Mary Beach (*1919) was referred to by William Burroughs as one of only five women that he ever liked. Given her life, art, and spirit it’s easy to see why the infamous misogynist might feel that way. After Mary was born in Connecticut, her divorced mother moved the family to France in 1925. Growing up amongst the expatriates (Sylvia Beach was a relative), Mary had her first art show in 1943, in Pau. During the latter part of WWII she was interned in a Nazi prison camp. After the war, she married an American war hero (who worked for the OSS). Returning to the United States she began a family while continuing to study, paint and exhibit. In 1957 the Beaches, together with their two children, returned to France, where Mary exhibited at the historic Salon des Independents in Paris; won the Prix du Dome at the Salon des Femmes Peintres; and was exhibited at the Salon des Surindependents. Upon the early death of her husband, and her subsequent meeting of the artist and poet Claude Pelieu in 1962, Mary’s life once again took a drastic turn: Mary and Claude shared a passion for art and literature, and their interest in the new led them to a correspondence with Allen Ginsberg. With the encouragement of Lawrence Ferlinghetti they then moved to San Francisco. Mary quickly started her own imprint at City Lights (Beach Books, Texts and Documents), then promptly discovered and published the young poet Bob Kaufman.
Always painting and working on her collages,which have been compared to those of Hannah Hoech, Mary also translated Burroughs, Ginsberg, Ed Sanders and others for publication in France. Moving to New York City, where she and Claude first lived on the Lower East Side and then at the Chelsea Hotel, they enjoyed friendships and collaborations with Brion Gysin, Julian Beck, Harry Smith (who would later live with them for some time), Patti Smith and many others. Amidst all of this, together with constant moves between Paris, London and the States (Mary has moved 76 times in her life), Mary found time to write and have published her own experimental novel, “Two-Fisted Banana: Electric and Gothic”, which has an introduction by Burroughs.
Mary and Claude eventually settled in upstate New York, where Claude, fifteen years Mary’s junior, passed away in 2002. Mary, now 85, continues to live and work there, creating collages, portraits, and mixed media canvasses -- many of which will be exhibited for purchase at this show.
The invitation said, "They're Old, they're Cool, they're Wise, and they all lived on the Lower East Side." Needless to say, it was not an invitation to the inauguration. It was an invitation to a group show, and "they" are octegenarians -- Mary Beach, whose 1998 collage "Pepper Head" (right) illustrates the invitation, Taylor Mead, Boris Lurie and Herbert Huncke, who died in 1996 at age 81. But more than age, they share in common the status of artist outsiders.
The Clayton Gallery & Outlaw Museumpreviews the show tonight with a reception for the artists from 6 to 8 p.m. The show opens Friday in Manhattan on the Lower East Side and runs through Feb. 27 (161 Essex St. between Stanton and Houston, 212-477-1363).
Once upon a time Mary Beach and I collaborated on aSan Francisco literary magazine together with Claude Pelieu, Carl Weissner and Norman Mustill. Her life and work, like Meade's, Lurie's and Huncke's, cover a lot of ground -- mostly the alternative underground. From the 1930s on, the gallery notes, their combined experience includes "everything from the distant art world of prewar Europe to the literary Beat scene of New York; from Nazi prison and concentratrion camps to the Surrealist, Pop and NO!art movements; from the first Holocaust art to the streets, galleries and museums of Paris, Berlin, New York, London and San Francisco."
Of the four, Herbert Huncke and Taylor Mead are probably the best known -- Huncke because of his association with Bill Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac; Mead because of his association with Andy Warhol (an actor and poet, he was one of Warhol's superstars). Boris Lurie, who survived four years in Magdeburg (SP), a work camp satellite of Buchenwald, is perhaps least known in or out of the downtown scene. I discovered him only in 1973, when he sent an essay over the transom to the Something Else Press for an anthology I was editing. I loved the piece and published it. Here's how it began:
Today, when the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau is recalled with "the mournful whistle of an imaginary death train," the little-known No!art art of Boris Lurie looms like a signal from the remembered depths. See, for example, his Red Shit Sculpture (below), or Immigrant's Box, or New York-Rumbula (bottom), or Bowl of Chains, or his Immigrant's Suitcase series.
One terrible irony of Lurie's art is that it is "beautiful" in spite of itself,an aesthetic effect alien to his experience as a survivor of Buchenwald-Magdeburg and other concentration camps, where he was enslaved for four years and where human degradation knew no bounds. But Lurie has probed the human abyss not only with his art but with his words. Here, for example, is the conclusion of his essay about vaporous girlie pin-ups for a 1960 exhibition, "Les Lions," which describes the Holocaust in terms most of us can understand:
The stray dogs in my backyard are perennially hungry. TheMonster makes them act out their frustration through formal well-rehearsed action. The dogs beg: they throw their paws around wildly, they run around in circles. Then the Monster throws them some bones. The meat had been all but completely eaten away, but the dogs devour them greedily and fall asleep. And in their dog-dreams they imagine themselves as superb great masters, far away in time and space, performing never ending ritual gestures. But soon they awaken, and they are as hungry as before, and the yard is as dirty as before. I have a painting in front of me. Legibly printed on its right side are the words: Liberty or Lice.
In German, I'm told, this passage is even stronger.Hunde (dog) has much more power, says my German-speaking friend Bill Osborne, "because it is a very strong insult." The idea, of course, is that "humans behave like dogs -- clawing, shitting, wallowing in their own filth, devouring raw meat, bones and all." Ungeheuer (monster) is stronger still, "because it refers to an entity that is undefinable, horrible, beyond description," Osborne adds. "It is a very German word, coming from a forest people's perception of something unspeakable in the darkness of the trees at night." And verschlingen (devour) is far more potent "because it describes the way dogs ravenously slaver over and swallow things whole like bones. The hard, guttural sounds and pounding rhythm of the words increase the starkness of the effect."
Born in Leningrad in 1924 into an educated, highly cultured Jewish family, Lurie grew up in Riga, Latvia, and was recognized as having artistic talent at an early age. After the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941, his family was swept up in the maelstrom of the Second World War. At 16 he and his father were captured by the Germans and began a hellish journey through the ghettos and concentration camps of Riga, Salapils, Stutthof and finally Buchenwald-Magdeburg in Germany. His mother, sister and grandmother were murdered, painful losses that immensely affected Lurie and were later to prove central to many of the themes and motifs of his work.
Liberated in 1945,Lurie remained in Germany for a year and worked for the U.S. Army Counter-Intelligence. He moved to New York City in 1946 and began his art career there, with figurative paintings in which he refused to flinch from dealing with his experiences in the camps, despite a postwar reluctance among survivors to dwell on, or even mention publicly, their wartime ordeal. Paintings like “Back From Work” (1946), and “Roll Call in Concentration Camp” (1946), with their ghostly, skeletal figures, fluid lines and pearl and sepia tones recall El Greco and Goya; “Entrance” (1946), his portrait of two sonderkommandos, the doomed gangs of inmates forced to remove the victims from the gas chambers, flanking the walkway to a crematorium, is as bleak as it is poignant in its depiction of shards of dignity amid hopelessness.
Under the influence of Picasso, DeKooning and later Pollock and other Abstract Expressionists, Lurie abandoned strictly figurative painting, and through the late ’40s and ’50s worked in a number of disparate styles and modes. A sequence of paintings called the “Feel Paintings” speak to his fascination with American symbols of libertine femininity like burlesque dancers, dancehall girls and pinup girls, to Lurie, a highly charged symbol of American big city life that he returned to in the early ’70s.
Lurie’s role during the ’60s, and ’70s,as a founding member and prima mobila of the NO!art movement elicited some of his most striking, exciting and contentious works. Founded in 1959 by Lurie, Stanley Fisher and Sam Goodman, in cooperation with the March gallery in the Tenth Street in New York, (later known as the March Group), NO!art was a visceral reaction to the dominant movements of the era: Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art.
NO!art’s self-proclaimed principle was to bring back into art “the subjects of real life,”which for Lurie, Fisher, Goodman and the others were issues of repression, destruction, depravity, sex, occupation, colonialism, imperialism, racism and sexism; the deep stuff, the psychological, edgy, discomforting material that makes people squirm; the kind of paintings you won’t find hanging, color-coordinated, over the wine-colored leather couch in a living room out in the Hamptons.
Lurie freely admits that, like many artistic rebellions,NO!art started “out of desperation; I mean it wasn’t an intellectual program, philosophic program worked out by some philosophers or in some university,” he said recently, while uncharacteristically decamped above 14th St., at a friend’s Park Ave. apartment, recovering from a quadruple bypass surgery, while his chaotic and art-crammed East Village apartment is being renovated.“It started out of desperation because we were already some time in the art world, and finally we saw what was going on and we said: To hell with you, we want to be artists but we’ll do it for ourselves, we won’t be involved with them. And if they want to they can try to get us.”
The basic ideological and aesthetic thrust,was “total self-expression, and inclusion of any kind of social or political activity that was in the world, that took place in the world,” Lurie explained. “Total freedom of expression, and also what was favored was like a protest, an outcry, anything that might be considered a radical expression, that doesn’t necessarily coincide with the expression that was permitted under the then current aesthetics.” Or to put it another way: “The aesthetics was to strongly react against anything that’s bugging you.”
For Lurie that reaction was deeply and understandablyconnected with his experiences in the Holocaust, and he created different series of works that commented, directly and indirectly, upon those experiences. Most notorious, and to some, offensive, was his 1959 “Railroad Collage,” an elaboration of his “Flatcar Assemblage by Adolf Hitler” (1945), an appropriated photograph of a stack of corpses on a flatcar at Buchenwald. His sarcastic renaming of that horrific image wasn’t enough for Lurie; he took it one step further in “Railroad Collage” by superimposing a cutout shot from a girlie magazine showing the backside of an attractive woman lowering her panties and exposing her ass.
Were these works a comment on pornography and the Holocaust, or theHolocaust as the ultimate pornography? Was it a callous denigration of the victims, or a celebration of eroticism, the life force, Eros, in the midst of an unsentimental and unsparing depiction of death; or was it simply an unvarnished expression of contempt for the diminished humanity of their depraved killers?
Whatever it was, the results, in 1959,were shock and outrage: people leaving the gallery in a rage, letters to editors, condemnation, controversy, uproar — everything a serious artist dreams of provoking.
“I would say they were shocked,” Lurie, said. “When you combine extremes like death, or injury, and all that with sexual aspects, it shocks even today. Because we tend to think different in this way, despite the fact there’s an involvement between sex and death also and so forth. In other words, if you use pinup girls in order to comment on serious things, it’s confusing because the closed-minded person would react to this semi-pornography in a very hostile way. The person whose mind is more open, would laugh it off. But they wouldn’t take it seriously.”
This was especially true at the end of the ’50s,when, before the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Holocaust was still a taboo subject, the word itself barely established as the universal term for the Nazi program for the extermination of the Jews. “Nobody spoke about it,” said Lurie. “Most of the people that I knew in the art world, and my friends, never knew that I was in a concentration camp. It was never talked about. So in that time that everything was opened up, there was also a general historical background to this that happened during this time when Castro won the civil war in Cuba; and it happened at the time when Khrushchev became the head of the Soviet Union and loosened everything up. All over the world there was an atmosphere of loosening up.”
Lurie continued to explore the implications of the Holocaust, both directly and indirectly, in the years to come, with etchings like “Stars of David on Swastika” (1962), a series of “NO-Sculptures” (1964-’66), some made of excrement; various assemblages incorporating the infamous iconography of the Jewish Yellow Star; an entire series of “Chain Works” in 1973, including “Chained Female Shoes,” “Chained Roses” and “Chained Toilet Paper.” His 1964 “Death Sculpture,” chicken heads entrapped in a block of synthetic resin, anticipates Damien Hirst’s modern sculptures of sharks and sheep suspended in formaldehyde.
For the most part, critics and curators of the dayrejected Lurie and NO!art, a circumstance perhaps responsible for Lurie’s at-times caustic — “The art market is nothing but a racket” — yet brutally honest views of the business of art, views he has made clear in a number of writings and letters, including notably his great critique, “MOMA as Manipulator” (1970), and the ► “Statement for the Exhibition ‘Art And Politics’ at Karlsruhe Kunstverein, Germany” (1970), which constitutes a sort of NO!art manifesto:
NO!art is anti worldmarket - investment art:(artworldmarket-investment art equals cultural manipulation).
NO!art is against “clinical,” “scientific” estheticism’s: (such estheticism’s are not art).
NO!art is against the pyramiding of artworldmarket-investment-fashion-decorations (“minimal,” “color field,” “conceptual”): such games-decorations are the sleeping pills of culture. It is against “phantasy” in the service of the artmarket.
NO!art is against all artworldmarket “salon” art.
NO!art is anti Pop-art: (Pop-art is reactionary - it celebrates the glories of consumer society, and it mocks only at what the lower classes consume - the can of soup, the cheap shirt. Pop-art is chauvinistic. It sabotages and detracts from a social art for all.)
At 80,Lurie is as sharp, opinionated and insightful as artists a third of his age, and is still realistic and truthful, perhaps too truthful, about the relationship between aesthetics and commerce in a capitalist society: “Well, an art dealer is a businessman like any other businessman, and his job in this economic society is to furnish goods and to try to make a profit at it,” Lurie noted. “And it doesn’t work any different than selling shoes or anything else. It might be decorated with a lot of big talk and philosophical talk and what not, but it doesn’t make any difference. Because he has to support a gallery, he has to pay a secretary, so a certain reality comes in. So somebody who doesn’t like the artist X, may still deal in him because he can make some money on him. And he may really believe in artist XYZ, and not touch him at all because he can’t make any money, and he can’t waste any time on him.
“Say he likes two artists,” Lurie continued,“they’re working in the same area, more or less, their work is very similar, they’re both very good according to him. One of them is a terrific salesman, and the other one is a completely, he sits at home, and doesn’t know anybody and just keeps on working and so forth. He’s incapable of promoting himself. So as an art dealer, the one who is a terrific salesman, is a much better deal for you because he takes some of the burden off your shoulders.”
Ironically, Lurie has found a great deal of success in the countryto which he owes much of his angst-ridden subject matter: Germany, where NO!art is celebrated as a major movement in the history of 20th-century and — with Lurie’s 2004 exhibition, “OPTIMISTIC - DISEASE - FACILITY,” at Haus am Kleistpark, Berlin-Schöneberg — 21st-century art.
Copyright by The Villager, New York, Volume 74, Number 42 | February 23 - March 01, 2005