Controversial NO!art exhibit juxtaposes war with pornography

Ingrid Grobey

The black-and-white photograph of a voluptuous nude pin-up girl frames the photo of emaciated Holocaust survivors clad in their prison uniforms.

This contrast is one of the provocative images viewed Thursday by more than 20 Northwestern students and faculty on a tour of the Block Museum of Art’s current exhibition, “NO!art and the Aesthetics of Doom.”

The Block Museum’s presentation of the NO!art exhibition is the collection’s first showing in North America since the 1960s, when it was viewed in New York’s 10th Street galleries and in the basements of NO!art leaders.

Estera Milman, director of alternative traditions in the contemporary arts at the University of Iowa, curated the collection but passed it to the Block Museum after her school officials found its content offensive and refused to display it, Hailey said.

Milman successfully sued the University of Iowa for violation of academic freedom. The NO!art collection will be displayed at the University of Iowa later this year, Hailey said.

NO!art was a movement in the 1960s that aimed to use art as a medium for protest and social change. The tour, which concentrated on the exhibition’s portrayals of nude females, was organized by a Gender Studies undergraduate committee to examine female issues in post-World War II art.

The movement was spearheaded by Boris Lurie, a Nazi concentration camp survivor. Its pieces often integrated photographs of violence, war and death with images of popular culture and pornography.

The young founders aimed to illustrate the contrast between 1950s prosperity and the atrocities of war.

“They weren’t necessarily offering solutions. They wanted people to notice – especially the art world,” said Dabney Hailey, assistant curator of the Block Museum. “They wanted people to feel offended in that way.”

The mainstream art world rejected NO!art because of its radical style and content. But NO!art later proved highly influential on other art protest movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, Hailey said.

The artists encouraged the use of collage, documentary photos, advertisements and news clippings to express a rejection of American social apathy.

“These artists had a very political goal in mind, and they especially had a problem with the fact that the established art scene wasn’t really dealing with these issues,” said Hailey, who explained NO!art’s portrayal of women as intentionally offensive and explicit. “They wanted to create a juxtaposition between (the importance of) the Holocaust and the distractions of pop culture,” she said.

The Block Museum will display the collection until Jan. 13.

“I have an instant negative response to explicit nudity of females, but just because it’s sexual doesn’t mean it’s negative,” said Katy Quissell, chairwoman of the Gender Studies committee and a Weinberg senior.

“It’s difficult work to view,” she added. “But looking at who made it, when and what their point was, it’s also really important work.”