Boris Lurie's art is not pretty. It does not conform to imposed formal criteria, to the accepted notions of taste - either good or bad. It does not conform to any rules at all but those of necessity. Concentration camps have rules, dictators have rules; even the art-world has rules. Lurie has survived them all; his art is a straightforward portrayal of what he has seen around him. And he has seen a lot.
It has been said that all modern art in America is about anxiety, the anxiety that comes with "freedom." Lurie's art has the distinction of knowing about both freedom and imprisonment, and it is no wonder his work differed from that of the same generation on these shores. Most American artists of the Forties were fresh out of art school. Lurie was fresh out of Buchenwald.
After arriving to the US, Lurie set about giving himself the art education he missed. He learned the most from something Man Ray said: "What makes you think the best art is to be found in museums? How much has been destroyed by fire or flood?" He lost his veneration for the experts and began making art on his own terms in a Lower East Side studio, and by the Fifties he had found his voice.
Lurie and two of his comrades in art, Sam Goodman and Stanley Fisher, formed an ideologically directed group of artists and took over the March Gallery, a 10th Street cooperative, when the Abstract-Expressionist and figurative artists abandoned it for a brighter future Uptown. There they rebelled against the scene characterized by formalism. They wanted to get content into art, to speak out about everything: political, vulgar and strictly personal — certainly holocaust themes, completely taboo at that time. They did not merely look for "aesthetic" quality. Yayoi Kusama, Allan Kaprow, Wolf Vostell, Richard Tyler, Allan D'Arcangelo, Isser Aronovici and Michelle Stuart, among others, participated in the shows and manifestations. Future Pop-Artists who became household names, such as Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist, carefully surveyed the exhibitions.
Many liked what they saw, but many did not. . . Here at the March Group, the standard menu of prevailing genres did not stand a chance. For Sam Goodman, a landscape was a chess set filled with melted, plastic soldiers, smooth and burnt in mid-epiphany; a still life consisted of three hand grenades in a pristine ceramic bowl. Lurie made portraits all right; of dismembered women. There were also jarring assemblages that incorporated sleazy pin-up girls, disemboweled plastic babies, crusty cloths smeared with red paint resembling coagulated entrails. Goodman and Lurie made Shit-sculptures, the NO! sculptures - hardened plaster extruded through tubes, painted the color of the real thing. Stanley Fisher made collages and paintings in a vein similar to Boris Lurie, and provided the group's sardonic written statements. One typical poster for a show read: "This one statement by the MARCH GROUP among a thousand countless uncalled for unfounded statements that it makes on subjects like art it knows nothing about."(1) Another: "DOOM. . . Business as usual!!!"(2)
Clearly this group (which came to be known as the NO!artists, for the way Lurie scrawled that "negative" over everything) cried for a public reaction. The reaction it got was rather a surprising one. Artists were the most hostile of all. Dealers were, at best, lukewarm. Only Gertrude Stein, of the Gertrude Stein Gallery and Laura Baron, of the Holland D'Aennle Gallery gave the group shows uptown.
Still, a number of critics were supportive. Brian O'Doherty of the Times was one, Thomas Hess of ARTnews another. Hess said of Lurie and Goodman in 1962: "They comment on the disgrace of society with the refugee material of society itself— fugitive materials for fugitives from our great disorders - our peripheral obscenities, our repulsive factory-made waste matter.(3) Yet the group was found too radical for most of the press, even for the liberal Village Voice.(4) There were well-received and extremely well-attended shows in Milan and Rome, but back in America the art was passed over for the pristine visions of Pop Art. The group fell into obscurity in the United States as members left, died, or committed suicide. This work just did not sell. . .
Lurie is one of the last surviving members of this milieu. Since 1964, his work has only been seen in Europe, yet it has had an undeniable influence, or echo, in the work of subsequently better-known artists here. To make a far-fetched comparison, with Robert Rauschenberg for example: both were making combine-style paintings incorporating advertising and found objects in a free painterly style, but to diametrically opposed ends. Dan Cameron has remarked of Rauschenberg that his work "was entrenched in. . . deliberate ambiguities of subject and meaning."(5) Lurie's work, however, is unambiguous. He throws together the haphazard to express the haphazard; the jarring is meant to jar. There are no hidden meanings in NO!art - unless we hide them, preferring not to think about them because they are too painful to face.
Traces of NO!art's influence can also be found in a number of subsequent movements, right down to the present day. Lurie and the NO!artists, and later the Viennese Aktionists, influenced a whole spectrum of artistic activity, among them Paul McCarthy (and it is easy to connect the dots from Lurie's dead animal heads, encased in a block of plastic from the 1960s to British artist Damien Hirst's floating cows of the present day.) (6) Looking at the images of the Vulgar Show, 1960, it is equally obvious that the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was not the first to show bondage in an art gallery.
One of the most powerful lessons we can learn from Lurie's work concerns objectification. One painting, Life, 1963, incorporates a famous photo of a corpse's burnt face and withered arm trapped under the corner of a building; Untitled, 1963, is the same photo surrounded by other, postage-stamp-sized photos of women in S&M bondage scenarios; And Now! NO More! from 1963 is just that - a simple, painterly scrawl of those words, on which are superimposed three identical yellow Jewish stars. You must objectify life in art, Lurie seems to be saying - but to get away with that sort of thing in life?
Nowhere is this clearer than in one of his most simple works, a plain photograph, unaltered except for its title. Flatcar Assemblage, 1945 by Adolf Hitler (attribution Lurie's) is a simple black and white image of a train car, filled beyond capacity with corpses. No single whole body can be discerned, only parts: angular emaciated limbs that are barely skin over bone, a pelvis so bony it forms a sharp right angle, a pair of boots on splayed legs, and piles and piles of bare feet. Close your eyes halfway and the photographer's decisive moment has caught a compelling, abstract image: a compilation of darks and lights, a horrible, geometric mass. Lurie is no neo-Dadaist when he appropriates this photo, nor even a postmodernist. Hitler was the artist here, turning people into raw material. He is the appropriationist; Lurie gives him credit.
Lurie's hand in the works, his ability as a painter, ought not be overlooked, as evidenced by a brilliant series he did in 1963. In it, posters of Henry Cabot Lodge, vice-presidential hopeful and Ambassador to Vietnam, are altered with a host of painterly styles and violent erasures: in one he is elegantly superimposed with Suprematist swaths of primary colors; in another he is effaced with burns, rendering his visage as black as a wrestler's mask.
In the Bleed series from 1969, the man's face has been replaced by a woman's cleavage. The image is overlayed with a word and altered again with colors, and with duct tape, torn bits of cloth, and rope: the minute traces of ephemeral human existence. The individual pieces (which can be considered separate units) are placed in random arrangement within a grid, a choice which puts Lurie somewhat in keeping with the repetitious units of Sixties Minimalism, however, as in much of his work, this too is injected with a subjective, angry sexual charge (as later expressed by Punk Rock.) As he metamorphosed Lodge's campaign into his own, more personal one, here he presents a woman's breasts (which we might associate with milk - White) superimposed with the word Bleed (alluding to bloodshed - Red) a striking image even if it were in black and white. The allusion to horror is literally stated. The painting and collage around the borders is the icing on the cake; each of the techniques is another point of entry for the viewer.
There is so much in Boris Lurie's art we would just rather not think about. The horror vacuui behind the curtain of American consumerism, the frightening consequences of art made for profit - but not from experience; the impenetrability of the art-world to genuinely new ideas which do not translate into bottom dollars, mind-titillating academic discourse, or our love of easy answers, when there are none to give.
Maybe the museums and galleries will not grind to a halt if they continue to pass Lurie by. But they will cheat themselves of a vital part of history - of the Lower East Side pre-East Village scene, of the milieu of the expiring Abstract Expressionism of that time. And NO!art, the seemier antecedent to Pop Art; that same Pop Art which made light of the commercial horror it plunged the art world into.
"Is there nothing else, but the chewed-up norm? Well, here it is: Bleed!"(7)
(1) Vulgar Show, March Group, 1960.
(2) Doom Show, March Gallery, 1961.
(3) Thomas B. Hess, Boris Lurie and Sam Goodman, catalog, Galleria Schwarz, Milan, 1962.
(4) Except: Bill Manville, Les Lions (Boris Lurie, Images of life, March Gallery) Village Voice, New York, 1960; quoted on page 2. of this catalog.
(5) Dan Cameron, Art and Its Double: A New York Perspective, Hacker Art Books, 1987, New York.
(6) Boris Lurie Death Sculpture, 1964, NGBK catalog, page 55.
About SARAH SCHMERLER: She is an art critic living in Brooklyn. She teaches at The New School in Manhattan.