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Matthias Reichelt:
Boris Lurie Works 1946—1998
in the Buchenwald Memorial in
the former disinfection building


With the exception of the Frankfurter Rundschau and the left-wing Junge Welt, the national German feuilleton has once again practiced ignorance. In many long articles, the cultural program of this year's European Capital of Culture is examined from every perspective, the pros and cons of the Goethe House duplicate are weighed up, and in the process Buchenwald is lost sight of for all the Weimar. At the same time, the never-ending story of the Holocaust memorial, with the help of which the Berlin Republic would like to self-righteously celebrate itself as purified and secretly take the side of the victims, comes to a bizarre climax. Although the proposal to have the admonition "Thou shalt not murder" artistically designed in ancient Hebrew(!) lettering as a central memorial to the murdered European Jews in Berlin rather suggests authorship of the satirical magazine Titanic, it is nevertheless seriously meant and comes from Richard Schröder (SPD). At the same time, the active participation of German soldiers in the war over Kosovo in Yugoslavia is being celebrated by the red/green government as a historic date.

In view of the debates briefly outlined here and the political atmosphere, it may come as no surprise that the former concentration camps and today's memorial sites, with their arduous knowledge transfer and remembrance work threatened by a shortage of funds, hardly play a role in this Berlin republic.

The Buchenwald Memorial, under the direction of Dr. Volkhard Knigge and the curator Dr. Sonja Staar, has come up with a special contribution for the European Capital of Culture Weimar 1999. In the basement of the former disinfection facility, i.e. below the permanent collection with works by former prisoners and contemporary international artists, an exhibition with the New York artist Boris Lurie was shown until May 10, 1999.

Long before the topic of Auschwitz was domesticated for art, that is, long before the consternation of "There is no business like Shoahbusiness" (Eike Geisel), Boris Lurie already worked on it aggressively in the 1950s and has not let go of this topos since. The biographical closeness to this topic was provided to him by the German fascists together with Latvian collaborators.

Born into a Jewish family in Leningrad in 1924 and raised in Riga, he was taken to the Riga ghetto by the Germans. While his grandmother, mother and a sister were murdered, Boris Lurie and his father survived an odyssey through several concentration camps, as they were still "usable" as laborers.

Under the numbers 95966 and 95967, Boris and Ilya Lurie are listed on a Buchenwald-Magdeburg transport list. From 1944 until liberation, they were forced to work in a sub-commando of Buchenwald, at Poltewerke AG, an armaments factory in Magdeburg.

In 1946, both emigrated to the USA. In New York, Boris Lurie began training with Reginald Marsh at the Art Students League, where he was to meet many like-minded artists and later advocates of NO!art, which Lurie founded in the early 1960s.

Initially, in the late forties, Lurie processed his concentration camp experiences in the style of classical figurative painting. In these early paintings, he depicted scenes from the concentration camp in closed compositions. In the painting Entrance from 1946/47, Lurie shows the entrance to death row lined by two prisoners. The emaciated and sad figures wear buckets on their heads instead of helmets. This is a traditional punitive action of the concentration camp administrators, who wanted to ridicule the inmates in the face of their imminent extermination. The concentration camp as a subject later appears in Lurie only in found material (photography, writing), while he repeatedly uses the insignia of the system and the movement, the swastika, metaphorically.

The traumatic loss of his grandmother, mother and a sister, the forced end of his youth and the impossibility of love and sexuality under concentration camp conditions led to a larger cycle of works entitled "Dismembered Women". In these two-dimensional paintings, deformed bodies with grimacing distorted faces are visible, in some places even only loose body parts. In addition to his traditional beginnings, examples of these paintings by Lurie were also on display at the Buchenwald Memorial. In retrospect, it can be seen that Boris Lurie was always concerned with capturing the complex and contradictory reality. In this respect, it seems only logical that the large (both in quality and scale) works of his œuvre resulted in a combination of different techniques and media. What is striking is the fusion of three techniques that he still uses today: painting, collage and assemblage.

The moral impetus, Lurie's indignation about the state of the world, and the partisanship of his art seem unusual in a time of "coolness" in contemporary art with its calculated effects and technical perfection. In Lurie's work, the pictorial compositions correspond more to the thought splinters of spontaneous association, abrupt and without smooth transitions. The surface of his large canvases, most of which date from the early sixties, appears rough, uncouth, and dirty, and is not infrequently reminiscent of the trash aesthetic of the punk era, which he was thus 10 years ahead of.

In his image-collage assemblages, Boris Lurie attempts to depict both text and subtext, thesis, antithesis, movement and counter-movement in their simultaneity. This means, of course, a total rejection of the notion of a linear narrativity of history, with which authors such as William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon broke in U.S. literature.

The limits of the media (photo, text, and painting), on the other hand, are made visible by Lurie precisely through their relentless confrontation with one another. Everything requires commentary. The individual painting of the official print media and vice versa.

The destruction of man, his integrity and dignity, and here especially the woman, was expressed through interventions in found material.

In 1958 he began to work with the products of the print media, newspaper clippings, cosmetic advertisements, election posters and pin-ups (to which, as a man, he was naturally also attracted and expressed this in texts and interviews), without ceasing to address the Holocaust. In this phase Boris Lurie approached his anti-capitalist position of later years. By taking the seemingly random juxtaposition of reports on the greatest industrial mass murder and product advertisements for cosmetics and fashion in the magazines and merging them into large tableaus in his collages, he cynically and aggressively took the game of the media and commodity world to extremes. These images, which attract the eye but also repel it, are still capable of hurting us today. Hardly anyone has adopted such a tremendously radical and provocative visual aesthetic.

The Railroad collage from 1963, now part of the memorial's permanent art collection, shows a pin-up in the middle of a pile of corpses from Buchenwald. In Lolita from 1962, Lurie mounted the lascivious Lolita from Stanley Kubrick's Nabokov film adaptation along with an image of concentration camp deaths on a yellow-painted canvas. These images can only be read against the backdrop of an all-pervasive commodity world and the radical notion of the complexity and simultaneity of the world. The boundaries between advertising and information, between play and seriousness, good and evil have long since been torn down. Everything becomes a melange. The quality of Boris Lurie's pictures lies in their dirty, raw and gelatinized surfaces, which do not embellish anything, but make visible the fractures, which today, for example, are pleasantly concealed on television by smart presenters. The transition is already infotainment. Boris Lurie's art thus naturally also questions traditional memorial art, because it only functions in the opposite way, namely by means of an unreal focus on one aspect (person, group of victims, etc.) of history.

The refusal or inability to decipher such attacks on the retina, methodically intended by Lurie, led to the accusation in the visitors' book of the memorial exhibition that Lurie mocks the victims. His own status as a victim alone protects him from stronger attacks.

Of course, Lurie did not make friends in the art world with such images either. Who wanted to see the different spheres of reality (text and subtext) condensed into one image. Preference was given to the indistinct works of Abstract Expressionism, which were exclusively concerned with form, color, and material and which, not entirely by chance, had begun its triumphant advance over figurative painting in Western countries during the Cold War (cf. Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, Chicago 1983).

With the same skepticism as toward the Abstract Expressionists and ultimately with an oppositional attitude, Boris Lurie encountered the Pop Art that was emerging in the sixties, in whose stylization of the commodity aesthetic he saw only an affirmation of the "system".

Together with Stanley Fisher and Sam Goodman, he organized group exhibitions under the term NO!art in the early sixties in the March Gallery (March from marching in the sense of fighting in formation against the art world, false art, stultification, and repression) in New York's Lower East Side, in which up to 20 artists participated, including Erro, Alan Kaprow, Yayoi Kusama, Jean-Jacques Lebel, Lil Picard, and others.

NO!art was excluded from exhibitions by museums and their curators (at that time all of them male), as Harriet Wood, who had a job at MoMA in New York in the early 1960s, describes in her memoirs. (cf. NO!art, NGBK catalog, 1995, p.158).

Wolf Vostell expressed his sympathy for this movement on several occasions. In a letter to Boris Lurie, on the occasion of his large exhibition together with the other NO!art artists in Berlin in 1995, Vostell wrote: "In more German terms, all painters with "evil", enlightened and dialectical imagery, also seen internationally, will always have a very hard time in Germany. Who should collect them all? The psychological appearance of the collectors here is the same as in New York. Why should they hang their beautiful houses full of enlightenment, concepts, memorials and reminders of the disastrous history in the XX century?" (in: NO!art, NGBK, Berlin 1995, p. 163)

The work with found material, the technique of decollage, and the content connected NO!art with the political artists of Fluxus.

Using garbage, graffiti, junk, bodices, plaster, concrete, hair, and paint, they created stagings in various thematic exhibitions that expressed their rejection of prevailing politics and aesthetics. NO! to art that serves to decorate a system that not only tolerates mass impoverishment and destruction, but actively pursues it under the principle of maximizing the profits of its military-industrial complex.

Korea, Algeria, Vietnam and many other wars under the sign of neo-colonialism were processed by Lurie in overpainted collages. NO! to the bourgeois art market subjected to the laws of capital. Boris Lurie has retained this rejection to this day and refuses to sell his works.

The end of the March Gallery was marked by the NO Sculpture Show, later dubbed the Shit Show. In the basement of the gallery, Sam Goodman and Boris Lurie exhibited variously sized and colored piles of shit made of plaster and concrete, giving sensory expression to their rejection of contemporary politics and the art establishment. This was also a radical critique of the museums' policy of promoting apolitical art and excluding explicitly political art, thus ignoring both reality and the struggle for emancipation of oppressed peoples being waged all over the world. NO!art was also involved in many public happenings and street theater-like actions against the Vietnam War. At the end of the sixties and beginning of the seventies, artist groups like the Guerilla Art Action Group around Jon Hendricks and Jean Toche continued this engagement with other means.

Boris Lurie's pictures neither radiate larmoyance nor do they ever come close to embarrassing kitsch. Pathos of any kind is alien to these pictures; they polarize and force the viewer to take a decisive position.

Hate and aggression are still palpable in the pictures today. What dominates here is by no means cool intellectual analysis, but the anarchic directness of DADA and the Situationists.

Source: Kunstforum, Band 145, Köln, Mai/Juni 1999

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MATTHIAS REICHELT, born in Leipzig in 1955, studied American and German Studies from 1975 to 1983 and graduated with an M.A. degree. Since 1983 he has worked as an exhibition organizer, publicist and critic. From 1986 to 2004 he held a part-time position at the Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst (NGBK) in press and public relations. Since 2005, he has written articles for Kunstforum International, the Berlin city magazine Zitty, the liberal daily Der Tagesspiegel and the left-wing junge Welt, as well as for the weekly Jüdische Allgemeine, among others. In 2015, he was awarded the Hans and Lea Grundig Prize together with Lith Bahlmann. more

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