To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.
So declared the philosopher Theodor Adorno in the last paragraph of his 1951 essay “Cultural Criticism and Society.” The line is surely Adorno’s most notorious utterance, and also, yanked from its original context, his most misunderstood. (Essentially, it glosses a more dialectical sentence in Walter Benjamin’s final essay, “On the Concept of History”: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”)
I too chose to misunderstand Adorno. In a catalog essay on Art Spiegelman’s Maus, I took it to mean that art addressing the cataclysmic trauma of Auschwitz would necessarily be barbaric—keeping in mind that the German barbarisch can also be translated as “savage,” “uncivilized,” and “brutal.” Along with Spiegelman’s funny-animal comic book (initially rejected by numerous publishers for its bad taste), I cited Tadeusz Borowski’s abrasively sardonic collection of Auschwitz memories, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, and Claude Lanzmann’s inordinately long (and rude) Shoah. But I had not yet encountered the most brutal, confrontational and extreme instance of post-Auschwitz art—the NO!art championed by Boris Lurie (1924-2008).
Said to have never sold a painting during his lifetime, Lurie is currently having his first American museum show at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. “Boris Lurie: Nothing To Do But To Try” is also the first contemporary art exhibition organized by the museum. But his most intense works, the NO!art collages, are conspicuously absent from the show. These savage art works, which juxtapose concentration camp images with prurient pictures culled from soft-core porn magazines, were designed to confound assimilation by the art market. One review called them “Life magazine taken to its final ultimate absurd and frightening conclusion, pain and death given no more space than pictures of Elsa Maxwell’s latest party.”
The MJH show, curated by Sara Softness, instead focuses almost exclusively on Lurie’s work during the immediate aftermath of World War II, with a sampling of paintings from the 1950s (when he was attempting to make it as a 10th Street artist), and a few of his later sculptures. In this context, Lurie’s NO!art collages are in-your-face unshowable. Their literal obscenity clearly explains their pointed omission from the exhibit.
Lurie believed he earned the right to represent his experience any way he wished. He was herded into the Riga ghetto at 16. Soon after, his entire family (save his father and an older sister in the U.S.), was murdered by the Einsatzgruppen in the Rumbula forest, along with some 25,000 other Latvian Jews. Lurie and his father survived the war in three concentration camps, including Buchenwald. They were liberated in April 1945 and arrived in New York the following year.
Almost immediately, Lurie began making art, portraying concentration camp protocols, tortured prisoners, and public executions. He often worked in pastel, giving these violent images an incongruously dreamy quality. The compositions are studied and some figures are slightly elongated, suggesting skeletal versions of Picasso harlequins. Other scenes make use of expressionist devices as when, deep in the background of a cluttered, nocturnal composition, a hanged man appears crucified by a pair of crossed klieg light beams.
Lurie evidently made these images for himself. In any case, they were never exhibited. In the 1950s he began to process what might inadequately be called his trauma by painting studies of dismembered and reassembled women. (A few are included in the MJH show.) Around 1960, when the Eichmann trial reintroduced the Holocaust to America, these images gave way to savage critiques of U.S. consumer culture, and ultimately the NO!art collages which, like the underground comix that paved the way for Maus, pushed well beyond all notions of taste.
“The work hits you like a rock hurled through a synagogue window,” Seymour Krim wrote about one NO!art show. “A hundred emotions follow in its wake, blasphemy, violence, hatred, release, fear, disgust, anger.”
Lurie is not the only post-Auschwitz artist making a posthumous debut. However, unlike him, the subject of Erna Rosenstein: Once Upon a Time, now showing at Hauser & Wirth, would never be considered uncivilized. On the contrary, Erna Rosenstein (1913-2004) was the child of assimilated Jewish parents who studied art in Vienna, spent time in Paris, and participated in Krakow’s avant-garde theater. She was already exhibiting her paintings when the Nazis and Soviets occupied Poland.
Thereafter her trauma resembles Lurie’s. Confined to the Lwów ghetto, Rosenstein escaped with her parents to Warsaw. They planned to seek refuge in the countryside. En route they were robbed by their erstwhile guide. Rosenstein’s parents were murdered before her eyes; she managed to flee into the forest and survived the war in hiding. All of her prewar art has been lost; her earliest extant paintings are boldly patterned, hellish tableaux of corpses, arrests, and murders. Like Lurie’s early work, Rosenstein’s During the Occupation—Beyond the Nameable, Looters, and Ghetto (all 1946) represent the atrocities she witnessed.
Her later paintings became more oblique, with affinities to various forms of surrealism. (Indeed, one canvas is included in the Metropolitan Museum’s current show Surrealism Beyond Borders.) Some are symbol-charged and quasi-autobiographical—an ordinary kitchen knife in an ominous black void, a pair of stitched together disembodied lips, a cave surrounded by darkness. She painted spare, allegorical, boneyard landscapes like "Monument” (1955) and unsettling abstractions with confessional titles like "The Skeleton of Fire” (1959) and "Scream at Midnight” (1968), fashioning handmade books as talismanic objects.
Like Lurie, Rosenstein was an oppositional artist. As a communist, she was dedicated to building Poland’s postwar regime; yet, as an artist and perhaps as a Jew, she rejected the official mandate for socialist realism. Rather, she served as a link to a prewar avant-garde, as did her husband, the literary critic Artur Sandauer (a youthful acolyte of the writer Bruno Schulz). In particular, Rosenstein was allied with the artist Tadeusz Kantor, whose happenings and theater pieces like The Dead Class have been described as “post-traumatic.”
Rosenstein processed her own pain in various ways. Most obviously, her murdered parents are a recurring subject in her work. "Evening” (1974) depicts what might be a family, overshadowed by an empty urban landscape, frozen and isolated in a searchlight’s beam. More often, she directly portrayed her mother and father. Their benignly smiling faces appear in the sky over a tiny railroad train in one undated sketch. In 1979 she painted matched portraits in which, magically severed from their bodies, their heads float in space. One of Lurie’s earliest canvases is a conventional image of his pensive mother. The meaning of the picture is its blunt title: “Portrait of My Mother Before Shooting.” Rosenstein’s work is more fantastical. As suggested by the Once Upon a Time in the exhibition’s title, she also wrote fairytales as well as poetry.
Perhaps revealingly, Rosenstein began painting her parents after the anti-Zionist purge of the late 1960s drove most of Poland’s remaining Jews from the country and her forebears became the memory of a memory. Another form of introspection may be found in her delicate biomorphic abstractions, highly suggestive of female internal organs. The uterine-red, scribble-scrabble of “Hell Flowers” (1968) or “Down the Bottom” (1967) evokes not only the deranged bodies of Lurie’s dismembered women but also the contemporary work of a younger, more radical Polish-born Jewish sculptor and Holocaust survivor, Alina Szapocznikow (1926-1973).
Szapocznikow, too, endured what she called a “baptism of despair,” having been incarcerated in the Lodz ghetto before traveling with her mother—a doctor, whom she assisted—through a series of concentration camps, among them Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and ultimately Terezin. Alone after the war, Szapocznikow remained in Prague after the war, studying sculpture. Still in her 20s, she contracted tuberculosis. Upon returning to Poland in the early 1950s, she worked on several monuments, including ones honoring Joseph Stalin, Soviet-Polish Friendship, the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto, and Victims of Auschwitz. A decade later, she relocated to Paris, where she died of breast cancer.
As an artist, Szapocznikow is distinguished by the enormity of her talent and the multiplicity of her traumas. Essentially, she worked with fragments. Some pieces suggest sea-washed remains. Others, more organic, are redolent of decay and maggots. Many are body parts (most famously she cast her own legs). Later work is reminiscent of props from the films of the master of “body horror” David Cronenberg. Szapocznikow made ceramic tumors and mutant plants fashioned from polyester and polyurethane. (As with the sculptor Eva Hesse, exposure to these substances likely shortened her life.)
In their use of such material, Szapocznikow’s objects are even more fetishistic than Rosenstein’s. Her critique of consumer culture is more sophisticated than Lurie’s, although her 1971 assemblage, “The Bachelor’s Ashtray”—a pedestal and bowl fashioned from the lower third of a woman’s head filled with rank cigarette butts—has a NO!art yuck factor. So, too, do the polyester-based photographs of drippy, organic excreta she produced, using chewing gum, during her final years.
Szapocznikow seldom referred to her own wartime experience or used it in her art. (One exception is the photograph of herself as a child, juxtaposed with one of a concentration camp corpse incorporated in her 1971 object “Souvenir I.”) But her relentless emphasis on the industrial transformation of the human body cannot but suggest what she saw and learned during her traumatized youth.
Shortly after World War II, Jean-Paul Sartre described a new literature of extreme situations arising out of the anti-totalitarian struggle. Lurie, Rosenstein, and Szapocznikow might be considered artists of even more extreme, existential condition—born not only from individual catastrophes but from the collapse of an entire world.
All three artists were born into comfortable and cosmopolitan—if not assimilationist—Jewish families. Their parents considered themselves “European.” Whatever their political differences—Lurie became a late-in-life Zionist, Rosenstein remained a communist even after the expulsions of 1968, Szapocznikow was an unacknowledged feminist—their traumas included a painful firsthand experience of the self-destruction of Western reason.
Some 15 years after suggesting the barbarism of post-Auschwitz poetry, Adorno apologized for that which he did not actually say. At the conclusion of Negative Dialectics, he allowed that, as “suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream,” it was possibly “wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems.” Rather, and more melodramatically, the real question was whether one could truly go on living, especially “one who by rights should have been killed.” Adorno was among those, having managed to exit Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Presumably speaking for himself, he suggested that such individuals would “be plagued by dreams [Träume]” and the “feeling that one’s entire existence was essentially imaginary.”
We will never know just how acutely Lurie, Rosenstein, and Szapocznikow suffered from Adorno’s survivor guilt or felt a need to cling to the flotsam of the Enlightenment. If their work at times resembles that of traumatized outsider artists, their artistic self-awareness sets them apart and places them further outside art world norms. It is striking that during the defining moment in their artistic development, all three made crucial artistic refusals. Lurie’s programmatic antipathy to the art market is paralleled by Rosenstein’s stubborn repudiation of socialist realism, while Szapocznikow, who began her career working within the parameters of a heroic socialist realism, effectively pulverized classical sculpture to embrace a state of permanent displacement.
Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle might lead to an argument that all art is in some sense therapeutic, a form of working out psychic wounds and resolving shocks to the system. However, surviving genocide would seem to demand a definition of trauma that goes beyond Freud’s. The enormity of the ordeals suffered by Lurie, Rosenstein, and Szapocznikow has implications not only for their art but art-making in general. Reborn in a graveyard, each was compelled to invent their own tradition and, as true barbarians, reimagine culture anew.
“Boris Lurie: Nothing To Do But To Try” will be at the Museum of Jewish Heritage through April 2022. Other work, including Lurie’s NO!art, can be seen at the Boris Lurie Art Foundation’s virtual gallery. “Erna Rosenstein: Once Upon a Time” is up at Hauser & Wirth through Dec. 23. Selected images from and installation views of the 2019 Hauser & Wirth show “To Exalt the Ephemeral: Alina Szapocznikow, 1962-1972” can be found here.
J. Hoberman was the longtime Village Voice film critic. He is the author, co-author, or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.