Boris Lurie

Chelsea Art Museum

Boris Lurie, From the 'American Series', 1962.

Boris Lurie, From the 'American Series', 1962.

Boris Lurie, From the 'American Series', 1962. 

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.

Chris Wiley is an artist and writer. He acted as an advisor and catalogue writer for ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’ at the 55th Venice Biennale, 2013.

Issue 142

First published in Issue 142

October 2011

Most Read

Ahead of ARCOMadrid this week, a guide to the best institutional shows in the city
At La Panacée, Montpellier, Nicolas Bourriaud’s manifesto for a new movement and attempt to demarcate an artistic peer...
A report commissioned by the museum claims Raicovich ‘misled’ the board; she disputes the investigation’s claims
In further news: Jef Geys (1934–2018); and Hirshhorn postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko projection after Florida shooting
If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not...
Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018