Dietmar Kirves: Boris, you already look back at seventy years of life. You were born in Leningrad in 1924. The time during the revolution in Russia was the peak of contemporary history. Your parents emigrated to Latvia with you. There the barbarous Nazi separated your family in the ghetto of Riga. You were 17 years old. You got number 95966 in the concentration camp in Buchenwald. You survived the horror at the age of twenty-one. Your eyes seem full of grief, death and massacres. You went to New York then. At that point of time the patina-formed Statue of Liberty already has been standing around there for 60 years. Weren’t you frightened by the affluence you met there? How did your idea occur to make paintings? Haven’t you been able to get rid of your impressions? Has it been your intention to illustrate the chaos? Did you intend to show the development of mankind facing the atomic bomb on Hiroshima?
Boris Lurie: Yes, Dietmar, it had been a revolutionary time then. I’ve gone through it all. I have started painting very early. My early works got lost in the destruction of the ghetto in Riga in December 1941. Then I worked as prisoner in Riga at the Wehrmacht as sign painter and for decoration. Later, in the concentration camps, I had no longer been working, of course. I went to New York because my sister lived there during that time. Actually, I wanted to continue my art work there. I had no program to show something to the public. But, after I first had started to paint my Infories of the concentration camps as “non-taught” artist in my way, studying arts I found out that the art world aesthetically and even practically is in control with all the tricks of the trade. First I thought that the experts and authorities exactly knew what belongs to great art and what does not. The inspiration just occurred later to me that this is not true. And then I’ve got something to tell you: With art I couldn’t gain any money for living. I didn’t manage to make good-selling art to earn my living due to a lack of talent. Practically, this brought me into a class state. My further actions were motivated by this and started from this platform. The artists wanting to carry on like me had moved to the most poor areas of New York. And this was the Lower East Side. 15 Dollars rent per month. No hot water and no electricity at all. One automatically turned out to be member of the low class of society.
You started drawing “Dismembered Women” then. Have you been against women giving birth to soldiers all over the world? Or why did you cut up women’s bodies on canvas?
I already had painted “Dismembered Women” in 1947 and at least showed them twice in regular galleries. It was my reaction to New York and America. Fat and cut up women. Fat and even cut up. All this after the famine and the war in Europe. There are as well traces left in these paintings for sure, traces perhaps of the Riga Rumbula mass grave to be found where ten thousands had been executed. I painted cut up women. Quite simple and modelled as sculptures. One could almost say that it’s a mixture between Michelangelo and Fernand Léger. Almost poster style. One could interpret it as my reaction to the style of Expressionist Surrealist Jackson Pollock. Later they called it “Action Painting” and Abstract Expressionism then.
You got together with others at that point of time to take action against the establishment in art business? How did you work then? Did you want to start a sexual revolution against war? Did you want to question it all?
Our art revolutionary involvement took place around 1958 at our co-operative March Gallery in Tenth Street. We got together as we felt stronger as a group. Everyone swept the others with him while challenging against the inhuman business. So we couldn’t expect the establishment to nourish us. We didn’t want to kiss the arses on top. By luck we found cheap rooms in downtown. Tenth Street near Bowery was such an area. The trash was lying on the street there. All this brought up with the “unappetizing” Expressionism and the “Street Art” of the wrecked and dangerous Lower East Side and our desperation: A rebellion against the “art world” and all the rest! The slave has got nothing to lose but his chains! We didn’t want to know anything about sexual revolution against war. We rather were against marketing of women in the mass media. And further on we were against commercialisation of sex by women themselves. NO satisfaction without spending money. We were against the suppressed natural sex aggression of men. The at that time non-bourgeois art scene was completely filled with sex rage which they extinguished with alcohol. That means in my pin-ups there had been rage against women. The pin-up mixture to me personally as well symbolized the mass graves e.g. in Riga where mostly women were killed. For Stanley Fisher it based on his experience as soldier in Normandy. Goodman expressed his dissatisfaction of being outsider in regard to his lack of money. Several artists had been busy in our March Gallery. We worked in all sorts of different trends of art, i.e. we were independent in our aesthetics in contrary to other galleries which were more or less dominated by young Abstract Expressionists. But the gallery slowly died since many artists looked for the co-operating galleries in Tenth Street as a trampoline to jump into the uptown galleries. They found themselves useless at our place. They liquidated themselves for having no output. So we took over the March Gallery in a non-democratic way to represent but just one direction, i.e. this one of radical protest art and of personal expression without limits to moral or aesthetics. NO!art was born. From now on the gallery was called March Group and we organized as “rebels”.
How did you then choose your artists for exhibitions, environments and actions? Which slogans did you have?
The exhibition activity in the March Gallery so far had been accomplished by membership fees and votes which was dropped then in the March Group. Actions in the March Group were decided “from above”. And those who wanted to participate could connect. All in all there had been no big democracy! Nonetheless we didn’t have censorship for openings of exhibitions or Environments if possible. However, the things had to fit ideologically to our concept. We weren’t any liberal bourgeois art gallery. We had quarrels, disputes and expulsions due to non-camaraderie and certain non-disciplined behaviour. John Fisher and then later Stanley Fisher were expulsed e.g. Our cellar was that often crammed full that you couldn’t even see the wall of it. The experience of space was more important than the framed picture on the wall only for the lonesome moneyfucker. It’s the system then and not that little money. We were against hushing and psychological lies. “Art” is education, propaganda as well, and works on its own, apart from economical facts. Our way of practising is as well to be seen as a military strategy against Pop Art. It’s obvious today that entire generations have been influenced by propaganda and were persuaded. A member of the working class as well as a petit bourgeois might emotionally be more reactionary as an individual moneyfucker. Our slogans had been serious by blood when we said: “CUNT ME, FUCK ME, PRICK ME, ...” It was by no means Dadaistic critical humour. It was our rage that we shouted out. This we had in mind when we acted and the people came to us. Nobody thought about not acting like this or reducing it as not having enough money. Our money had been our free ideas. So we didn’t let anybody fuck our thing.
And what did you do in the March Group?
Exhibitions, exhibitions and once more exhibitions, actions and Environments for the people to get something to their eyes. You have to bring it vividly to their eyes. And if they aren’t able to read you have to explain it to them like a graffiti on huge walls outside in the streets: MORT AUX JUIFS! ISRAEL IMPERIALISTE! In bloody colours if possible to express our rage. That’s why we called our exhibitions DOOM SHOW, SHIT SHOW, NO!SHOW etc. We had been the very centre of the world. But just many of us are dead to work on in hell! And it lives on inside of us! We created reforms in the aesthetics, the production and the material of which I only like to mention some of them as e.g. saturation process, torn collages, surgical transmissions, body distortion, multiple pictures, objects manufactured by machines, statements, political posters, hung and floor pieces, transformation from transient to long-lasting, writings in the sand, system inherent, modified photos, socio-cultural art etc.
But you can’t live on without any profit. Nowadays you have to buy clothes with imprinted advertising which you don’t like to have to cover your shame. And only the big ones make a profit from. However, you may remove the labels if you don’t want to wear them. How did you manage to cut off from the labels of profit? Didn’t you actually sell something to survive?
You’re always able to sell something if it’s not too unappetizing. However, the unappetizing is much more difficult to sell. There’s always a small market for low prices. The artist then has to be a small businessman which just takes as much time as any other job. But there’s the “big market”: One having access becomes a member of a community of interests, a pyramid of art bureaucrats, traders, speculators and collectors. Therefore he becomes a member of an industry. He has to adapt to, he’s not allowed to bother them. In this way his aesthetic area is limited. That’s current for all goods on the market. But, it’s the way it is that the “biggest” art always has been created at a time when the market didn’t long for it. That’s a fact. It’s as well a fact that the most famous artists were getting weaker while producing in relation to their higher position on the market. Today, the pop artists of the 60s are typical for that: They have completely had it. Me, I almost never sold, today I’m more fertile than ever! Therefore, it even has advantages not to get fucked by the market. NO!art as well never would have been formed if the market would have accepted and caressed its disciples. The role for the artist to play in society is in any case not the same role like the one during the time of Rembrandt when the artist used to be a regular craftsman. Today he should be similar to a prophet in a desert. There’s enough of decorations and prudent aesthetic discoveries! His problem is how to survive .. how to create … how to involve actively … how to protect his work from destruction … He should not fall into the trap of the art establishment and the art industry in the case he’s becoming “famous”. Nowadays, the art system namely is as dilapidated as never before due to its great success. Maybe this already happened in slighter dimensions with the academic artists of the 19th century. Everyone who reflects upon will comprehend how the art industry works today. It’s no secret any longer. The artists currently stagger from the left to the right and from the top to the bottom without having any idea how to help themselves. Their only answer is just a cynical egoist state of mind: They hypocritically conform and protest at the same time. But we’re looking for another track: Perhaps just in small selected elitist groups outside of the establishment to fight our partisan battles and to sometimes manifest in the establishment at short notice. Since this, however, is controlled by the entire propaganda machine and one isn’t able to be heard without, attention has to be paid for not being conformed. I just remember the negotiations in the Gertrude Stein Gallery together with number two of the Pop Art establishment, collector and promoter Mister Kraushaar. It happened at two o’clock in the morning. He wanted to separate Goodman and me to classify us as Pop Art and to take over the Stein Gallery as a satellite whereupon Goodman offended him by saying: “I shit on you, too!” The whole negotiation was blown by that. It reminds me of Isser Aronovici’s remark to this in the NO!art book: “Neither Sam nor Boris have been famous until today but the reputation of their work has been upholded until the end. Everything would have gone down the drain at least, if six million dead Jews wouldn’t have gotten Sam to drop such a mean remark to the wealthy speculator. So he fulfilled his job to save his own and Boris’ reputation from the brink of disaster.” Unfortunately Aronovici committed suicide three months ago when he ran into a subway tunnel, lay down on the rails and waited for the train to come.
And what was the people’s comment to your exhibitions and actions? How did they react?
The people’s reaction had been totally different. Some of them were totally enthusiastic whereas some of them completely disapproved us. That is how it’s got to be! Everything really new has to evoke reactions like these. The reaction has to be exciting. Otherwise there’s something wrong with the people. You always have to be prepared for different reactions. Some feel but threatened if their way of thinking begins to sway. They tend to put everything in drawers. Then they say: “That’s art!” or “That’s business!” or “That is destroying!” And if somebody comes around then and mixes all up it is felt as threatening. Therefore please: We should mix up more!
Thank you for the interview, Boris. Let’s make more NO!art.