Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust has just opened “Boris Lurie: Nothing To Do But To Try,” a first-of-its-kind exhibition on the 20th century artist and Holocaust survivor. It is the museum’s first contemporary art show.
The exhibition is centered around Lurie’s earliest body of work — the paintings and drawings in his so-called “War Series” — as well as never-before-exhibited objects and ephemera from his personal archive. It presents a portrait of the artist reckoning with devastating trauma, haunting memories, and an elusive, lifelong quest for freedom. In drawing together artistic practice and historical chronicle, it offers a survivor’s searing visual testimony within a significant art historical context.
The exhibition will run through April 29 at the museum, in lower Manhattan’s Battery Park City.
Boris Lurie (1924–2008) grew up in Riga, Latvia, in the 1930s. He was 16 years old in 1941, when the Nazis occupied Latvia, and he and his family were forced into the ghetto. Later that year, his mother, grandmother, sister, and girlfriend were murdered, alongside approximately 25,000 other Jews, in what would come to be known as the massacre at Rumbula. In the years that followed, Lurie and his father together survived several labor and concentration camps throughout Latvia, Poland, and Germany, until they were liberated from Buchenwald-Magdeburg.
Lurie created his “War Series” in the immediate aftermath of the war, following his service with the United States Counter Intelligence Corps and subsequent immigration to New York.
In nearly 100 paintings and drawings made, with few exceptions, in 1946, the “War Series” contains Lurie’s experiences of the war in a highly graphic, expressionist style: nightmarish camp scenes in riotous colors, laborers at work in striped uniforms, stark landscapes cut through with barbed wire, amorphous dream-like visions, and searing portraits. As suggested by their somewhat unfinished, chaotic style, as pages ripped from a notebook, Lurie considered these pictures a private catharsis, and he never exhibited them in his lifetime.
Lurie’s only known self-portrait as a young man, in which he appears disembodied with a plaintive expression, in included in the exhibition. The show’s largest work, a ghostly concentration camp scene, 50 by 50 inches in scale, was painted in 1971, long after the original “War Series” was made.
“Nothing To Do But To Try” is the first Boris Lurie exhibition to consider the entire “War Series,” alongside Lurie’s original family photographs, correspondence, diary entries, and assorted ephemera, as an essential origin story for Lurie’s life and work. For more information, go to mjhnyc.org.