.
But Lil Picard had exhibited there, right?
Lil went everywhere, if she was only invited. She wanted to be part of the art scene, but had no political or intellectual interests. She had a different background. Sam Goodman came from a poor Jewish family, Boris had just escaped the Holocaust. Stanley Fisher had grown up in squalid conditions in Brooklyn. They all came from the bottom.
They were almost all Jews. How do you explain that?
How many Christian artists were there in New York at that time? This is a Jewish city. That's why there were inevitably so many Jews at NO!art. But it wasn't inevitable. Gloria Graves, for example, was not Jewish; Michelle Stuart is not either. There was a high percentage of Jews among the artists. They were the second generation of Jewish artists ever. It had not been possible before because of the strict prohibition of the image. My mother came from a family that had still adhered to it. She owned a lot of toy dolls as a child, but their noses were all cut off. Later she collected dolls probably because she had only such mutilated ones in childhood. This is a part of Jewish tradition. It was the same with photographs. But Jews have a long history of collecting art because they always had high mobility. So they started collecting jewels and pictures. Because they were easy to take with them and at the same time they had a high value. And when Jews started making art themselves, they were supported by these same collectors.
How would you describe the NO! artists?
They were dissatisfied, they were against the establishment, they were politically on the left, and they had more than just aesthetic interests. After all, that was the stomping ground of the rich. Rich people have always collected art. Matisse once said he painted for the weary businessmen. The NO! people, on the other hand, painted out of a political conviction. I also had guys come up to me and say, Gertrude, send an appeal to the Western Union! But I wasn't interested in message art as a political statement.
What was Boris' role in the March Gallery? Did he want to control the content there?
That's why he got out of there. You know, he was born under the zodiac sign of Cancer, and Cancer, they say, is the born leader that nobody wants to follow. But he is still a leader type.
Did you have trouble with the pornographic content?
It wasn't porn, it was erotica! The worst thing about the shit show was that people came in and it made them really sick. They thought they smelled stench and were completely confused. The piles also all had names like Castelli or those of other important people in the art scene. That made most of the spectators upset. It was a very special time back then.
But it must have also been pretty tough when the pin-ups started showing up in the pictures ...
Why? I grew up with protest marches, my mother was an anarchist, why would that have been hard for me?
No, for the public!
What do you mean by public? Who goes to exhibitions? The art public is a very special one. They think, wonder how smart they are and are scared shitless, they are real cowards. They feel guilty themselves when they see something like this.
What were the reactions to the thematization of the Holocaust, especially in Jewish circles?
During that time, Holocaust survivors didn't talk about it much. They were ashamed and even felt guilty about it themselves.
But now 'specifically to the collage, which confronts a pin-up girl directly with a photo of a pile of corpses from the Buchenwald concentration camp ...
That's what made it so powerful. That's why most people couldn't stand it. But there were some, not many, who understood it. But none of the pictures were sold. Boris gave them away like that. But no one would have hung them on their walls at home. One of my collectors always says, "When I can't sleep at night, I get up from my bed, go to my living room and enjoy my Lichtenstein there, laugh and finally be happy." That's the customer.
What did the whole NO!art thing get you into?
A lot of trouble!
But you were the talk of the town afterwards!
That didn't interest me at all; the main thing for me was art. I'd been collecting clover and all kinds of things since I was sixteen. To finance the gallery, I sold more commercial art in the back room. I had real inconveniences. I didn't earn anything doing it. I did it because I thought it was important.
What were the relationships between Boris and the women who participated in the exhibitions?
He liked Michelle Stuart, I think. Boris doesn't have a deep respect for the female sex. I mean, against the background of his family, he's not really a misogynist. His mother was a dentist, which was unusual at that time. She and one of Boris' sisters were killed in the concentration camp. The other sister was sent to Italy by her father. That is how she survived. Her name was Assja. A wonderful woman. But again, he likes women. But when we talk about the rapes of Germans against Russian women, and vice versa, those of Russians against German women, he says, "What's so bad about it?" He doesn't see it as particularly misogynistic. Ask him yourself! Besides, he reveres Stalin. He forgives him a lot in the name of progress. And he hates America so much. But he likes Germany, he loves Paris, but couldn't live there. He would really like to live in Germany, also because of the stock market deals.
Was there ever anything like a boom with NO!art?
Boris' work is also often interpreted as a stance against the oppression of women, with its drastic inclusion of pin-ups.
He took that as a typical American phenomenon. He was fascinated by it. But he couldn't deal with it. It was such a shock to him, and he saw it as a beautiful thing at the same time. Sado/Maso interests him as well. Shoe fetishist he is too. And all this comes naturally in the art, nothing remains secret, there is nothing to be ashamed of.
Isn't it also something like denouncing the pin-ups?
He had a lot of problems when he came to New York. He had no money, neither did his father. In Germany, when they had been liberated from the concentration camp, the father immediately had a German housekeeper, and since German industry was looking for token Jews for their battered image, he said, "Listen, kids, now is exactly the time to get rich ...!" And Assya wrote to him: "How can you, while your mother, wife and daughter ended up in the incinerators! Have you no sense of shame?" And so they came to the United States and were poor again. The father had survived in the concentration camp because he was a businessman. But back to the topic: Boris had problems with women because he was poor. No pretty Jewish girl would have gone out with him. So he was left only with the ugly ones from the communist party. Everybody knows that. You just have to be clever. But he didn't like the CP. He tried to find other women, he was a bourgeois. And the women of that class said to him, "Marry me or forget it."
But one hears just as much that the pin-ups were also a symbol of women's oppression for him.
For sure. And the symbol of how capitalism works and how the body becomes a commodity in it. You have to imagine that Boris was in the concentration camp at an age when you begin to discover and live out your sexuality. He has considered both sides of the coin regarding pin-ups: He thinks it's good, and he recognizes the horror in it at the same moment. That's what makes these works so wonderful. They are never just intellectual and never just from the gut. That's why they were so coherent. Moving on to women: Sam Goodman was constantly chasing women, always had several at the same time, although he was also very domestic with his wife. He embodied the type of the poor Jew, he was a nebbish. And he always had crazy ideas. For example, he had invented the brush with the extremely long handle. He thought it was revolutionary. He had also been an Abstract Expressionist at first, then met Boris and was set on course by him. While Stanley Fisher, again, was quite different.... He was a school teacher, also coming from a poor background. He had access to all kinds of currents. He was open to everything. He had four wives at the same time.
... some kind of sex guru?
Yes, exactly, and the women were all ugly as night. He didn't care. And he got the money. Women are not stupid.
How did the NO! artists deal with sexuality in their works?
They didn't address it like that!
But Kusama ...?
Kusama was a whore, a hundred percent whore. When I told her that nothing was going on with my husband, she said, "Kill him, Gertrude, kill him!" She was completely crazy. In New York alone, she had two psychiatrists. She wanted to check each one out to find out exactly which one was telling the truth. She's currently in Japan in a sanitarium. But she is a genius, she understood exactly how to implement the spirit of the times. She was a Japanese woman in New York, and she fucked everybody to move up. She didn't feel anything about it; she was maybe even asexual. She used sexuality to get high. It wasn't that she was bad, she just couldn't think of any other way.
So the thousands of tails are meaningless?
Absolutely. She was strange, but totally talented and contemporary. Boris and she held each other in high esteem.
Boris said she meant they weren't penises at all that she portrayed.
I'm sure she said that ... It was so much for her. I own these accumulations. They were very interesting and important works. They are accumulations of nothing. One is sort of in it....
Were there discussions between the men and the women within the group about the inclusion of sexuality?
I think that happened more in the literary world. The women didn't play a big role in the NO!shows. Except for Kusama, because she was like a man anyway. Women in general were also very scared as artists. They didn't really have the guts yet, and they didn't respect each other.
Was there something like solidarity among women in the group?
Women always competed with each other, women hated women. A constant, mutual competition. Women's solidarity usually occurred only among the homosexual women. The others strived for money, men, or possessions. They were screwed up from childhood. Look, Georgia O'Keeffe, for example, was a lesbian. Who becomes an artist, too? Someone from the upper or middle class - a proletarian usually doesn't. He's too scared to do that. And there's a study of this that says that women, even if they weren't from the proletariat, had and have these fears. And it took until the late seventies for all that to loosen up.
What happened to the NO! artists when they stopped exhibiting with you?
In the period when his father died, Boris continued to make art, but was no longer in the art business. He then became mainly involved in stocks and securities.
How did this come about? Was he financed by his father up to that point?
He had worked exactly two days in his life up to that point, and that as a cab driver. The father had invested some securities for him. They had brought him some money, but very, very little. And when his father died, he started to fight against everybody: his father's business partners, his sister, against the whole world. He is even now, after 31 years, still litigating with his stepmother.
What were the relationships with the other artists like then?
He didn't speak a word to Goodman until the end. Stanley Fisher had also been kicked out before.
Boris always just said: He and he didn't behave well and therefore had to leave. How is that to be understood?
Yes, because they didn't want to obey Boris. He just fought everybody and said NO!
Reference: NO!art Archive, Berlin 1995
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About MATHIAS REICHELT: Born 1955, lives as a free lance writer, art critic, editor and curator in Berlin. Worked at NGBK and build up a NO!art show in 1995 after kick out the spiritus rector Dietmar KIrves. NGBK was based on incorrect basic democracy.►more
ECKHART HOLZBOOG: Publisher, who has been working at Frommann-Holzboog Verlag since 1995, took over the management in 1999 together with Sybille Wittmann and has been the publisher of the company since 2006, which has since been operating under the name frommann-holzboog Verlag e.K.. ►more
KLAUS THEUERKAUF: Berlin scene artist. In 1980 he co-founded the artists' collective endart, which signed off in 1988 with an obituary in the Tagesspiegel, only to continue until the large retrospective at the Kunstamt Kreuzberg in 1994.. ►more