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JULY/AUG 2023 Issue

Boris Lurie & Wolf Vostell: Art After the Shoah

On View
Ludwig Múzeum
Art After the Shoah
March 31–July 30, 2023

Boris Lurie met Wolf Vostell at a Fluxus happening in Long Island in 1964. Lurie was born in 1924, Vostell in 1932, and World War Two was the defining event in their lives. Their deep friendship, and a long-distance lifelong artistic bond—perhaps almost a collaboration—was formed by their autonomous but similar interpretations of the tragedy of the war and the troubling capitalist resonances it had left in post-war Western culture. But as a vast and sprawling, yet well-articulated exhibition, Art After the Shoah is not the downer its title would indicate: both Vostell and Lurie employ wit, beauty, and sex to embody their critique of evil and global capital. Vostell’s marvelous Fluxus sculptures Endogene Depression 1-3 (version Los Angeles) (all 1980) present three vacuum-tube televisions in varying degrees of cementitious encasement. In Vostell’s interpretation, the ubiquitous home appliance and disseminator of mind-numbing content is a stand-in for the modern individual. The source of the modern individual’s depression is banality, but even that is caked-over in a stony shell of self-deception and repression. Lurie’s conceptual rejoinder to this bleak statement are his three revolting but hilarious Shit sculptures, “NO Sculpture/Shit Show” (all three 1964), created with fellow artist Sam Goodman. These oversize glistening coils of acrylic painted plaster succinctly execute the notion of something too vile from which to look away. (They were originally also tied eponymously to the art market by subtitles such as Shit of Castelli or Shit of Sonnabend, but the exhibition label does not distinguish which shit belongs to whom.)

Vostell helped found Fluxus in the 1960s, contributing his video work, as well as his innovative use of non-traditional media. Lurie founded the NO!art movement in 1959-60 with Stanley Fisher and Sam Goodman, which, similar to Fluxus, rejected accepted art imagery and subjects in a move calculated to stymie traditional art and financial market interaction. Lurie and Vostell’s personal journeys through these largely personally-propelled art movements are given a deep interpretation, mostly in individual rooms dedicated to each artist’s convoluted investigations. The two friends really only face each other in the main space of the exhibition, with works in the shared zone of collage. Vostell’s investigations along this avenue are exemplified in works such as Ihr Kandidat (1961), Ceres (1960), and Das Theater ist auf der Straße (1958) in which Vostell used his method of décollage, a process in which he chemically blurred and melted the text and imagery on the strips and scraps of found posters and advertisements from which he crafts these palimpsestuous works on paper. Lurie’s collages are less subtle. He crafts a soup of legs, breasts and pin-up smiles, inscribed with the word “NO” as in Big No Painting (1963), or often adds Holocaust imagery, text, and drawings of body parts, as in A Jew is Dead (1964). In their individual rooms we see further innovations into the realm of “non-art” art: Vostell’s use of everyday objects such as lipsticks, violins, clip-lamps incorporated into 2D works, creating hybrid assemblage paintings; and Lurie’s experiments in his quest of ever-more shocking experiences through text, image, and overall viscerality.

Each artist has their fascinations, which, appended to their obsessions, provide Vostell and Lurie with deeply original and often prescient art. As avowed outsiders, both tended to reject mainstream movements as creatures of the capitalist/materialist system, and Lurie was particularly vocal in his rejections. Yet both interact with and utilize AbEx and Pop, accommodating artists such as Warhol, Rauschenberg, Polke, and Johns into their approach. A room of Lurie’s “NO Suitcases” presents more of his three dimensional pieces, used luggage laminated with yellow Stars of David, porn, and of course “NO!” This is viewed in tandem with his “Hard Writings” series, created between 1963 and 1972, which present ambiguous words in solid block capitals: “SLAVE,” “PLEASE,” “LOAD,” “NEIN,” and “GOD;” words which in many cases offer both a punitive and harsh reading, and simultaneously a titillating sexual one. In the contiguous room in the exhibition we find a chamber with black walls, displaying Lurie’s Holocaust prints laminated onto rags and cardboard. The most visually arresting, and hard to look at, is Lolita (1962-63). Sue Lyon’s (Lolita in Kubrick’s 1962 version) coquettish gaze is contrasted with the charred and strangely peaceful face of a Jewish (female?) corpse attempting to squeeze under the wall of a barn where she and her fellow inmates were being burned alive. For Lurie this is the ultimate cause and effect: the sickly-sweet pedophilia of western capital can only lead to mass extermination of the undesirable. Vostell never angles for this kind of intensity. In another room painted black we come across his viscerally pleasing lead paintings, Extremadura: Fuente de Cantos (1975) and Das Bleiohr (1977). The dull and dusky sheen of the lead and its wrinkles and folds call for us to touch the mildly toxic surface (though we don’t!), and mimicking desiccated flesh or leather, its crinkles and folds in gray enrapture the viewer like an unwrapped mummy. The simple statement of a slightly larger-than-life ear in Das Bleiohr, pressed and folded out of a single sheet of lead, questions moral deafness or hearing without action. The two artists create an ecosystem of Dada-ist visual opportunities; combining collage, paint and found objects with our sensations of arousal, disgust and a healthy dose of shame and guilt-by-association. Art After the Shoah is an aesthetic struggle session, leaving the viewer gutted and aware of the need to do better, but also perhaps admitting they enjoyed the spanking a bit as well.


William Corwin

William Corwin is a sculptor and journalist from New York.


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