Boris Lurie’s search for historical truth in trauma

Born in Saint Petersburg in 1924, Boris Lurie grew up in Latvia. When he was 16, this 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, partly because he was treated as a skilled worker, but also because he was accompanied by his father, who was a keen networker. After the war, he served in the United States Counterintelligence Corps, then emigrated to New York. There he learned to make art and, through his highly successful real estate transactions, created a foundation dedicated to preserving and promoting what he dubbed his NO!art. Although Lurie’s art has been the subject of several exhibitions, Nothing to do but to try at the Museum of Jewish Heritage is the first exhibition of his early works: paintings, drawings and sketches, most made immediately after the war, works he kept private. Two paintings represent war scenes: “Roll roll call at the 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 a later painting, “In a concentration camp” (1971). The works are accompanied by a presentation of his texts and photographs of the camps, as well as family photographs, correspondence and diaries.

In “Roll Call”, several rows of skeletal figures wear blue uniforms and stand at attention. Behind them, the barracks. “Liberation” puts the viewer at a high vantage point, looking through a shattered window as soldiers rush towards a structure and, in the distance, buildings go up in flames. Two narrow white curtains flap in the wind. The drawings are close-up images of individual guards and prisoners. It is amazing that these works exist, but on their own they are hardly a complete visual record of the Holocaust. “In Concentration Camp” is another type of image. Here, three figures are seen up close, gazing vaguely into space. Other figures clustered in the distance are rendered as white shapes. Are they the victims or their ghosts? Lurie doesn’t say it clearly.

Boris Lurie, “Roll Call in Concentration Camp” (1946), oil on canvas board, 24 x 36 inches

In his catalog essay for the book Boris Lurie: anti-pop, “Dwelling on the Negative: The Holocaust and the Problem of Visual Representation”, Peter Weibel quotes Theodore Adorno’s famous analysis: “Auschwitz has demonstrated irrefutably that culture has failed. . . Whoever pleads for the maintenance of this radically culpable and pathetic culture becomes its accomplice. Weibel goes on to write, in colloquial terms, of “the inconceivability and unrepresentability of inhuman barbarism”. The events of the Holocaust can be (and often have been) represented visually. Extensive photographic documentation exists, some of which is used in Lurie’s latest NO!art. And there are many recent cinematic recreations. An artist can represent a scene. What is difficult, if not impossible, to show is the experience of what is beyond all understanding, both then and now.

Something that is both experienced and inconceivable: it is this contradictory conjunction that defines trauma. It is beyond representation and therefore perhaps also beyond the scope of art. In many of his better known later works, such as “Railroad to America (Railroad Collage)” (1963), Lurie used collage, often combining photos of American pin-up girls with Holocaust imagery. In these, he relied on the expressive power of juxtaposing these ready-made images, as if for him the effect of trauma could only be recreated by this use of photographs, the validity of which was indisputable. Most of the work in Nothing to do but to try were made shortly after the war and suggest that he had not elaborated on his response.

Boris Lurie, “Liberation of Magdeburg” (1946), pastel and gouache on paper, 19 x 25 inches

This exhibition deserves serious attention from the art world because the issues it highlights have been widely debated by many artists. Most desirable would be a comprehensive retrospective of Lurie’s entire body of work, as a whole alternative history of modernism (and after) is implicit in his practice. I would like to know more about the relationship between the images in this exhibition and his choices of imagery in his well-known collages of the 1960s. 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 others incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and therefore to abandon history. Lurie was concerned with exploring the limits of the contribution of the visual arts to this search for historical truth. It’s hard to think of a bigger purpose 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) until April 29. The exhibition was curated by Sara Softness.

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