“H“He never sold a painting in his life, lived in shacks, but died worth $ 100 million,” says Anthony Williams, president of the Boris Lurie Art Foundation, in a press preview of Boris Lurie: Nothing to Do but Try . “He was,” she later says with a sigh, “a complicated man.”
The paradox of Boris Lurie’s living conditions is only one outline in the tragic and fascinating life of this painter, illustrator, sculptor, chronicler, co-founder of the art movement No! And a survivor of a concentration camp, whose work is exhibited in the Museum. of Jewish Heritage – A living Holocaust memorial in lower Manhattan.
The exhibition is the first contemporary art show in the museum’s 24-year history. The beauty and horror found in the nearly 100 pieces, most of which were created at a breakneck pace in 1946, and have since been called Lurie’s “War Series” find a fitting setting alongside the collection. home to the Museum of Holocaust and Judaica testimonies, a memorial garden designed by Andy Goldsworthy, and the home of the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, the world’s oldest continuous production Yiddish theater company and the oldest continuous production theater company in any language in the United States.
“This is a different kind of testimony,” says museum president Jack Kliger of the often nightmares and haunting images on display.
Lurie was born in Leningrad, now Saint Petersburg, in 1924, but his family moved to Riga in Latvia when he was two years old. The Nazis occupied the city when he was 16 years old and, after a short time in the Riga ghetto, the people closest to him – his mother, grandmother, sister and girlfriend – were among the 25,000 people killed in the Rumbula forest.
Young Boris and his father were forced to work as slave laborers in factories (including for Lenta, making luxury goods for the Nazis), sent to the Salaspils concentration camp near Riga, then through a treacherous journey in boat, to Stutthof on the outskirts of Danzig, and finally, the Magdeburg satellite camp in Buchenwald. Here they worked as day laborers until the fields were liberated. After the war, Boris worked in the United States Counterintelligence Corps and later emigrated to New York City.
He immediately devoted himself to his work, even though he had almost no formal artistic training. The center section of Nothing to Do but Try, a phrase found in the artist’s memoirs of his own self-teaching, includes a series of hastily drawn sketches taken from notebooks, many of which, says curator Sara Softness, were kept in print. private for most of his life. . The breadth of the assembled mix even includes writing on “a soy sauce-stained napkin.”
The images are flashes of memory from his late teens interrupted by Nazi atrocities: burning buildings, armed troops, forced transit. One encounters recurring themes, such as elongated arms (which may suggest a Hitler salute, but also a loved one reaching out to make contact), faceless men with a scratched X on their back, and haunting, haunting trees with gnarled branches that look like ready to rip someone off the ground.
Paintings from this period evoke real dread. Roll Call in Concentration Camp, with its dark, swirling sky and rust-colored floor as hell, features an alignment of tormented souls, their faces distorted beyond human recognition. (One that looks directly at the viewer almost looks like the classic Max Schreck Nosferatu.)
Similarly striking, as if the title wasn’t enough, is My Mother’s Portrait Before Shooting, rendered in a drab beige hue, vague enough to be out of reach. Memories of the exhibit suggest that she worked harder to keep the family together despite all the odds, and even held a dinner party the night before the Lurie women were killed. Along with the painting Untitled (Calle Ludzas 37), the last home of the family (and close to his girlfriend’s), the comment is added that for the rest of Lurie’s life “she always hated banquets.”
Some of the work that followed the War Series in this exhibition includes a fascinating untitled painting from 1970 that works in dialogue with her mother’s portrait. Accented with light blue, the human face is blurred and distorted, alien and skeletal, probably signifying the blurred memory of an adult clinging to the last memory of a loved one that was taken from him when he was still young.
There are also large photographs from when Lurie visited Riga in 1975 and visited the site of the Rumbula massacre. The images are a bit out of place, supposedly due to his hands shaking as he walked through the ghostly area. The show’s most recent work is called the Ax Series, a collection of old wooden stumps and tools, likely a reflection of the work he and his father did to survive in the Nazi camps.
Something that is overlooked in this exhibition is Lurie’s work with the art group No !, a radical and confrontational movement that began in 1959. Their exhibits had memorable titles such as The Doom Show and The Vulgar Show. As Anthony Williams of the Lurie Art Foundation boasted to me, there was some difficulty getting Lurie’s shitty sculpture through customs for a recent exhibition in Berlin.
Where Lurie fits into the 20th century art scene is still being defined with the help of the Foundation, which was created in 2009, a year after the artist’s death. Despite living in squalor (her ramshackle East Village studio is described as “my Riga ghetto substitute for New York”), Lurie was, in fact, extremely wealthy at the end of her life. At first, this was due to some investment in New York real estate. “It had a part of the Ansonia,” Williams says, referring to the beautiful Upper West Side apartment complex that, for a time, housed the legendary continental baths in its basement. He later got involved in penny stocks, focusing on mobile technology in third world markets. This proved incredibly successful, hence the great fortune at the time of his death.
Not once during his career did he sell a “substantial” work of art, and he even deterred buyers when a deal was close to being closed, according to Williams. He slept during the day and worked at night, and some of his friends wondered if he was trying, in some way, to recreate how he lived in Buchenwald.
“This exhibition,” says curator Sara Softness, “really considers her devastating emotional life and how she came out into the world, all inescapably informed by her trauma.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism