In January 2008, the painter Boris Lurie lay dying of kidney failure in a New York hospital, with a large poster of Joseph Stalin positioned at the foot of his bed. Few outside Lurie's intimate circle could have suspected that the Russian-born Holocaust survivor—one of the founders of the NO!art movement—had been leading a double life. For decades, while outwardly living as a penniless artist and espousing leftist politics, Lurie spent his spare time buying penny stocks and real estate, amassing a substantial fortune. When he died, on January 7, 2008, at the age of 83, Lurie’s investments were worth an estimated $80 million. He left no heirs, and his handwritten will specified that his entire estate go toward creating the Boris Lurie Art Foundation.
“Boris was always anticonsumerism,” says dealer Gertrude Stein, Lurie’s longtime friend and the chair of the foundation. “The mission of the foundation is to make sure that the spirit of NO!art is kept alive, to help a new generation see that it’s not just commercial art that is successful.”
Born in Leningrad into a Jewish family, Lurie moved as a child to Latvia, where, at the age of 16, he was deported by the Nazis. He and his father survived a series of concentration camps before being liberated from Buchenwald. Lurie’s mother and sister were killed in Auschwitz. After liberation, Lurie spent a year in Germany, reportedly working for the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Corps. Then, in 1946, he moved to New York and began his art career.
In 1960 Lurie cofounded NO!art a movement that rebelled against Abstract Expressionism and Pop art, producing grim and shocking works. In Railroad Collage (1959) Lurie superimposed a photograph of a half-naked pinup girl over one of a mass of corpses stacked on a railway flatcar. “Boris was a true revolutionary artist,” says Janos Gat, a Friend and a New York gallery owner who hosted Lurie’s “Feel-paintings” show in 2004.
Lurie's art was widely rejected by curators and sold only sporadically. “The art market is nothing but a racket,” he once said. While continuing to paint full-time Lurie embraced another “racket”— Wall Street. He viewed stock picks “like mathematical puzzles,” Stein says.
Anthony Williams, the attorney representing the Boris Lurie Art Foundation, says he expects the full estate to be disbursed to the foundation in the coming months. The market value of the estate has dropped considerably, but Williams estimates it in the “high double figures—tens of millions.”
The foundation will clean and restore more than 600 of Lurie’s works and publish many of his writings. The foundation’s mission statement also describes a program of grants of up to $25,000 to “unrecognized, innovative artists in all media ... whose work broadly embraces the spirit of the NO!art movement represented by the life and work of the Founder Boris Lurie.” Grant recipients will be chosen by the foundation’s grant committee, with input from outside experts as needed.
As for staring at Stalin from his deathbed? Williams, who got to know Lurie toward the end of the artist’s life, says, “Boris had a lifelong liking for the Soviet Union,” because of the Red Army’s crucial role in defeating Nazism.
■ Douglas Century’s most recent book is Barney Ross: The Life of a Jewish Fighter (Schocken, 2006).
© by ART news, New York, 2010