Born in St. Petersburg in 1924, Boris Lurie grew up in Latvia. When he was 16, that country was occupied by the Nazis, and much of his immediate family was murdered. Lurie, who died in 2008, survived several labor and concentration camps, in part because he was treated as a skilled laborer but also because he was accompanied by his father, who was a shrewd networker. After the war, he served with the United States Counter Intelligence Corps and then migrated to New York City. There, he learned to make art and, due to his highly successful real estate dealings, created a foundation devoted to the preservation and promotion of what he dubbed his NO!art. Although Lurie’s art has been the subject of a number of exhibitions, Nothing To Do But To Try at the Museum of Jewish Heritage is the first show of his earliest work: paintings, drawings, and sketches, most made immediately after the war, works that he kept private. Two paintings depict wartime scenes: “Roll Call in Concentration Camp” (1946) and “Liberation of Magdeburg” (1946). Also included are a self-portrait, an image of his mother made from memory (“Portrait of My Mother Before Shooting,” 1947), and one later painting, “In Concentration Camp” (1971). The artworks are accompanied by a presentation of his texts and photographs of the camps, as well as family photographs, correspondences, and diaries.
In “Roll Call,” multiple rows of skeletal figures wear blue uniforms and stand at attention. Behind them are the barracks. “Liberation” positions the viewer at a high vantage point, watching through a broken window as soldiers rush toward a structure and, in the distance, buildings go up in flames. Two white narrow curtains flap in the wind. The drawings are close-up images of individual guards and prisoners. It’s amazing that these works exist at all, but in themselves they scarcely constitute a full visual record of the Holocaust. “In Concentration Camp” is a different kind of image. Here three figures are seen close up, staring vacantly into space. Other figures grouped in the distance are rendered as white forms. Are they the victims or their ghosts? Lurie doesn’t make this clear.
In his catalogue essay for the book Boris Lurie: Anti Pop, “Tarrying with the Negative: The Holocaust and the Problem of Visual Representation,” Peter Weibel quotes Theodore Adorno’s famous analysis: “Auschwitz demonstrated irrefutably that culture has failed . . . Whoever pleads for the maintenance of this radically culpable and shabby culture becomes its accomplice.” Weibel goes on to write, in familiar terms, of “the inconceivability and unrepresentability of inhuman barbarism.” The events of the Holocaust can be (and indeed often have been) visually represented. Extensive photographic documentation exists, some of it used in Lurie’s later NO!art. And there are numerous recent cinematic recreations. An artist can represent a scene. What’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to show is the experience of what passes beyond all comprehension, both then and now.
Something that is both experienced and inconceivable: it’s that contradictory conjunction that defines trauma. It is beyond representation and so perhaps also beyond the reach of art. In many of his later, better known works, such as “Railroad to America (Railroad Collage)” (1963), Lurie used collage, often combining photos of American pin-ups girls with Holocaust imagery. In these, he relied upon the expressive power of juxtaposing these ready-made images, as if for him the effect of the trauma could only be recreated by this employment of photographs, whose validity was unmistakable. Most of the works in Nothing To Do But To Try were made shortly after the war, and suggest he had not worked through his response.
This exhibition deserves serious attention from the art world because the issues it foregrounds have been much discussed by many artists. Most desirable would be a full retrospective of Lurie’s entire body of work, for a whole alternate history of modernism (and after) is implicit in his practice. I would like to learn more about the relationship between the images in this show and his choices of imagery in his well known 1960s collages. And it would be useful to better understand why he so violently rejected the Pop Art aesthetic. In his history of the Holocaust, Timothy Snyder writes: “To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history.” Lurie was concerned to explore the limits of visual art’s contribution to that search for historical truth. It’s hard to think of a more important goal for art.
Boris Lurie: Nothing To Do But To Try continues at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (Edmond J. Safra Plaza, 36 Battery Place, Manhattan) through April 29. The exhibition was curated by Sara Softness.