Megaklés Rogákos: How long have you been living in the US?
Boris Lurie: I have been living here since the end of World War I. A long time since 1946.
I was looking into your biography and read that you spent time in a concentration camp. How long was it ?
It was long time! 4 Years.
It must have been hell.
The curious thing is that last year (1999) there was an exhibition of my work at the Buchenwald Memorial in Germany. There will be a book coming out called “Poetry” with illustrations from that exhibition and by many other artists.
NO!art’ is a significant movement that is unfortunately not covered at any particular Art Institution.
There will be a big exhibition in the mid-west at the University of Chicago, at the University of Iowa, and Nebraska. And we are thinking of using the NGB K book - which is only in German — for a new book, again in German, placing an insert with English translation.
Was it the Buchenwald  concentration camp where you were held?
Yes, I was held there also, and in many different places.
Did other artists from the ‘NO!art’ movement have similar experiences with you?
NO, no. But some of them were in the Army during the War, in the US Army and the Canadian Army.
Could you generally describe the origins of the ‘NO!art’ movement?
Basically, it was a reaction against what’s going on in the cultural world and the general condition of the art in America, with certain references also to the Holocaust, which was a subject that nobody touched at the time. Exhaustion with commerce, sex and stuff like that.
Who ignited the ‘NO!art’ movement and when was that?
Well, it was 3 artists who were the most active in it. That was Sam Goodman, Stanley Fisher, and myself, and then there were other also. That was in 1960 approximately.
What was the programme of the ‘NO!art’ movement?
This was a time that was dominated by Abstract Expressionism, and any kind of strong subject matter was excluded. It still is today to some extent. People buy decorative things for their wall; abstraction or minimalist sculpture and something like that. In other words, the aim was to bring back into art the subjects of real life.
That must have also been shared with ‘Nouveau Réalisme’ in France, and ‘New Realism’ in the US.
‘Nouveau Réalisme’ in France was about the same time, perhaps a little later. It was not called ‘New Realism’ here. It was ‘Pop Art’. New Realism in France was entirely different. It was Arman and ‘décolages’, the people who took the posters from the street; Jacques Villeglé and Jean Tinguley. There were about 3 or 4 artists who went around Paris and they took big ‘afísses’ (posters) and consequently glued one poster on top of the other, using them as an art-work.
The term ‘de-collage’ was invented by Wolf Vostell, and subsequently artists appropriated that name…
Yeah, the term was Vostell’s concept. But he didn’t mean the posters because he did not do posters. By the French word ‘de-coll/age’ he meant to describe the simultaneous take-off and crash of air-planes. Vostell worked with us also. He participated in an exhibition, and opened the doors for us in Germany at the time. This fellow Wolf Vostell died recently, about 66 years old (1932-98).
So, there were German artists involved with the ‘NO!art’ movement…
Indirectly. By exhibiting with us in Germany some times and by collaborating.
Are there any shared underlying themes in the ‘NO!art’ movement? For instance ‘the Abject’.
There was an exhibition here in the Whitney Museum “Abject Art” a couple of years ago.
Did you participate?
They included the photographs, but not the work itself. It was a dreadful thing! They said they didn’t have any money to pick up the stuff. All kinds of nonsense. The show in Chicago and Iowa will be called “NO!art and the Art”, a ridiculous title. It is to take place next year in the summer (2001) at the University of Chicago, the University of Iowa, then Nebraska. The woman who is organizing it is Estera Milman, a Curator of Outside Art or something like that. She is very knowledgeable about the whole thing. [to Janos Gat who was departing] By the way, I’ve looked through that translation that I made about the poem with Wolf Vostell. It is absolutely terrible what I wrote. I looked at it last night. That’s what happens when you do a job very quickly.
JG: So, you wish to publish it in German and in English?
It is almost impossible to translate poetry.
When was this poem conceived?
It was conceived when Wolf Vostell died, about 1 or 2 years ago.
If it is not long, could you recite it?
No. I don’t remember it.
One has to read it…
Yeah. Sure… Anyway, there was a weird exhibition (“NO!art Show N˚ 3” 1998) at the Janos Gat Gallery of a ‘NO!art’ group exhibition and Wolf Vostell was in it also. He had just died obviously, because the poem was in the catalogue. So, I put that poem in, but I translated it to English and I didn’t look at it for all this time. And now Janos is showing Wolf Vostell again in some other context. So, he asked me to write something about Wolf Vostell, and I said «well use that poem», and I wasn’t sure whether we had used that poem or not. And I looked at it. He asked me to fax over the poem in English. And its absolutely terrible. My translation is very very bad. It is very hard to translate a poem.
Was there poetry involved with the ‘NO!art’ movement?
Yes! Well, one of the artists, Stanley Fisher, was actually a poet and then he did art-works also. I did some writing also, but — at that time — I never published anything. The verse of Stanley Fisher was influenced by the ‘Beat Poets’. He actually published a book called “The Beats Called Beat” (?). And the work itself (paintings) contained words. A lot of words were being used.
Consequently, the art becomes a political expression.
Either political or personal.
I feel that today’s art is very much like the art before the 1960s; a similar kind of transitory unrest.
Right now, there is an effort to get more into personal outspoken things [sic]. But to a large extent, art is a result of teaching – that’s my criticism of it anyway – it is being taught even in Universities now. It is institutionalized. It seems – it’s very hard to say – that it’s not done by the personal experience of the young or younger artists involved, but as an academic exercise. But this must be too harsh a judgement, and you can never tell in this art-racket; there might be some great ones that we don’t know about. There are always young artists showing in museums and in good galleries. It doesn’t mean that this is all there is. There is always somebody hidden that might be a genious and we don’t know about it. So, it’s very hard.
Are you disappointed with today’s art-surface?
[sigh] Oh! It is not disappointment. The art-market is nothing but a racket. There is an established pyramid of art in which everybody who wants to benefit from it has to participate — if he is permitted to participate.
Is the Janos Gat Gallery part of this pyramid?
You are asking a personal question. Janos shows different tendencies, so I cannot say. But in general it is not part of the establishment, without meaning he wouldn’t want to enter it. It’s a very complex thing, because for a young artist today, with a booming art-market, where you have a situation like Jasper Johns — too highly valued an American artist — but a couple of years ago one of his paintings sold for $ 27 million. That’s crazy. That says it has nothing to do with quality, because in the same year a Titian sold for $ 5 million. And Titian is not alive any more, whereas Jasper Johns is alive, healthy and producing. So, it is a speculative investment market, which has nothing to do with quality.
If not with quality, what does the art-market have to do with?
It has to do with money. It also has to do — to some extent — with national pride; for instance the government supporting it. In our country here, the CIA has been sponsoring the arts, paying for exhibitions! So, the main thing that makes the market move around — like everything else in a capitalist society — is money and investment and speculations… But I went sideways. Now the young artists are confused, because most of them are not bohemian types of people. They come out of Universities and Colleges. They know about the tremendous benefits that you can get in art once you become a star. They also know about the rock artists that become billionaires. So, they have entirely different attitudes. Whereas in the 1950s or 1960s for instance the artists were mostly bohemians — even if they came from wealthy homes they rejected that form of life, and they felt that ‘bohemianism’ went together with art; that art could not be in fancy places and so on. They wanted fame, and they wanted their art-work to be preserved. But they weren’t chasing after money at all. Most of them would have been very contempt if you gave them a salary of say $ 200 a month. So it’s an entirely different situation.
How can ‘bohemianism’ help artists?
I cannot say that it helps. It is possible that a great artist can develop irrespective of class. But it is the content that is different.
The artistic poverty you are describing is a world-wide phenomenon. I wonder whether Art Institutions will ever inspire ‘bohemianism’ in artists…
Look, it’s just like Dada and Surrealism. When it’s poisonous and when it can subvert society, then it’s not being shown by the establishment. But afterwards, you can easily incorporate it as a museum relic, and you can even celebrate it by talking about a ‘great culture’. Well, this is happening right now in fact. You can say «We are celebrating culture. Look, we had Surrealism, we had Dada, we had all kinds of subversive movements, this, that, etc. We are a great country!» But you can say that only 30 or so years later.
By then it has become easy.
It’s easy and it’s also beneficial. There is another element in this. You can start investing and trading. In other words, when the art is being made, it is totally controlled. At least in the USSR it was open. The USSR said whatever serves the Communist Party is good art and whatever tears it down is bad art. But art was out in the open. Here, it is not out in the open. In the UK for instance now there is a lot of activity…
With regard to Contemporary Art in the UK there is fertile controversy at present, say with the art of Tracey Emin.
Who is she?
Tracey Emin makes art out of her very personal life, for example the notorious ‘bed’ of hers.
I have read about it. I haven’t seen the work. But the attitude must be very similar to our attitude in the early 1960s.
I admit being suspicious of the hype around her work.
Wait a minute! You are suspicious of her work if this becomes a marketable commodity. Then you are rightly suspicious!
Somewhere you have stressed the importance of ‘courage’. I agree with you that artists must be courageous while struggling for recognition. However, lots of artists do nothing to deserve what they get.
These artists are taking advantage of something that has been prepared for them by others who have long sunken into the ground. Because the times are apparently almost ready to accept such things. But I think that the idea itself — though it’s obsessive — of making art out of the smallest things that concern yourself is basically a good thing, because life is concerned with all these insignificant things. What could perhaps be considered negative is poor artists falling into the hands of the promotional machinery; say Mr Saatchi. Otherwise, they could have remained unknown. I have seen the Saatchi exhibition when I was in Berlin. When you look at the work itself you have to try and forget about any kind of business or even historical connections. You have to see how the work influences yourself. But that does not discredit any kind of looking back and trying to analyze it historically. The one thing does not exclude the other.
Whether we like it or not the Saatchi phenomenon is a sign of our time.
Saatchi is a sign of our time. That is correct. But there is also an element of education. And it depends what the content is of this education. For instance, American Pop Art is actually a celebration of the consumer society and especially American chauvinism. Pop Art educated America to finally say «We are great and our system is the best one!», which they didn’t want to say before, because it wasn’t thee fashionable thing to say. The fashionable thing to say at that time was «Our culture is a very young culture, undeveloped. The Europeans have much deeper roots. With the Greeks for instance.» Right? And now Pop Art — when I refer to Pop Art I am not just referring to the artists. I am talking about the whole group of people that was behind them; the intellectuals, the speculators, the investors, everybody — they say «To hell with it all! We don’t have to be ashamed of our society. Our society is great. It is the best one in the world!» So, it serves an educational purpose, which has to be looked at separately than just reflecting the time. Anything reflects the time. A hundred years from now you will exhibit this table [pointing] in a museum and you’ll say this is a design of 2000, but you wont be saying that this is great art.
What makes a difference in the content of art are the ideas this art conveys. Will people ever forget what Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” (1998)  said at its particular moment in Art History?
We have an idea that art exists. At that point you negate that art exists at all. Art does not exist at all only as a historical example. If you only approach art from that view-point of it being a historical relic, then you negate the idea of art as an unusual accomplishment.
Is that what art should be? An unusual accomplishment?
Anybody can have their own opinion. I’ll give you an example. The Sistine Chapel [ceiling] frescoes (1508-12) by Michelangelo is a sign of those times when Pope Julius II commissioned him to paint the ceiling. But we attach another interest in it also; that is how he managed to do it all by himself, lying on his back, and how well he painted, and the fact it was done in fresco meant it had to be executed quickly, and stuff like that. So, we are not looking at it just as an example of the time, but also as an unusual accomplishment.
What can be considered unusual about your accomplishment?
It is not up to me to judge, it is up to the people to judge.
Quite characteristically, one work of yours [“Railroad Collage” 1963 collage] in the Janos Art Gallery catalogue represents a photo of a wagon-load of corpses from the Holocaust, superimposed by a pin-up. Immediately, I thought to myself «Wow! What a sharp contrast!» Now, how and why did such a contrast register in your art?
It can be interpreted in various ways. One way is «Look at all the carnage of the War! And what we ended up with is the ass of a pin-up girl!» That’s one way of looking at it. When you do something graphically it’s not like writing a message on the wall «This is what I’m saying!» It is open to many interpretations. But, I would say this is one of the possible interpretations «Here is the carnage! People are getting killed on account of hatred. These were the victims that were offered to defy the evil of Nazism and Fascism.»
The Holocaust may be over. But, is evil still with us?
Well we just had the horrible experience of Rwanda in Africa. And there are terrible civil wars in Colombia in South America.
Could we also speak of ‘civil carnage’ metaphorically, say in this very city?
Of course. But it doesn’t achieve this wide impact of World War II, where 30-40 million people were lost. But you speak of evil in New York. Have you been to the East Village? Now it is a very popular and artistic neighbourhood, like Soho. I am sure that you as a visitor wouldn’t know of the arsenal attacks. In the mid-1970s this whole area was burned down in fires that encompassed as much as one tenth of Manhattan. Nobody is talking about it, it is not reflected in literature. It’s buried. The foreign visitors who come here don’t even know. When we see parks there it is because residences were burned to ashes. When you see newly fixed up modernist buildings, it is because they replaced ruins. The whole social evil permitted these fires to burn.
To change the subject, why should an Art Institution be interested to fill its gap of ‘NO!art’?
If the institution is concerned with Contemporary Art, they should show what is important and ground-breaking. It’s the museum’s job, to show to the public what’s been done. The museums are at fault because they excluded it for a long time.
[examining the studio of Boris Lurie] Why have you these images hanging here?
[referring to a press-photo of Kokeshku after his execution] This is Kokeshku of Romania. When the regime collapsed in Romania they put him in front of a firing squad and killed him.
Is it the image that concerns you or the history behind it?
Everything, the image and the history.
Do you draw inspiration from photographs as was the case with Bacon?
Yes. Newspaper reproductions and stuff like that.
Which images here mean most to you? What about this photo [Philippe Halsman “Dalí Atomicus” 1948] ?
There is always a reason for it. I like Dalí very much, and Dalí himself actually featured in the most famous pictures of Halsman, and it so happened that he was an acquaintance of mine, coming from the same town where I was raised. So, at the time, when I saw that reproduced, I hung it up here.
[back to the couch] I believe that the visual arts are closely related to music. Which style of music would become ‘NO!art’?
Well, that is a difficult question. What would come to my mind spontaneously is excerpts from more popular and — let’s say — politically or socially coloured themes. I was in Italy, and we had an exhibition in Milan in the 1960s, and I heard a record of a female singer, Venoni was the name, and at the time she was quite popular. She sang a song in Milanese dialect - which even some Italians find hard to understand — about a murderer who was caught by the police and the police pressured him to give away his bodies, and he said «No», he wouldn’t do it. That impressed me very much. By the way, she is a very good singer of that period.
So, it is very much verse-based music rather than instrumental music that you are interested in.
She sings her songs with accomplishment, but the words are very good and the lyrics are very nice.
What other singers or groups come to your mind?
I have a very limited education in Jazz or Rock music. For me - when it comes to popular music — I like Edith Piaf, and of more contemporary music I like Janis Joplin. Also I like some black singers, Ella Fitzgerald and so on, but these are the principal ones of popular music.
So, would you envisage an exhibition of ‘NO!art’ in the company of music?
My opinion is that it detracts from each other. If it was separated I would welcome it very much. For instance, if in a special booth you could listen to even different excerpts of music. But together it takes the ability to penetrate a painting, if you have outside influence. That does not only go for music. Even if you are alone by yourself and looking at a painting, it’s one thing as seeing it in a gallery or in a museum with 50 people moving around and so on. A painting by itself requires a certain solitary concentration.
I understand. However, I have experienced a mesmerizing ‘Art Nouveau’ exhibition at the V&A in the company of music by Debussy, and I was similarly imagining an exhibition of Piet Mondrian with Boogie Woogie or Anthony Caro with Mozart. But you say it does not go with art-works…
No. I think it’s a terrible idea.
So you want art-works to be appreciated in silence.
In silence yes. It’s a silent art!
Even though some art screams.
You wouldn’t imagine reading a serious French novel and — at the same time — listen to Debussy. It would take away from the concentration.
Another thing now. Is it possible for one to focus very much on a single ‘NO!art’ piece to write a whole book on this very piece?Another thing now. Is it possible for one to focus very much on a single ‘NO!art’ piece to write a whole book on this very piece?
How can I answer? It’s up to the author. If the author ties it up with his own ideas, his own experiences and so forth, maybe he can publish a thousand pages on it and maybe just 2 lines. It depends what the author wants to do. This is probably a handicap — but I don’t like long-winded stories. But people like novels that go on forever. Anyway - that is my personal attitude - I think it is stealing time out of people’s lives. That’s another thing [laughter]. A person doesn’t have much time to live, so if one has to read a volume by Dostoevsky or something like that, the time is deducted.
That is interesting. A book steals time from people.
In general, art does so. I am not contesting Dostoevsky, but if you read a poem in 2 lines and it only takes half a minute, it can stay in your mind and influence you just as much. You know what I mean? But then again, it depends on the individual. Reading also depends on how good your eyesight is.
Louise Bourgeois said somewhere that every art-work is in a sense a self-portrait. Would you say that for yourself? Could you describe what is autobiographical in your art?
Yeah! The artist has to be involved in it. There is no question about it. Well look, in art — as you may well know — there are basically 2 approaches. The one is a classical, cold approach, and the other is an emotional, romantic, expressionistic approach. Personally, I know nothing about the classical approach. It’s not my cup of tea. But I can imagine that David or Ingres can sit down, very calmly, take their time, not being rushed, not being interrupted by anybody, living a different life than we live now — you know, no telephones, no problems [laughter] — and they develop one sketch after another, and then they square it and enlarge it or have an assistant to do that kind of work, and they gradually progress to what they considered an ideal. On the other hand, the case with me, is that I could never have the patience or the interest for that kind of thing. If something comes, it comes by itself, naturally, through an experience, through the manipulation of some material or objects.
Finally, I want to reveal my feeling that sexuality is enormously important in your work.
Of course it’s important.
What messages do you want sexuality to bring out?
You don’t even have to call it sexuality. You have to call it the…
Nature, right, right. And if you are deprived of it for instance - you probably know - when you are a young fellow and you want to fuck, and you are taught that masturbating is a big sin, it makes you crazy. So, the person is very involved with it. On a personal level for instance, after my liberation from the concentration camp, I lived in Germany for a year, and I worked for the US Army Counter-Intelligence because of my knowledge of German and English. I had the best time of my life at that time, because we had small teams of agents — they weren’t even called soldiers with their titles, they had officers’ marks but without giving the rank — so, we lived like the kings. We had all kinds of things, food, and all the women that you wanted; because the German girls were very easy to get at that time. Especially — that’s another very interesting thing — they really went for the foreign soldiers who were in a sense the occupiers.
Were these soldiers a ‘passport’ to them?
No. I think it was more psychological, I think that the women wanted to be had by the victors. But there was the other element also, getting an extra cigarette or being invited to a meal. But I think it was more than that. By the way, the German men were really put down by that, the way the women acted. Of course they always had the excuse that these are not really occupiers, these are liberators from the Nazis; they could make all kinds of scenarios in their heads… But anyway, one day I was half dead, and the next day I was up being amongst the rulers. You know… And I was only 20 years old. So, I thought at that time that life will be like that forever. It would be one holiday. And when I came to the US I was a nobody. I didn’t have any money, which I could have obtained before if I had made an effort to do something slightly illegal. The black-market there was fantastic. Especially in my situation where I had all the possibilities. Germany was completely destroyed. But anyway, to make a long story short, I came to the US, and in New York I couldn’t get a girl, because no girl would go with you unless you could take her out for dinner or something like that.
Has your art been informed by deprivation of sex?
My deprivation of sex is probably not much different from any person’s. Maybe a little more.
Why do you say a little more?
Because of my imprisonment. You know during the crucial years, where you mature sexually, I was imprisoned for 4 years (from 16 to 20), because I am a Jew.
You mean to tell me there was no sex at all in the camp?
That is a very long story. I am making all these thing short. The camps were not all equal. All prisoners did not live equally in the camp. There was a hierarchy. Before the extermination in camps, under good conditions in ghettos there was a regular, almost civilian life. And some people who managed to get food — maybe they were black-marketers, speculators or people with a position in the administration, they had women. And the others - when you are starving you are not interested in women. Food comes first. The sex comes after food.
Boris Lurie (4th April 1998)
To Wolf Vostell 
of the German art-trick machers’
could be, un-beloved also mocked at
purely German of the heavy pieces
Arian, the Jew the Chossid
left his Nein!kunst-NO!art bleeding crutches
at the other shore, this River’s
let them loose, to make them start/go running
and we should, as much as we can
towards unity of the un-buisness
life-death suppressed art0of-Really
from this feast, of the River
with our this side crying muscles
helpful be Wolf Vostell.
Aren’t we then — all
into his cheek-hairs’ Peyuss
hard as concrete