This art’s not Kosher, and that ain’t a bad thing either for the spectrum of artists in the Jewish Museum’s exhibition titled Unorthodox. To quote Jens Hoffmann the museum’s Deputy Director, Exhibitions and Public Programs:
“Unorthodox does not comment on Jewish religious orthodoxy or critique it, but takes its inspiration from the Jewish tradition of dialogue and debate to investigate the impact of unorthodox concepts on orthodox systems. Unorthodox aims to break with a cultural and artistic uniformity that has developed over the last century among artists and museums, proposing a nonconformist engagement with art as a means to disrupt the status quo.”
So just how does one define the status quo these days where the art world is not as clear cut as it was during the 20th century and centuries prior? For me it is defined by two separate yet equal courses, academia and economics. Art School and the Art Market are the driving forces of dogmatic art discussions today. In some cases, rebellion and “unorthodox” approaches are rewarded. For example, the Hairy Who as well as Peter Saul are enjoying a honeymoon within the art establishment. Their work was hard to digest during their time, but today it is revered, as it well should be, for its forward thinking and groundbreaking aesthetic vocabulary. However, there are many times when the rebellion and maverick nature of an artist or a group of artists is the disdain of academic and institutional tastemakers. Often times, the disdain comes from the fact that the work is non-linear to the canon of Western Art or seen as too grotesque.
The artists and artworks in the Jewish Museum’s Unorthodox exhibition are not largely well known. They are regional, popular amongst their circles but not too far outside of them. All in all the work is interesting, fun, and exciting. It is always a treat to become familiar with underknown artists whose work holds up well in today’s art world. However, does their work truly, as Hoffmann stated “break with a cultural and artistic uniformity that has developed over the last century among artists and museums, proposing a nonconformist engagement with art as a means to disrupt the status quo”?
It depends, because today’s visual arts dictum has blurred the lines between art’s major “isms.” More than ever there is such a deep and diverse range of style and process employed by contemporary artists. However, by and large, there’s a genuine quality to these artworks that feel fresh for the era they were made, which ranges from Post-WWII to the present day.
Boris Lurie is one of the many interesting personalities in the show whose work embodies an unabashedly nonconformist attitude. Lurie was a co-founder of the NO! Art movement, a faction of artists who eschewed the art market and used competing trends to poignantly attack the status quo of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s cultural scene. Lurie’s paintings are the epitome of anti-pop. He used elements from popular culture, smutty magazines, and conflated them with political images and signs and symbols from the Holocaust. Lurie’s art is unapologetically political against the cruelness of humankind as well as the discourse that was commonplace within the art world, a world he saw as being an “investment art market.”
To Lurie, art was a powerful weapon that he wielded at the injustices and perversions of the world.One might wonder what Nazi symbols and pin-up models have in common? Lurie’s juxtaposition of the two subjects is a definite precursor to the Nazi exploitation genre of films and novels. The dichotomous relationship between sex and death, and masochism has similarly been visualized in such films as Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). Lurie’s imagery also brings to mind the subject of Yehiel De-Nur’s 1955 novel House of Dolls, where Nazi soldiers would force female Jewish prisoners to perform sexual acts on them. Lurie’s most controversial work is Railroad Collage (1962), a composition where a pin-up model is placed on top of a well known photograph of the liberation of the concentration camps.
The Holocaust was a very personal subject to Lurie because as a young man he and his family were captured and sent to Buchenwald, a concentration camp in Ettersberg near Weimar, Germany. Lurie’s mother, grandmother, and sister were murdered by Nazi brutality in the camps. Like Maryan S. Maryan, another survivor and artist, the Holocaust remained the major theme in Lurie’s oeuvre.
Lurie’s disdain for the “investment art market” was a two way street. Lurie was not a success commercially as an artist during his lifetime, but amassed a huge fortune through Penny Stocks, which led to the creation of the Boris Lurie Foundation. Posthumously, Lurie’s work is enjoying a heyday through galleries and museums across the globe.
Lurie is currently the subject of three other shows, Boris Lurie at Galerie Odile Ouizeman, Paris, France; Kiene Kompromisse! Die Kunst Des Boris Lurie, Jewish Museum, Berlin, Germany; and Boris Lurie No! at the Janco Dada Museum, Ein Hod, Israel.
Unorthodox is on view through March 27, 2016 at the Jewish Museum in New York City.