The Disgust and Revulsion of an Artist for whom the World No Longer Made Sense

Program Director Cilly Kugelmann on the Exhibition “NO COMPROMISES! The Art of Boris Lurie”

Two men with a pistol, a portrait of Hitler, and a (in large part covered) swastika flag

“As this image of Lurie with his brother-in-law Dino Russi from 1946 shows, the NO!art artists, in reclaiming the swastika symbol, robbed it of its symbolic value.” (Cilly Kugelmann)
Boris Lurie Art Foundation, New York

Our major retrospective dedicated to Boris Lurie opens 26 February 2016 (for more information see Blog editor Mirjam Bitter spoke with Cilly Kugelmann about the artist, his provocative work, and the possible impact today of the taboos that he broke throughout his career.

Mirjam Bitter: What is your view of Boris Lurie? What sort of a guy was he? What distinguished him as an artist?

Cilly Kugelmann: The man and the artist Boris Lurie was shaped by his experience of persecution and concentration camps under the Nazi regime. And yet, unlike other artists who faced similar experiences, I feel he cannot be described as a “Holocaust artist.” With the exception of some early drawings from 1946 and a few paintings from the late 1940s, he neither chronicled these events nor sought to interpret the Holocaust artistically in his work.

Then what role did the Holocaust play in Lurie’s work?

His work reflects the destructiveness inherent to the system of persecution that Lurie himself had experienced. It is also a testament to the realization that hardly anyone who has suffered such a system will ever be able to return to a “normal” life. Many survivors compartmentalized their memories of persecution. Others kept them at bay by consuming large quantities of painkillers, which often led to their premature death. Lurie, by contrast, translated into art all the rage and despair he felt about a human race capable of conducting a campaign of extermination of hitherto unseen precision and scope. That was how he coped with his feeling that the world no longer made sense, and with being condemned to feel homeless wherever he went.

Exhibition Poster

Lurie’s work “NO with Mrs. Kennedy” from 1963 demonstrates his critical attitude toward U.S. policies in the early 1960s, regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis. Jackie Kennedy – icon of the upper class and surrounded by NOs and the colors of the American flag – here takes the role of the pin-up girl featured in Lurie’s other collages.

Simultaneously Lurie confronted his peers with what, in his eyes, was a hypocritical and obscene approach to these momentous events. American society, which he joined in 1946, lacked historical and psychological insight into his personal experience. It dealt with the mass extermination of Jews merely as one issue among many competing for public attention on a cultural landscape driven by advertising and sensationalist journalism. In numerous provocative works of art, Lurie explored this tension between a complacent art world and his own artistic aspiration to offer resistance.

Is this the reason for the exhibition title “NO COMPROMISES!”— that Lurie was not willing to adjust to postwar American society and its superficial response to the Holocaust?

Not only to the Holocaust! Lurie was opposed in equal measure to the art market, which seemed to be interested in nothing but supply and demand, and completely neglected to engage with politics. We wanted to find a way to express Lurie’s struggle against a society that was neither able nor willing, in those first postwar decades, to comprehend the experiences of Holocaust victims and survivors; and also that was not prepared to prevent war and genocide in the future.

Since Lurie was skeptical about the art market, he never expected his provocative work to sell. He made a living instead from playing the stock market—and with such success as to be able to leave behind a substantial estate when he died. The Boris Lurie Art Foundation, which is generously supporting our present exhibition, now administers that legacy.

Do Lurie’s artworks have a different impact today than when he first made them?

We will see, once the exhibition opens. It’s a question I’ll have to put to those who have come into contact with Lurie’s work for the first time. What is your opinion?

The red letters "No" on a black and orange background

Boris Lurie, No (Red and Black), 1963, Oil on canvas, 56x89cm
Boris Lurie Art Foundation, New York, USA

I think that at least the pornographic parts of his collages break fewer taboos now than decades ago. Yet, in mixing pornography and depictions of the Holocaust from the perpetrator’s viewpoint, Jonathan Littell’s novel The Kindly Ones still gave rise to much debate only ten years ago. In that sense, Lurie’s collages, which combine piles of corpses and saleable female sexuality, remain provocative to this day. One may find them irritating or even repulsive, and yet this itself prompts reflection. After all, serious confrontation with Nazi crimes and their consequences for our actions today is still not the general rule. “Holocaust kitsch” is produced all too frequently because it’s a theme that “sells well.” For me personally, however, viewing Lurie’s collages brought up questions not so much about their contemporary shock value as about their original historical context.

One major difference between then and now is that the details of Nazi crimes were not widely known when Lurie made his earliest works. In 1953, when the TV show “This Is Your Life” featured the biography of Hanna Bloch Kohner, an Auschwitz survivor, the presenter could barely pronounce the name of the camp. Moreover, he said that he presumed the inmates there had been given “nothing but a towel and a bar of soap,” whereupon Hanna Kohner replied with evident irritation that she could not remember the soap.

This Is Your Life, Hanna Kohner

So Lurie and others who had gone through similar experiences had no one to rely on but themselves—despite the fact that the USA, unlike Germany, hadn’t been razed to the ground. Lurie’s forte is that he didn’t translate his experience into symbolic images but rather continued to draw on his sense of rage and horror about the circumstances that had made mass murder possible. In this respect, his art is unique.

Many thanks for sharing your views! Perhaps some of our readers will use the blog’s comments section to share their impressions of the Lurie exhibition and its current impact with us.

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