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

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“He never sold a painting in his life, lived in hovels, yet died worth about $100m,” says Anthony Williams, chairman of the Boris Lurie Art Foundation, at a press preview for Boris Lurie: Nothing to Do but Try. “He was,” he later says with a sigh, “a complicated man.”

The paradox of Boris Lurie’s living conditions is just one contour in the tragic and fascinating life of this painter, illustrator, sculptor, diarist, co-founder of the No!art movement, and concentration camp survivor, whose work is currently on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in lower Manhattan.

Related: Afterlives: the incredible stories behind recovered Nazi-looted art

The exhibition is the first contemporary art show in the museum’s 24-year history. The beauty and horror found in the nearly 100 pieces, most of which were created at a furious pace in 1946, and have since been dubbed Lurie’s “War Series,” find an appropriate setting beside the museum’s core collection of Holocaust testimony and Judaica, a memorial garden designed by Andy Goldsworthy, and the current home of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, the longest continuously producing Yiddish theater company in the world, and longest continuously producing theater company of any language in the United States.

“This is a different kind of testimony,” Museum president Jack Klinger says, of the oftentimes nightmarish and disturbing images on display.

Lurie was born in Leningrad, now St Petersburg, in 1924, but his family relocated to Riga in Latvia when he was two. The Nazis occupied the city when he was 16 and, after a short time in the Riga ghetto, the people closest to him, his mother, grandmother, sister, and girlfriend were among the 25,000 people murdered in the Rumbula forest.

Young Boris and his father were forced to work as slave labor in factories (including for Lenta, making luxury goods for the Nazis), sent to the Salaspils concentration camp near Riga, then, via a treacherous boat ride, to Stutthof outside Danzig, and finally the Magdeburg satellite camp at Buchenwald. Here they worked as laborers until the camps were liberated. Following the war he worked in the United States Counter Intelligence Corps, then emigrated to New York City.

He immediately threw himself into his work, even though he had almost no formal artistic training. The central section of Nothing to Do but Try – a phrase found in the artist’s memoir concerning his own autodidactism – includes a series of hastily drawn sketches torn from notebooks, many of which, curator Sarah Softness adds, were kept private for most of his life. The breadth of the assembled miscellany even includes writing on “a napkin stained with soy sauce”.

The images are flashes of remembrance from his late adolescence interrupted by Nazi atrocities: buildings ablaze, armed troops, forced transit. One finds recurring themes, like elongated arms (which can suggest a Hitler salute, but also a loved one reaching out to make contact), faceless men with an X scratched on their backs, and eerie, disquieting trees with knotty branches that look ready to pluck someone off the ground.

The paintings from this period evoke a true dread. Roll Call in Concentration Camp, with its dark swirling sky and hell-like rust-color ground, features a line-up of tormented souls, their faces distorted beyond human recognition. (One gazing directly at the viewer almost looks like the classic Max Schreck Nosferatu.)

Similarly striking – as if the title weren’t enough – is Portrait of My Mother Before Shooting, rendered in a beige monotone, just vague enough to be out of reach. Memorabilia in the exhibit suggests that she worked hardest to keep the family together despite all odds, and even held a dinner party the night before the Lurie women were killed. Next to the painting Untitled (37 Ludzas Street), the family’s last home (and close to that of his girlfriend), there is the added comment that for the rest of his Lurie’s life he “always hated banquets”.

Some of the work that followed War Series in this exhibit includes a mesmerizing untitled painting from 1970 that works in dialogue with the portrait of his mother. Accented with light blue, the human face is blurry and distorted, alien and skeletal, likely signifying the dimming memory of an adult clinging to the last recollection of a loved one taken from him while still young.

There are also large photographs from when Lurie visited Riga in 1975, and visited the site of the Rumbula massacre. The images are a little off-kilter, supposedly due to his hands shaking as he walked through the ghostly area. The most recent work in the show is called Ax Series, a collection of wooden stumps and old tools, likely a reflection of the work he and his father did to survive in the Nazi camps.

Somewhat glossed over in this exhibit is Lurie’s work with the No!art group, a radical and confrontational movement that began in 1959. Its exhibitions had memorable titles like The Doom Show and The Vulgar Show. As Anthony Williams of the Lurie Art Foundation boasted to me, getting Lurie’s Shit Sculpture through customs to a recent show in Berlin had some difficulty.

Where Lurie fits in the the 20th century art scene is still something that is being defined with the aid of the Foundation, which was created in 2009, one year after the artist’s death. Though he lived in squalor – his ratty East Village studio is described as “my New York surrogate Riga ghetto” – Lurie was, in fact, extremely wealthy at the end of his life. At first this was due to some investments in New York real estate. “He had a piece of the Ansonia,” Williams says, referring to the gorgeous apartment complex on the Upper West Side which, for a time, housed the legendary Continental Baths in its basement. Later he got involved in penny stocks, focusing on mobile technology in third world markets. This proved incredibly successful, hence the great fortune at the time of his death.

Not once during his career did he sell “a substantial” piece of art, and even dissuaded buyers when a deal would come close to closing, according to Williams. He slept in the day and worked at night, and some of his friends wondered if he was trying, in a way, to recreate how he lived at Buchenwald.

“This exhibition,” curator Sara Softness says, “really considers his devastating emotional life and how he exited in the world – all inescapable informed by his trauma.”

  • Boris Lurie: Nothing To Do But Try is on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust through 29 April 2022

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