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Boris Lurie



Curated by James Cavello


New York, NY – Westwood Gallery, NYC in collaboration with Boris Lurie Art Foundation presented an exhibition of paintings, drawings, collage and sculpture by Boris Lurie (1924-2008), co-founder of the NO!art movement. The exhibition of 45 works of art was from a private collection spanning 1946 through 1989 and was the first New York exhibition since the artist's death.

Many of the drawings indicate Lurie's fascination with the female archetype, based on relationships with women throughout his life. The collages with 'pin-ups' reflect the paper constructions Lurie created over the decades utilizing pages from 'girlie magazines', an alluring objectification, which encompassed much of his work. The artist was also known for his startling images of pin-ups incorporated into Holocaust photographs, as well as sculptural work with clothing scraps. Lurie also created 'feel paintings' using his elbows, hands and fingers to scratch into a surface with paint underneath -- a hypnotic method that resulted in stunning cryptic paintings.

The exhibition was in collaboration with the Boris Lurie Art Foundation. The Boris Lurie Art Foundation is dedicated to preserving and exhibiting the artwork of Boris Lurie and NO!art artists.


In 1946, after surviving the Holocaust, Lurie moved to New York City where he became a part of the underground art scene through a movement he co-founded with Sam Goodman (1919-1967) and Stanley Fisher (1926-1980). The NO!art movement was a form of free expression, without commercial motivation, encompassing the artists' views on politics, society, art, personal experiences and visceral expression. At the time, NO!art was largely rejected by art critics, museums and collectors, until the artists and artwork of NO!art became more understood and accepted in the art world. In 1970 Lurie wrote a statement for an exhibition in Germany, "The time for Yes-art is not at all at hand. Who knows? Maybe NO!art's time is yet to come."

Lurie's artwork has been exhibited at Weimar-Buchenwald Memorial, Germany, Block Museum of Art Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa City, IA and other museums and galleries in the U.S., Germany, Latvia and Israel. Two film documentaries were completed on Boris Lurie, NO!art Man by Amikam Goldman, 2002 and Shoah and Pin-Ups: The NO!-Artist Boris Lurie, 2007. Both films explore the life and creations of the artist.



Boris Lurie’s early work, though it can be divided into several distinct bodies, is intensely focused on the subject of women, and in ways that are richer, more articulated, and far more intimately sympathetic than the vast majority of work treating the same subject, whether of that or of any other period in history. Lurie arrived in America in 1946 at the age of 22, a young man bereaved of his mother, grandmother, sister, and young sweetheart by the Nazis, and robbed of his own adolescence, which he suffered in their death camps. 


The female figures that populate his work, from the Dismembered Women Series (1955-57), through the Dancehall (1955), Black Figures (1957-58) and Three Women (1955-57) Series, to the Love (1963) and Pin-ups(1960-1964) Series must be understood through the matrix of the imponderable pain the loss of those dearest to him would inflict. The futile longing for their simple presence by his side, the desperate imaginings of what might have been -- for them far more so than for himself -- had the world not fallen into the clutches of evil, and the constant recognition that violence and inhumanity are equally a danger inherent in the everyday relations of the strong to the weak, the rich to the poor, and male to female, would inform his art even as he matured into the uncompromising radical his later work reveals. Because Lurie’s passion, or rather, compassion for the subject is so multifarious, his fundamental and overwhelming sympathy for women is sometimes misunderstood, especially in the later work, as unwholesome sexual obsession. The mirror he holds up to society is sometimes mistaken for the un-selfconscious mirror of his soul; his own, evidently vigorous, sexuality, forever colored, and indeed perhaps somehow stunted, by the camp experience, is rendered suspect by the insistent proximity of violence and death. His Dismembered Women, Pin-Ups, and Love Series, among others, at once assert that the objectification of women is violence against women and that female sexuality is a fundamental and ineradicable force, ideas difficult at best to incorporate in a single work.



In a statement he made about one of his most controversial bodies of work, Lurie insists that the pin-up girls that he juxtaposes against images and texts documenting the fate of his fellow prisoners, and later of political horrors from the news of the day, in fact represent “the contents of uncounted mass graves” and “a sublime affirmation of anti-death procreation…” In the Three Women and Dancehall Series, Lurie’s women, his deceased mother, grandmother, sister, and sweetheart, are transformed in the lens of his insistent focus into melancholy angels gazing out over the vast wasteland of history, no longer able to meet the eye of the living, or into towering protectresses, cradling the diminutive bodies of damaged men lost in their thoughts, clinging as if to memories about to evanescence, shuffling in silence through the dim crepuscule of the dancehall. They have grown in memory into these larger-than-life creatures, though they may no longer seek nor confer solace.

Lurie loved the dancehalls of the forties and fifties, places where men and women could interact closely, somewhat free of the normal constraints of society. They were places where he could observe the intimate interaction of couples of all ages, a fact that certainly would have evoked for him the truncated lives of the women who were destroyed in the Holocaust, and what might have been. His dancers suggest the ghostly presence of these others, forever denied their futures, their simple pleasures, the joys and sorrows of love and companionship. Where others came to forget, he came to remember.

He infuses the dance of life with a profound melancholy, the melancholy of memory and of what shall never be. His men appear weak and starved, wanting only to rest in the comforting arms of their companions, or hungering and furious, intent that they shall not be separated from their love. In some of the pictures (e.g, Dancehall Yellow, c. 1955), the form of the woman is obscure; it is unclear whether she is entangled in the arms of her partner of whether he dances with her only in his frantic imagination. In Untitled (c. 1955) the foreground male figure almost dissolves into his partner, creating the effect that she appears to cradle a non-existent child in her arms. The distinctly smaller, mostly faceless, male figures of the untitled Dancehall charcoal of 1955, one of them in evening trousers that could easily be concentration camp stripes, seem to melt into their Amazonian companions – the survivors, too, have lost everything and long desperately for what cannot be.

In spare yet ambiguous strokes, Lurie conveys the profound tragedy of both victim and survivor. His figures keep dancing, loving, and living in his mind’s eye though they no longer exist, their memories dominated by the dead, and which grow until they overpower everything, a motif that also appears in his novel House of Anita. The guilt of the survivor is mingled with the pure love of the bereft. Time has stopped, and it lingers forever at the portal of what might have been.



NO!art, founded in 1960 by Lurie with Sam Goodman and Stanley Fisher, was primarily a strong reaction of the artists against the establishment. Its main intent was to address the less pleasant social realities, glossed over by the mainstream art, and to prompt for immediate action and social reform versus accepting the prevalent beautified version of reality. From such a platform, NO!art positioned itself directly in conflict with the glossy homage of consumerism celebrated by Pop art, and the already established high art, Abstract Expressionism, the two movements dominating the art scene at the time. As a result, the NO!art artists were largely ignored by the general public and the establishment, while gaining a cult following.

The theme choices often reference the historical context (sexual references hint to the mainstream repression at the time, as well as to the commercialization of sex, while the superimposition of war and extermination imagery stems from recent memories and from a need to shock in order to press for social reform). A NO!art artwork is definitely not a commodity or a decorative background, but more likely is meant to evoke wounds that are not healed; that have been superficially hidden by the fabric of everyday life in 1960s U.S. In the same time, it represents a reaction against what the NO!art artists considered a fake, edulcorated version of events. The artworks incorporate photography, collage from newspapers and other sources, found objects and advertising banner words. One can see distorted female figures, obliterated faces covered in scratches, words such as NO, AVOID, BLEED, or SHARK BAIT. The surface of the artwork is not glossy, and the message is that another layer of disturbing imagery or information could exist in the social palimpsest, and it should be excavated. While the Dadaist and Surrealist filiation is evident, there is also a desperate need for authenticity and confronting life without attempting to hide its dark sides and to prompt the public to accept the need for social reform and openness as a cure for alienation. Many of the drawings indicate Lurie’s fascination with the female archetype, based on relationships with women throughout his life. The collages with ‘pin-ups’ reflect the paper constructions Lurie created over the decades utilizing pages from ‘girlie magazines’, an alluring objectification, which encompassed much of his work. The artist was also known for his startling images of pin-ups incorporated into Holocaust photographs, as well as sculptural work with clothing scraps. Lurie also created ‘feel paintings’ using his elbows, hands and fingers to scratch into a surface with paint underneath -- a hypnotic method which resulted in stunning cryptic paintings.

Lurie’s art is heroic. He rejected the temptation to abandon the ravages of the past that swept up American society and its art world in the wake of victory in the Second World War and to embrace the ever less mindful prosperity that victory brought with it. His art is a resounding No! to ease and oblivion and a solemn vow never to forget. He stands among the great artists who responded in their work to the greatest inhumanity ever perpetrated and who reaffirmed the human spirit that art represents at a time in which its own fate hung in the balance.