Gallery René Block | Berlin | Opening on August 10th 1973
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Protest as artistic engagement against the "Ugly America"
Boris Lurie: "NO!art-paintings" at Gallery Block, Berlin
With its exhibition of works by Boris Lurie, Galerie Block presents an interesting retrospective of an artistic activity in America in the late 1950s and early 1960s that is virtually unknown in our country. Together with the object maker Goodman, Lurie was the spiritus rector of a committed group of artists who called themselves "NO!artists" (to be understood as artists of negation), who opposed an aestheticization of art and life, who waged a two-front war with pictures and actions against abstract expressionism and against the ruthless commercialization of life, as a synonym of which they repeatedly cited the pin-up photo in their pictures. They brought "ugly America" into the picture - the memory of the World War just past, the prospect of possible nuclear war - into an image that, in its open, raw painting and montage technique, turned against the aesthetic altogether.
Lurie and his friends, of whom we are familiar with names such as Jean-Jacques Lebel, Erro, Allen Kaprow, and Allen D'Arcangelo from later times and in other contexts, began their protest against abstract expressionism in the mid-1950s, around the same time as artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. The "NO!Artists" remained largely unknown; unlike the Neo-Dadaist anti-artists who then found worldwide resonance as Pop artists, the "NO!Artists" were obviously denied the irony that enables a committed artist, if he does not want to degenerate into a moralizer, to maintain a critical and at the same time artistic position. Lurie's early paintings repeatedly revolve around the theme of management. They protest against the business with the woman in the pin-up photo, against the exploitation of art by the art business (in Pop Art), and against the busy exploitation of reality by an art that transforms all expressions of life into happenings and thereby defuses them, makes them forgotten.
Again and again the word "NO" appears in his pictures, in the context of pin-ups, with photos of Nazi atrocities and wartime hardship, or alone as a character in the picture, in the graphic, cut into corrugated cardboard. These images drew their resistance primarily from the horror of how quickly consumer society forgot human suffering after the war (Lurie was born in Leningrad in 1924 and lived in Europe until 1946) and how it soon began experimenting with atomic bombs again. One can still see in the spontaneous making of Lurie's pictures the fright at imagining a new chaos, at the deformation of man by the managers of power and business.
There was something remotely comparable in the mid-1960s in early works by some painters of the Groß-Görschen group (Pattrick, Diehl). The fact that this possibility also existed in America, and can exist again and again, is noted with interest, even if these pictures seem slightly striking today.
In the Edition Block, by the way, right next to the gallery, you can see a portfolio with graphics of some well-known pop artists, whom Lurie accused of aestheticism with words and images. The portfolio was produced by Edition Multiples Inc. New York. It contains new prints by Arakawa, Fahlström, Johns, Oldenburg, Rauschenberg, Rosenquist and Ruscha. From the same edition, Block shows a very nice portfolio of 10 lithographs in which land artist Dennis Oppenheim has recorded ten actions in photographs and plans - actions that, by their size and landscape nature, resist mediation by art galleries.
With these graphics, we would then be somewhat closer again to the protest attitude of a Boris Lurie, albeit on a different level. The signs that Oppenheim draws in the snow or in a field are clearly aesthetic.
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HEINZ OHFF: From the NO! era.
NO!art pictures by Boris Lurie in the gallery René Block
Rene Block, usually ahead of his time, invites you to a catch-up course this time. "NO!art", in German: Nein-Kunst, is probably known to very few people. Boris Lurie is one of its protagonists. Block presents his second European exhibition (the first was in 1962 at Arturo Schwarz in Milan).
"NO!art" originated - according to the green leaflet presented for this exhibition - as a rebellion against the "veiling tendencies" of the American Abstract Expressionists. It thus arose from the same roots as Pop Art and also at the same time. Admittedly, while Pop "celebrated the American industrial environment," the NO artists wanted to criticize it - and Pop Art to boot. Prominent gallery owners and museum people then made sure - let's say carefully, because we again relied on said pamphlet: allegedly - that no NO artist ever came up.
There is not the space here to critically examine this - in itself certainly justified - criticism. Pop is by no means as conformist as some would like to make it seem; people like Warhol, Rauschenberg, or Rosenquist have done more to change a visual and thus ultimately a political consciousness than many who think themselves more progressive. "NO" - the group, which was not firmly defined, had been working since 1959, its home was the Gertrude Stein Gallery - seems to have been a kind of sect between Pop and Happening, with a dash of Critical Realism, which admittedly did not tend toward Dada Realism, as was the case with the post-Pop painters in Berlin, but rather toward art brut, toward a direct confrontation with the conditions and material of contemporary history. Besides Lurie, more famous names were at exhibitions (the most important in 1962, was called "Doom Show" and was shown with great success as "Atomic Crisis" then also in Rome). Bob Logan, the French happeningist Jean-Jacques Lebel, Erro, Allan Kaprow, Sam Goodman, Allan D'Arcangelo participated.
Lurie, who has come to Berlin for a few weeks, comes from Leningrad, where he was born J924. During the war he moved to the West, since 1946 he lives - as a self-taught painter - in New York. His canvases, some of them very large, the largest five meters Iang, consist of garish rejections of civilization, especially American (the "nightmare with air conditioning," to quote Henry Miller). Pin-up girls as signs of commercialized eroticism are collaged with scenes from the Hitler War, Korea, civil rights struggles, the beginning of Vietnam, in short, public brutality. Flaming "NO" signs are interspersed, tearing and overpainting break through the desolate mess, along with sparse "Love" hopes, probably from early hippie days - an ecstatic art form, chaotic in expression, idealistic in sentiment.
"Are aesthetic impressions desired or undesired?", I asked the painter.
"They are desired," he replied. The old problem of committed painting. How far may and must one go with the appeal to conscience? To the limits of what we call "art"? Beyond that? So this is not "anti-art" - in the sense of Schwitters or Duchamp - but rather anti-anti-art. On one side wall, reproduced in silk screen printing, there is a documentary photograph, the concentration camp corpses stacked on top of each other on a truck. As a caption, one reads underneath: "Assemblage of Adolf Hitler, 1945." The artist, probably to avoid misunderstandings, wrote a few lines as an explanation and hung them on the same wall. According to them, with this realization he wants to criticize the super-aestheticism that knows how to transform even the cruelest events into art. And, he emphasizes, he also sees it as self-criticism.
An honest art of persuasion, therefore, deliberately presented without art: The canvases hang in the gallery in many cases without stretcher frames, and only those from the "NO" period, the No Age, are shown. Lurie refrains - probably also consciously - from later works. The impulse of that time is to be conveyed, of an anti-pop America, in which - seen from today's perspective - much was announced, a good portion of that disaster at least, which has meanwhile befallen the people and the state of the USA.
The impulse as such may have been honest, justified, meritorious, in a book ("From Pinups to Excrement No-artists Rebel") his story is soon to be published in book form; Lurie himself will act as one of the two editors. Whether it was enough, whether it was a far-reaching, a creative impulse, however, remains to be seen. Qualitatively, the average of Pop Art is still far superior to the best of what is shown here, and passionate impulses have a way of becoming historic especially quickly.
The agile Salvador Dali once declared at a reception at the Museum of Modern Art that Dada was an aristocratic revolution. This is, of course, sheer nonsense (and probably meant as such), but in contrast, NO!art, quoted verbatim, felt itself to be a "rebellion of the underprivileged-lumpenproletariat-artists." An assessment that probably involves a fair amount of self-pity. For committed art must and wants to have an effect at the moment in which it is created. Now, when the future has already begun for it, it is probably necessary to refer to conspiratorial cliques that have prevented its effect. It would be better to insist on something that alone has a present and a future in art: skill. The moral aspect of this exhibition nevertheless remains impressive enough, even if, to paraphrase George Grosz, who described his life as "A little yes, a big no", it should be a big no and not too big art either.