Boris Lurie (1924-2008) was born in Leningrad and grew up in Riga, Latvia. From 1941-1945 he and his father were imprisoned in German concentration camps, while his mother, grandmother, and sister, separately interned, were killed by the Nazis. He arrived in New York in 1946. In 1959, with Sam Goodman and Stanley Fisher he founded the NO!art movement, a group of artists disillusioned by the social and political disengagement they read in the celebrated art movements of the day, Abstract Expressionism and, later, Pop Art. They called for an art dealing with difficult truths, such as imperialism, racism, sexism, and nuclear proliferation, and leading to social action. His highly controversial work, often combining imagery deriving from the Holocaust with samplings from popular culture, advertising, and girlie magazines, alienated critics and curators and was ignored by the art establishment. Lurie deplored what he called the "investment art market," and resisted its blandishments at every turn, rarely showing his art after the seventies and almost never offering it for sale.
As a death camp survivor, Lurie's artistic concerns were, understandably, quite different from those of the artists among whom he found himself on his arrival in American after the war. As Sarah Schmerler remarked in her catalogue essay for Lurie's 1998 gallery show, Bleed, 7969, "Most American artists of the Forties were fresh out of art school. Lurie was fresh out of Buchenwald." There are deeply humane and inherently European aspects of his work, not to mention aggressively political dimensions, that rendered him rather an alien presence among his fellow artists in the New York of the forties through the seventies (and beyond). His animus against Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, both of which movements share visual and tactical qualities with his own work, is essentially a resistance against the widespread (and typically American) desire to leave the war behind and to forget its ravages in the midst of the wealth and optimism that victory and consequent economic ascendancy had engendered. Lurie was by no means stuck in the past, but having lived it he refused to behave as if it had never happened, or that other horrors were not ever present or ever threatening.
In the fifties, sixties and seventies much of Lurie's work, such as the infamous Railroad Collage (1959), not only shocked and confused but even repulsed much of the viewing public. Some of his juxtapositions of explicit imagery of sexuality against others of brutal death and dehumanization, even now defy rational engagement: they are visual aporias that short-circuit analysis. His Dismembered Women and Pin-Up collage series, among others, at once assert that the objectification of women is violence against women and that female sexuality is a fundamental and ineradicable force, ideas difficult at best to incorporate in a single work.
Lurie abhorred and eschewed the art world of his day and if paid him in kind with its utter disregard. By his choice almost all of Lurie's work remained in his possession at the time of his death. Toward the end of his life his unique, powerful, and provocative art began to attract attention among scholars both in America and abroad, and it was the subject of large-scale solo shows including an exhibition at the Buchenwald Gedenkstätte in Weimar in 1999 as well as two impressive documentary films. Although such figures as Harold Rosenberg, Dore Ashton, and Wolf Vostell have written about Lurie's art, the historical and critical essay by Donald Kuspit prepared for exhibition catalogue of the present show represents the first of what will undoubtedly be many serious art historical engagements with the work.
The catalogue, as well as Lurie's recently published work of fiction, House of Anita—an allegory of life in the camps and an examination of the place of the artist in the post-Holocaust world in the guise of an S/M novel—will both be available at the reception sponsored by the Boris Lurie Foundation which will take place from 6 to 9 pm on Saturday February 19th.
Theodor Adorno famously remarked, "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." Lurie stands among the great artists, figures like Tadeusz Borowski, Primo Levi and Paul Celan, who have responded in art to the greatest inhumanity ever perpetrated and shown just what poetry after Auschwitz might be, and why it must be. In the battle for the soul and humanity of art, Lurie was a hero of the resistance against compromise, indifference, perversion, and cooptation by the market.