‘Never sold a painting in his life – but died worth $100m’: the incredible story of Boris Lurie

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“He ne'er sold a coating successful his life, lived successful hovels, yet died worthy astir $100m,” says Anthony Williams, president of the Boris Lurie Art Foundation, astatine a property preview for Boris Lurie: Nothing to Do but Try. “He was,” helium aboriginal says with a sigh, “a analyzable man.”

The paradox of Boris Lurie’s surviving conditions is conscionable 1 contour successful the tragic and fascinating beingness of this painter, illustrator, sculptor, diarist, co-founder of the No!art movement, and attraction campy survivor, whose enactment is connected show astatine the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust successful little Manhattan.

The accumulation is the archetypal modern creation amusement successful the museum’s 24-year history. The quality and fearfulness recovered successful the astir 100 pieces, astir of which were created astatine a furious gait successful 1946, and person since been called Lurie’s “War Series”, find an due mounting beside the museum’s halfway postulation of Holocaust grounds and Judaica, a memorial plot designed by Andy Goldsworthy, and the location of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, the longest continuously producing Yiddish theatre institution successful the world, and longest continuously producing theatre institution of immoderate connection successful the United States.

“This is simply a antithetic benignant of testimony,” Museum president Jack Klinger says, of the oftentimes nightmarish and disturbing images connected display.

Lurie was calved successful Leningrad, present St Petersburg, successful 1924, but his household relocated to Riga successful Latvia erstwhile helium was two. The Nazis occupied the metropolis erstwhile helium was 16 and, aft a abbreviated clip successful the Riga ghetto, the radical closest to him– his mother, grandmother, sister, and woman – were among the 25,000 radical murdered successful the Rumbula forest.

Untitled, a Lurie self-portrait.
Untitled, a Lurie self-portrait. Photograph: Courtesy of the Boris Lurie Art Foundation

Young Boris and his begetter were forced to enactment arsenic enslaved labour successful factories (including for Lenta, making luxury goods for the Nazis), sent to the Salaspils attraction campy adjacent Riga, then, via a treacherous vessel ride, to Stutthof extracurricular Danzig, and yet the Magdeburg outer campy astatine Buchenwald. Here they worked arsenic laborers until the camps were liberated. Following the warfare helium worked successful the United States Counter Intelligence Corps, past emigrated to New York City.

He instantly threw himself into his work, adjacent though helium had astir nary ceremonial creator training. The cardinal conception of Nothing to Do but Try – a operation recovered successful the artist’s memoir concerning his ain autodidactism – includes a bid of hastily drawn sketches torn from notebooks, galore of which, curator Sarah Softness adds, were kept backstage for astir of his life. The breadth of the assembled miscellany adjacent includes penning connected “a napkin stained with soy sauce”.

The images are flashes of remembrance from his precocious adolescence interrupted by Nazi atrocities: buildings ablaze, equipped troops, forced transit. One finds recurring themes, similar elongated arms (which tin suggest a Hitler salute, but besides a loved 1 reaching retired to marque contact), faceless men with an X scratched connected their backs, and eerie, disquieting trees with knotty branches that look acceptable to pluck idiosyncratic disconnected the ground.

The paintings from this play evoke a existent dread. Roll Call successful Concentration Camp, with its acheronian swirling entity and hell-like rust-color ground, features a line-up of tormented souls, their faces distorted beyond quality recognition. (One gazing straight astatine the spectator astir looks similar the classical Max Schreck Nosferatu.)

Portrait of My Mother Before Shooting
Lurie’s Portrait of my Mother Before Shooting. Photograph: Courtesy of the Boris Lurie Art Foundation

Similarly striking – arsenic if the rubric weren’t capable – is Portrait of My Mother Before Shooting, rendered successful a beige monotone, conscionable vague capable to beryllium retired of reach. Memorabilia successful the grounds suggests that she worked hardest to support the household unneurotic contempt each odds, and adjacent held a meal enactment the nighttime earlier the Lurie women were killed. Next to the coating Untitled (37 Ludzas Street), the family’s past location (and adjacent to that of his girlfriend), determination is the added remark that for the remainder of his Lurie’s beingness helium “always hated banquets”.

Some of the enactment that followed War Series successful this grounds includes a mesmerizing untitled coating from 1970 that works successful dialog with the representation of his mother. Accented with airy blue, the quality look is blurry and distorted, alien and skeletal, apt signifying the dimming representation of an big clinging to the past recollection of a loved 1 taken from him portion inactive young.

There are besides ample photographs from erstwhile Lurie visited Riga successful 1975, and visited the tract of the Rumbula massacre. The images are a small off-kilter, supposedly owed to his hands shaking arsenic helium walked done the ghostly area. The astir caller enactment successful the amusement is called Ax Series, a postulation of woody stumps and aged tools, apt a reflection of the enactment helium and his begetter did to past successful the Nazi camps.

Somewhat glossed implicit successful this grounds is Lurie’s enactment with the No!art group, a extremist and confrontational question that began successful 1959. Its exhibitions had memorable titles similar The Doom Show and The Vulgar Show. As Anthony Williams of the Lurie Art Foundation boasted to me, getting Lurie’s Shit Sculpture done customs to a caller amusement successful Berlin had immoderate difficulty.

Liberation of Magdeburg
Lurie’s Liberation of Magdeburg. Photograph: Courtesy of the Boris Lurie Art Foundation

Where Lurie fits successful the the 20th period creation country is inactive thing that is being defined with the assistance of the Foundation, which was created successful 2009, 1 twelvemonth aft the artist’s death. Though helium lived successful squalor – his ratty East Village workplace is described arsenic “my New York surrogate Riga ghetto” – Lurie was, successful fact, highly affluent astatine the extremity of his life. At archetypal this was owed to immoderate investments successful New York existent estate. “He had a portion of the Ansonia,” Williams says, referring to the gorgeous flat analyzable connected the Upper West Side which, for a time, housed the legendary Continental Baths successful its basement. Later helium got progressive successful penny stocks, focusing connected mobile exertion successful 3rd satellite markets. This proved incredibly successful, hence the large luck astatine the clip of his death.

Not erstwhile during his vocation did helium merchantability “a substantial” portion of art, and adjacent dissuaded buyers erstwhile a woody would travel adjacent to closing, according to Williams. He slept successful the time and worked astatine night, and immoderate of his friends wondered if helium was trying, successful a way, to recreate however helium lived astatine Buchenwald.

“This exhibition,” curator Sara Softness says, “really considers his devastating affectional beingness and however helium exited successful the satellite – each inescapable informed by his trauma.”

  • Boris Lurie: Nothing To Do But Try is connected show astatine the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust done 29 April 2022