It’s easy to dislike the art of Boris Lurie. At first blush it appears bracingly violent, misogynistic and, on occasion, self-righteous. From the comprehensive, densely hung survey of Lurie’s work from the 1950s and ’60s – put on outside the Chelsea Art Museum’s auspices using funding from the Boris Lurie Art Foundation – one got the distinct feeling of being shouted at and browbeaten with a blunt object. However, despite the myriad problematic hurdles that Lurie’s work gleefully erects, it was also a vital, provocative, historically significant riposte to the hermetic triumphalism of Abstract Expressionism and the cool-handed irony of Pop with which it co-existed, one that has been largely forgotten and is in need of more serious consideration.
It was never Lurie’s intention to be liked. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Even the name of his insular art movement – begun in 1959 with fellow artists Sam Goodman and Stanley Fisher and initially based in the March Gallery on New York’s 10th Street and later moving to the Gallery Gertrude Stein uptown – was one of opposition and refusal: NO!art. It was a movement that took a vocal stance against crass commercialism and cronyism, as well as art that avoided engagement with what Lurie and his cohort deemed to be the most pressing ‘subjects of real life’: desire, death and socio-political injustice. But if Lurie’s compulsion to foist these subjects on an art world he believed to be ham-strung by complacency and capitulation to market concerns appeared aggressive – the NO!art movement, Lurie would later remark, was founded ‘out of desperation’, and put on exhibitions with titles including ‘Vulgar Show’ (1961), ‘Doom Show’ (1962) and ‘Shit Show’ (1964) – it was not without cause.
Born in Leningrad in 1924, Lurie spent his boyhood in Riga, Latvia, where he and his family remained until captured by the Nazis in 1941. Lurie then spent the end of his teens being dragged though hellish camps and ghettos, eventually landing in Buchenwald, from which he was liberated at the end of World War II. Lurie’s mother, sister and grandmother were all murdered in the camps. Unsurprisingly, these losses, as well as his own experiences of Nazi terror, made an indelible impression on the young artist, and would haunt his work for the rest of his life.
Soon after his immigration to New York in 1946, Lurie began to paint dark, brooding canvases that evoked the environment of the camps, work that gave way in the mid-50s to a series of Surrealist-tinged canvases of mutilated female forms, which he grouped under the title ‘Dismembered Women’. These latter works, which bear the mark of both Willem de Kooning and Francis Bacon, just as other Lurie works from the period betray the influence of Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, laid the foundation for the violent, psychosexual photomontage-based works for which he would become most notorious. Among the earliest, and most controversial, of these was his 1959 Railroad Collage, on view in reproduction near the exhibition’s entrance, in which Lurie overlaid an image of a flatbed Nazi railcar piled high with bodies with a rear-view photograph of a pin-up model seductively pulling off her panties. It’s a potent juxtaposition: one that speaks not only to a Sadean overlap between sex and death under fascism that prefigures Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), but also suggests an equivalence between the transmutations of bodies into objects that make possible both gas chambers and girlie magazines.
Lurie continued to use the pin-up – frequently in conjunction with Nazi imagery – as a cipher for societal ills throughout his work in the 1960s, which became increasingly strident and vulnerable to accusations of sexism. These works, which resemble something that Robert Rauschenberg might have made if he had let his anger and id run wild, have had no trouble retaining their visual and rhetorical punch. Yet Lurie’s commitment to his howling, wounded vision of a world gone mad may have worked to his detriment. While it seems callous in the extreme to enjoin a Holocaust survivor to ‘lighten up’, it is Lurie’s didactic insistence that the stuff of ‘real life’ is exclusively composed of degradation, depravity and exploitation that necessarily saps away some of our sympathy – somewhere along the way, it seems, Lurie lost sight of those equally real things that might be worth saving.