New York

Boris Lurie

Janos Gat Gallery

This modest exhibition, Boris Lurie’s first in New York since 1964, provided a unique opportunity to reintroduce and appraise the work of this now-little-known cofounder of the “NO!art” movement, colorful member of the New Left, and cultural anarchist. It comprised a single work, Bleed, 1969: forty photocopies (still an innovative technique of mechanical reproduction at the time) of the artist’s black-and-white photograph of a woman’s cleavage, bulging out of a low-cut dress, with the word “BLEED” pasted over it, and altered with acrylic paint, duct tape, shreds of fabrics, string, and other materials. Individual images were arranged in horizontal rows and attached directly to the wall. With its unassuming presence, Bleed is a sort of artistic ephemera that exemplifies the statement Lurie wrote for another exhibition: “You will find no secret languages here, no fancy escapes, no hushed, muted silences, no messages beamed at exclusive audiences.”

Lurie’s more familiar works are his torn-photograph collages juxtaposing pinups with image of concentration-camp prisoners, and the “Shit Sculptures” that simulate quantities of excrement. (A more comprehensive show will be on view this year at the University of Iowa Museum of Art in Iowa City and at the Buchenwald Memorial Complex in Germany, at the site where the artist was imprisoned during World War II.) The viewer acquainted with these shocking and explicit pieces might have been surprised by Bleed, which looks controlled, even elegant, and incapable of the scandal it once produced. Indeed, the show almost evoked a sense of reminiscence, especially in the passé erotic ideal embodied by the buxomness of its female image. It also called to mind the machismo with which Lurie’s generation of artists fetishized their maleness. The imperative “Bleed,” functioning as a cipher for menstruation or a wound inflicted, no longer shocks. Later artists might have inscribed the word with their own (or somebody else’s) blood—or made shit sculptures out of feces, rather than Lurie’s painted plaster—and his invocation of unspeakable bodily processes seemed rather superficial in contrast.

Nevertheless, Bleed has not dated as irrecoverably as some relics of ’60s subculture. Like most of Lurie’s more provocative pieces, it retains the urgency of a personalized document, putting the emotional over the factual. Abstract elements painted on top of the photocopied image often obscure or blur the figurative ground, complicating a simple narrative reading. In a number of images, stripes of color “frame” the black-and-white photographs. But those areas in which colors are applied more expressively—splashed, smeared, or smudged all over—convey an act of violent desecration, or a displaced sadism. The most dramatic moments in the series come in works that have rope and duct tape added, the physical presence of these materials creating a palpable menace. Depicting violent fetishism with the iconoclastic frankness that is Lurie’s signature, Bleed seems to communicate a fear of the inability to feel, and enacts the consequences of that emotional damage.

Marek Bartelik