NO!art AND THE AESTHETICS OF DOOM
Curator Estera Milman
Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art Northwestern University
VIDEO REPORT | 14:51 min | The video is an excerpt from "BORIS LURIE NO!art MAN," a film by Amikam Goldman. In it the filmmaker documents Dietmar Kirves' conservation and preparation for shipping of an important body of NO!art works that were included in the 2001 exhibition "NO!art" and the Aesthetics of Doom. The film also documents the installation of the show at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, and provides an invaluable historical record of a cross section of responses, as these were voiced by diverse members of the exhibition's public. Curated by Estera Milman and funded, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts, "NO!art" and the Aesthetics of Doom is still counted as the collective's most comprehensive North American retrospective exhibition, to date. | Source: http://vimeo.com/24163613
INFORMATION AT THE ENTRANCE:
Show with artworks by Rocco Armento, Isser Aronovici, Herb Brown, Al D'Arcangelo
This exhibition has been funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency,
Director: David Mickenberg
Curator of the Exhibition: Estera Milman
By David Mickenberg, Director Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art
The opportunity to present the exhibition, NO!art and the Aesthetics of Doom, was first proposed to the museum by Rainer Rumold of the Department of German Literature and Critical Thought at Northwestern and Editor of Northwestern University Press' Avant-garde and Modernism series. Some time ago, Professor Rumold helped to facilitate a conference and exhibition on German Expressionism at the Block, in collaboration with Professor Otto Karl Werckmeister and Curator Reinhold Heller. Over the last several years, Rumold and Estera Milman, Director of Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts, The University of Iowa, have collaborated on a number of publications, conferences, and exhibition projects. In 1992, Milman curated an important exhibition of Fluxus material from the Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts collection. Organized by Franklin Furnace in collaboration with the Anthology Film Archive, Fluxus: A Conceptual Country, traveled to the Block where it constituted an important part of a series of exhibitions, symposia, and other public events in the greater Chicago area. The Fluxus exhibition and its attending programs introduced the museum to a wide array of collaborators devoted to the engagement of movements, ideas and works that had yet to receive either broad scholarly attention or significant presentation in the general community. Once again, NO!art and the Aesthetics of Doom, enables the museum to enter into a discourse with history. With Estera Milman as Curator of the NO!art exhibition and Editor of NO!art: Artworld Politics and the Culture o f Dissent and Rainer Rumold helping guide the publication of this anthology, to be produced in conjunction with a symposium on the NO!art movement at the Block, the museum is once again looking at a period in art too long overlooked and deserving greater discourse and understanding. As a museum, we facilitate collaborations with leaders in various fields of the arts and humanities. It is a pleasure, once again, to be in association with both Milman and Rumold.
As is true with all exhibitions at the museum, the final presentation represents the input of numerous people with expertise in a variety of areas of key importance to the interpretation, design, communication and conservation of the exhibition to varied museum audiences. Dabney Hailey, the museum's Curatorial Assistant, has been integral to establishing the communication and collaboration necessary for such an ambitious project. Deb Wood, Assistant Curator, Dan Silverstein, Preparator, Carole Towns, Business Administrator, and Brooke Dierkhising, Assistant to the Director, have all been of integral importance in establishing NO!art as a permanent fixture on the horizon. In organizing this project, support has been received from the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency, and the Friends of the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art.
Catalog, 30 pages, 26.5 x 22.8 cm
Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art,
Essay copyright © 2001 retained by the author.
Funded, in part,
FOREWORD BY ESTERA MILMAN (CURATOR):
I first met Boris Lurie, the only surviving founding member of the March Gallery group, or NO!art collective, in late September of 1992. My initial introduction to NO!, or more specifically to a wealth of challenging, late 1950s and early 1960s photomontages, constructions and assemblages by Lurie, Sam Goodman and Stanley Fisher and their numerous coconspirators, was orchestrated by Gertrude Stein of the Gallery Gertrude Stein in New York. Gertrude's gallery on Madison Avenue had, in the early 1960s, served as the second base of operations for the collective's iconoclastic insurgencies. It all began quite normally, as artworld encounters go. My exhibition, Fluxus: A Conceptual Country, had just opened as a cross-town festival in New York City's Tribeca, SoHo, and Lower East Side. I had brought one of neo-Dada's paradigmatic underground movements "home" after decades of semi-exile and The New York Times, Art forum, Art News, and Art in America lauded the event. The opening was packed. Artists, poets, composers, filmmakers, and critics outnumbered members of the general public. The crowd filled the exhibition spaces and spilled into the streets. I had known Gertrude for some years and she came to the opening with Patio Rosenberg, daughter of the venerated anti-formalist critic whose watershed 1952 essay, "The American Action Painters," provided an alternative, transactional, and inherently anti-aesthetic, conceptual armature for what Alfred Barr and others called Abstract Expressionism. Rosenberg's thesis would later be refashioned by Allan Kaprow, the father of "Happenings," and would subsequently serve as model for succeeding generations of event artists and other neo-Dadaists.
The following day, I joined Gertrude for a drink and, without warning, was introduced to Boris. I was handed a copy of Lurie's and Beat poet Seymour Krim's bilingual anthology, NO!art: Pin-ups, Excrement, Protest, JewArt (with contributions by Brian 0'Doherty, Harold Rosenberg, Thomas B. Hess, Tom Wolfe, Marcel Janco, Dore Ashton, Gerhard Gassiot-Talbot, Gregory Battcock, Mario de Micheli, Jean Toche, Lil Picard and Wolf Vostell, among others), a publication that Gertrude had helped subvent some years earlier. Flipping through the book I found myself shifting back and forth between extreme discomfort and unprecidented excitement. Gertrude insisted that NO! was the only authentic artistic radicalism of the period and that everything else she had since encountered was "just art." Soon thereafter, Boris and I visited the series of studios and underground spaces scattered across New York City that had, since the mid 1960s, served as repositories for some of the most powerful and difficult Cold War era works that I had as yet encountered. Overwhelmed by the raw energy that emanated from these artifacts some thirty-odd years after their realization, I felt as if I had unearthed a time capsule. Boris and I concurrently began our animated discussions of the formalist agendas of the artworld, broadly described, that had resulted in NO!art's initial marginalization. We also initiated our ongoing dialogue about the artist's recurrent juxtaposition of images of mass-marketed sex (and other cultural cliches) and his direct, first-person experience of genocide. In retrospect, I find it difficult to believe that, at the outset, I had naively assumed that the excavation of NO!art would be but a logical, albeit complicated, expansion of my in-progress historiographic investigation of the interrelationship of neo-Dada, artworld pretensions, and cultural taboos. Instead, the project forced me to open my own proverbial pandora's box and to embark on a complex and deadly serious journey of self-discovery. By so doing, I admittedly crossed a line that, as both an historian and displaced persons' camp-born descendant of "victims" and "survivors," I had long been reticent to breach.
Although rarely discussed at length in the mainstream art historical literature, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, the term "neo-Dada" had come to encompass the production of John Cage and his disciples Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, participants in the Fluxus collective (often described, even in introductory art history textbooks, as a loose association of artists, poets, and musicians who, under the influence of Cage, attempted to challenge the distinction between art and non-art), constructors of Happenings, The New Realism, Common Object Painting, the New Vulgarians, the works soon to be canonized under the new rubric "American Pop Art," and the overtly political, anti-Pop "Wart" group. Although neo-Dada was considered by some to be a rubric coterminous with cultural critique, it was often invoked by formalist critics of the period as a pejorative term. Characteristics understood to be held in common across these diverse international tendencies included calling attention to the specific character of contemporary life, the attempted eradication of the line of demarcation between art and everyday experience, and the conviction that the art event or object was but an initiator of interactive experience, that is to say, that it was the receiver, and not the maker, who finished a piece. Most contemporary critics were in agreement that North American practitioners of the new art were attempting to challenge the then-in place, undisputed hegemony of Abstract Expressionism, or more precisely, of academic abstraction; few, if any, understood that a number of these so-called "neo-Dadaists" understood themselves to be successors to a subversive counter-culture initiated in opposition to the McCarthyist 1950s. Although both Fluxus and NO! can be counted among this sub-set of neo-Dada, the two more or less contemporaneous artistic counter-cultures responded to their historical "post- neo-fascist" context very differently. Within the last decade, Fluxus successfully captured the imagination of our own present. The movement was accepted back into the fold, so to speak, and is now credited as a direct precursor to contemporary video, correspondence and performance art, among other intermedial artistic practices. To date, NO! remains positioned on the margins of art historical discourse.
Although participants in Fluxus were by no means averse to taking occasional forays into the political arena, for the most part, the collective was committed to humbling art, subordinating its hierarchical values to everyday life, and challenging the myth of artistic privilege; their weapons of choice were the cerebral, the "anesthetic," and humor. As such, Fluxus was indeed a forerunner of the great divide between Abstract Expressionism and what is now defined as the conceptual and intermedial arts. Conversely, the assemblages, photomontages, constructions and events realized by card-carrying members of NO! responded to many of the same prerequisite utopian convictions that had informed the production of the most radical members of the Abstract Expressionist circle. Interestingly, these defining principles (belief in art's ability to transmit raw and unmediated direct experience, the liberation of the individual, and an uncompromising hostility toward the oppression of modernist institutions) are not commonly addressed in formalist narrative histories that laud the "triumph" of mid-twentieth-century American painting. Instead, they mirror Harold Rosenberg's thesis, as voiced in "The American Action Painters."
On the other hand, because NO! was transparently political, its members escaped the Abstract Expressionists' unresolved struggle with the crisis of meaning. Wart's messages were meant to be "read" as political critique; the collective's collaborative events were intended to induce direct and unmitigatedly savage experience of the unspeakable. As Seymour Krim insisted in his contribution to NO!art: Pin-ups, Excrement, Protest, Jew Art, Wart's calculated extremism was a "brutal effort to cope with a brutish environment [intended to strike the receiver] like a rock hurled through a synagogue window." The collective's weapons of choice were a belief in art's ability to participate in cultural transformation, massmedia reifications of suburban affluence, politically incorrect sex, nuclear devastation, and genocide. The NO!artists are insistent that the collective did not distinguish among the massmarketing of women, the Cuban missile crisis, political assassinations in the Congo, civil rights battles in the South, the carnage of Hiroshima, and the Nazi-induced destruction of European Jewry. It is to their response to what we have since come to call the "Holocaust," however, that we must look when attempting to track their continued marginalization.
As NO!art's "designated" North American historiographer, I would not have been able to even begin to address the latter were it not for Hannah Arendt's reportage of the Adolf Eichmann trial in the spring of 1961, or more specifically, for the animated controversy initiated by the subsequent English-language publication of her observations as these simultaneously appeared in print, some two years later, under the title, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality o f Evil, and as five issues of The New Yorker (February through March, 1963). The Eichmann trial and the publication and reception of Arendt’s reportage are often cited as an important turning point in the historiographic construction of the term "the Holocaust," and as important media events that contributed to the rubric's lightning-speed ascendancy as the descriptive term of choice for the historical, Nazi-induced destruction of European Jewish culture. What is rarely taken into account is the fact that two years had passed between the trial and the aforecited publication events.
Upon my rereading of Arendt’s New Yorker essays, I was struck by the uncanny parallel between her observation concerning Eichmann's unnerving dismissal of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita as an "unwholesome" book and Boris Lurie's iconic 1962 photomontage on canvas of the same title. I was also taken aback by the realization that, in much the same way that Arendt had singled out Judge Landau's "rare moment of exasperation" while asking the accused "What can you remember?," Sam Goodman had chosen to title his 1961 triptych/ assemblage, Eichmann Remember. Furthermore, I was deeply excited by the realization that the completion of these two works purportedly took place within the years that separated the trial from the North American publication of Arendt’s reportage and thus prior to (or at very least, in the very forefront of) the preliminary lifting of a long-in-place cultural taboo about public discussion of Nazi genocide. For some years, I had used Lurie's Lolita and Goodman's Eichmann Remember to initiate dialogue among my graduate students, many of whom could be counted as members of what Tim Cole (author of Selling the Holocaust: From Auschwitz to Schindler, How History is Bought, Packaged, and Sold) calls the "Schindler generation." Inevitably, Goodman's assemblage fit within what seminar participants understood to be an "acceptable" (albeit radical and deeply troubling) artistic response to carnage. Conversely, Lurie's canvas was repeatedly read as offensive. Having been programmed by streamlined and simplistic mass-media representations of the Holocaust, on the one hand, and by a far more intellectually stimulating feminist art historical literature, on the other, my students were less offended by the photomontage's reification of genocidal slaughter than by its objectification of the feminine other. While it could be argued that my students' reception of these two contemporaneous artistic responses to the Eichmann trial serve to confirm our assumptions about a division between representations of the Holocaust by those with direct experience of the event and those without (Goodman had spent the war years in the film branch of the Canadian army, whereas Lurie had survived the camps), it is not that simple. Both artists were very real players in the New York artworld and as such, both had fallen heir to Harold Rosenberg's 1952 proposition that true innovation in the arts required that representation be abandoned in favor of enactment. Furthermore, at the time of their completion, both works were considered to be equally inappropriate. These historical enactments were realized during the time lag between the Eichmann trial and the preliminary emergence of what Tim Cole argues has since become the central community myth of the "Holocaust." The following essay attempts to chart the historiographic agendas that guaranteed NO!art's initial relegation to the margins of art historical discourse and the collective's resultant exclusion from the now raging battle surrounding the banality of our own present's programmed expectations.
A number of telling artworld events have taken place since I was first introduced to NO!. In 1995, the Neue Gesellschaft fur Bildende Kunst, the Haus am Kleistpark, and End-art gallery in Berlin mounted exhibitions on Boris Lurie and NO!art in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War and as part of their contribution to the then already volatile discourse across Germany surrounding the proposed Berlin Holocaust Memorial. I am grateful to Eckhart Holzboog, Katharina Kaiser, Dietmar Kirves, Matthias Reichelt, and Klaus Theurerkauf, all of whom were involved in these events and who shared their resources with me. I would also like to acknowledge Dr. Volkhart Knigge, Director of the Buchenwald Memorial in Weimar, and Dr. Sonja Star, Exhibition Coordinator at Buchenwald, who, in 1999, mounted a retrospective Boris Lurie exhibition in the "Desinfektion cellar" of the last of a series of Nazi concentration and labor camps in which Lurie had been incarcerated as an adolescent. Lurie's Buchenwald retrospective was very deliberately mounted as a commemoration of one of the darkest moments in Weimar's past at the very point in time when the city was again to be celebrated as a venerated seat of European culture. Boris has pointed out to me that the "Goethe oak tree," under which the poet is said to have composed some of his works, still thrives inside the camp grounds. I am particularly grateful to Matthias Reichelt and Curt Germundson who noted that, even in Germany, Lurie did not conform to the public's expectations of the "traditional victim," and who shared exhibition visitors' comments in the Buchenwald Memorial guest book that confirmed the extent to which this was true.
Between 1997 and 2001, the Janos Gat Gallery, on Madison Avenue in New York, hosted a select number of masterfully mounted, small NO!art and NO! related exhibitions. I wish to acknowledge Janos' support of my own endeavor, particularly during its more volatile planning stages. For the most part, however, NO! has continued to be excluded from mainstream, North American artworld events. For example, despite the collective's direct affiliation with the Beats, NO!art was visibly absent from the Whitney Museum of American Art's 1995-96, broadly inclusive exhibition, Beat Culture and the New America: 1950-1965, curated by Lisa Phillips. Reference to NO! was also not made in Paul Shimmel's masterful out o f Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979 (The Geffen Contemporary at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1998). Perhaps even more tellingly, despite the artist's direct involvement in NO!art in the early 1960s, all reference to the collective has been erased from Yayoi Kusama's chronology, bibliography, and 1998-99 retrospective exhibition, organized jointly by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Japan Foundation, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York
I am grateful to David Mickenberg, Director of Northwestern University's Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art and to his expert staff. In September of 1993, Fluxus: A Conceptual Country traveled to what was then the Block Gallery where it became an active participant in the weeklong, Fluxus Festival Chicago, jointly hosted by Northwestern, Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art and the School of the Art Institute. It is particularly fitting, then, that the new Block Museum of Art should host Wart's preliminary North American resurrection. I wish to acknowledge the substantial contributions to this undertaking made by Professor Rainer Rumold, Northwestern University's Department of German Literature and Critical Thought, and Editor of Northwestern University Press' Avant-garde and Modernism Studies series. Rainer has actively supported this project for some years based on his stated belief in Wart's "unique tenacity as an avant-garde phenomenon" and his conviction that these works from the late 1950s and early 1960s confront our own present with "a unique set of tough- albeit potentially objectionable- critical issues about the representability of genocide and the limits of resisting the commodification of aesthetic production." I would also like to thank the National Endowment for the Arts for its long-standing support of this project. I am particularly grateful to the Endowment for its acknowledgment, during the granting process, that the subject was one that had definitely not received the attention it was due, and its projection that, if successful, this exhibition and its accompanying publications would definitely make a significant contribution to scholarship in the area.
I wish to thank Dore Ashton, Allan Kaprow, Michelle Stuart, (the late) Wolf Vostell, Stella Waitzkin and a host of other artworld insiders for spending long hours sharing their first-hand experiences of NO!art with me. I also wish to acknowledge contributions to this project by Brett Van Hoesen, my editorial assistant, Julia Mears and Patrick Ingram, two Iowa City-based Attorneys at Law who have followed the realization of this endeavor with much care and personal attention, Rabbi Jeffrey Portman of Iowa City's Agudas Achim Congregation and Gerald Sorokin, Director of the Abner Hillel Jewish Student Center, whose very deliberate joint invitation to introduce NO!art to their constituencies during a recent Holocaust commemoration initiated my authorship of the second segment of the essay that follows. Finally, I wish to extend my sincere gratitude to Boris Lurie and Gertrude Stein for, perhaps inadvertently, forcing me to confront some of my own long suppressed demons.
Pick / Laudati Auditorium # Free and open to the public
Writing of the Disaster
Boris Lurie: Self-Representation in the Wake of the Holocaust
NO! and the Cultural Politics of the Anti-Canon
Doom: Art Culture, Cognitive Space, and the Achievement of Discourse
Adolf Eichmann and Artistic Debates in Germany: The Broader Context for NOlart
The Reception of the Art of Boris Lurie and NO!art
Women Behind the Barricades: Art, Protest and Gender in the Post-McCarthy Era
Harriet Wood (Suzan Long), Independent Artist