BY Ulrich Gutmair in Features | 02 JUN 16
Featured in
Issue 24

Pop Brut

Berlin's Jewish Museum hosts a major retrospective on New York No!Art artist Boris Lurie

BY Ulrich Gutmair in Features | 02 JUN 16

In 1963, Boris Lurie took two black-and-white photographs he found in magazines and made them collide in a disturbing collage. He stuck the pieces of paper to a canvas, framed them with a few brushstrokes, and called the result Railroad to America. The larger of the two pictures shows the flatbed of a truck or, as the work’s title suggests, a railroad car. Naked, emaciated bodies lie within, thrown into a pile. Into this composition, Lurie (who died in 2008) added a photograph from a girlie mag. The young, dark-haired woman in the picture pulls down her underwear and exposes her bottom.

At the time, many found it hard to stomach Lurie’s juxtaposed images of power, humiliation, death and desire. The clash between pictures of mass extermination and mass-produced images of women as sexual objects seemed too provocative. Although Lurie’s work was noticed from the outset, it was neither commercially successful nor canonized, presumably on account of its pornographic, ‘dirty’ content. This outsider status is reflected in the fact that it is now Berlin’s Jewish Museum, and not a major art institution, that has organized the largest retrospective to date on Lurie, under the title ‘No Compromises! The Art of Boris Lurie’. The show includes 200 works, some of which are on public display for the first time.

Boris Lurie, NO (Red And Black), 1963. Courtesy: Boris Lurie Art Foundation, New York

Lurie was born in Leningrad in 1924 as the youngest of three children to the wealthy Jewish couple Ilja and Schaina Lurje. One year later, the family moved to Riga. In 1941, following the occupation of Latvia by German troops, Boris’s mother, his grandmother, one of his sisters and his teenage girlfriend were killed in a forest near Riga in a mass shooting of 27,000 people. Together with his father, Lurie survived various concentration camps. In 1945 they were liberated by American troops from a satellite of the Buchenwald camp in Magdeburg. One year later, Lurie and his father moved to New York, where Lurie’s older sister was living.

Lurie’s first pictures were made in Germany before they left. His journal-like drawings and paintings tried to capture his experiences in various concentration camps (for example, ‘War Series’, 1946). In the 1950s, he began work on his series ‘Dismembered Women’ that he once called a ‘symbol for New York’: ‘They’re fat, but dismembered’ – bodies that are falling apart, seemingly turned inside out. This series no longer portrays individual people, and there is no attempt to tell a story.

Although the ‘girlies’, pin-ups and other motifs from sadomasochist pornography didn’t dominate Lurie’s work, they were a strong presence from the 1960s onwards. A large number of these images surrounded him on the walls of his ‘trash studio’, as he called it, in New York’s Lower East Side. He claimed that they eventually got beyond his control and found their way into his work – specifically into his collages, but also as motifs for large-format paintings such as the ‘Bound Series’ of the early 1960s. Fifty years after these pictures were made, their combination of sexualized images of women with documentation of the Nazi’s ‘final solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem’ is still a provocation. But why did Lurie make this link? And why is it so disturbing?

The obvious answer is that both types of images have clearly visible underlying power structures. The bodies of both those who have been murdered and those of the pin-ups are subjected to a gaze that comes from a position of power. Moreover, these different categories of images were often found side-by-side in the same publications: many of the photographs of Nazi crimes used by Lurie were taken after the liberation of the camps and were published as early as May 1945 in magazines like Life and Vogue – distributed among recipes and fashion shoots. But for Lurie, these pictures of women were more than just evidence of the mass production of images in the media and in advertising designed to appeal to and manipulate emotions.

Boris Lurie, Dismembered Woman: Apple Eater, 1954. Courtesy: © Boris Lurie Art Foundation, New York

As Tal Sterngast writes in her catalogue essay for the Jewish Museum exhibition, a comparison with Lurie’s New York Pop contemporaries shows what is special about his use of pin-ups: like other artists at the time, Lurie must have realized that consumer culture had by then almost entirely taken over the field of public visual representation. In the work of most Pop artists, Sterngast argues, images of women appear as fragments of a commodity world and symbols of a void that can offer neither meaning nor salvation – whereas Lurie’s ‘girlies’ are consumer products whose shadows are underpinned by the death of real women.

In his own foreword to the catalogue for the exhibition ‘Selected Pin-Ups: 1947–1973’, Lurie wrote that pornographic images of women are already inscribed with the violence that could be inflicted on them, like murdered Jewish women: ‘Their physical sensuality, their feminine gigantism, their pure anger masquerading as ecstasy in their twitching orgiastic faces, is nothing but a cover-up, then, for sublime affirmation, of anti-death procreation, of pure though hysterical, death frightened, pre-execution protestation.’  Above the desk in Lurie’s studio hung a picture taken by one of the perpetrators of the mass murder of Jews in Eastern Europe, a man who took pleasure in photographing the naked women in whose execution he participated.

Lurie occasionally referred to his art as anti-Pop, but mainly as No!Art. In 1959, together with Sam Goodman and Stanley Fisher, he founded the No!Art movement that defined itself by rejecting a prevailing culture and politics that had been invalidated by the Holocaust. The group loudly voiced its anger towards ‘the hypocritical intelligentsia, capitalist culture manipulation, consumerism’. But Lurie also considered the term Jew Art to be fitting for his work – specifically Jew rather than Jewish because Jewish culture had effectively been extinguished in Eastern Europe. For Lurie, after the ‘final solution’, Jews are no longer members of a religious or ethnic group, but people who someone forgot to kill. ‘Jew Art’ was meant to reflect the fact that the traditional methods of using photography and writing to produce images and meaning (Lurie often worked with words or slogans) had been rendered unstable and unreliable by historical events.

Boris Lurie in his studio, New York, 1977. Courtesy: Boris Lurie Art Foundation, New York

How contemporary and topical Lurie’s method still feels today is clear in a piece like Altered Photo (Shame!) (1963). Most of the picture is occupied by a monochrome with an irregularly applied ground of oil paint, a warm colour that suggests both blood and the Russian army, to whom the survivors of the death camps in Eastern Europe owed their liberation (Lurie had a portrait of Stalin next to his deathbed in a New York hospital). Onto this ground are applied two rectangles of a darker red. One forms the lower edge of the picture, the other stands vertically in the upper half of the painting. Onto the latter, Lurie stuck a black-and-white photograph showing two naked women who – apparently surprised by the photographer’s gaze – are covering their genitals.

In his book The Heebee-Jeebees at CBGBs (2006), New York journalist Steven Lee Beeber stresses the influence of Jewish culture and experience on the development of punk, noting that there would have been ‘no punk without the Holocaust’. The drastic quality of Lurie’s oeuvre; his explicit claim that the truth of culture expresses itself in pornography; his use of materials dismissed by (high) culture as dirty, cheap and worthless; his juxtaposition of sex and state-organized violence – all of this was also to be found, a few years later, in punk. Most notably, however, Lurie’s Jew Art anticipated the central aesthetic strategy of punk: the shock generated by discrepancies between elements and contexts. This shock, Sterngast writes in her essay, is a direct result of the use of montage, allowing the viewer to see what the documentary image might hide because it gives access to ideals of purity and omnipotence that made Nazi fantasies so seductive. 

In more basic terms, this shock demonstrates not only that the original photographs of the ‘final solution’ show a historical event, but also that they changed our future. Ever since, we have known that the mass murder of human beings can take place at any time, at the highest technical and organizational level. A naked body can never again be viewed as ‘innocent’. It is always a clue to a potential crime.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Ulrich Gutmair is the arts and culture editor for the Tageszeitung newspaper and is currently writing a book about post-1989 culture and the disappearance of vacant lots in Berlin’s Mitte district.