Forty years since the heyday of the NO!art movement in New York City, this largely overlooked segment of American art history is once again seeing the light of day.
Fueled in part by exhibitions of the visual arts produced by its core membership -- in Manhattan, in Germany and in the midwestern US -- as well as video productions and an internet site dedicated to the group, there's been a resurgence of interest in the NO!art movement of the early 1960s in New York City in recent years.
Consisting principally of visual artists but also including videographic pioneers like Aldo Tambellini and such writers as Stanley Fisher, the NO!art collective was active in New York in the late 1950s and early ‘60s.
Founded by Buchenwald survivor Boris Lurie, along with Sam Goodman, and joined by Fisher in late 1959, the group produced a large body of confrontational works of art which drew on commercial images, pin-up nudes and photographs of war atrocities.
Originally identified as the March Gallery Group, the members of the NO!art collective espoused street art, graffiti and what they described as “violent expressionism.” These disturbing and powerful works were created in response to the contrast between the superficial consumer culture of the postwar era and the horror of the recent past, including the Holocaust and the atomic crises of the cold war.
And aside from these visual forms, the group provided a platform for wordcrafters like Stanley Fisher to add their voice to the protest.
These days, Lurie -- an octogenarian and one of the last of the NO!art practitioners -- has seen his and his colleagues' work appear at shows in Chicago, Nebraska, Iowa, Germany (Buchenwald Museum) and New York City (Clayton Gallery, Whitney Museum).
But the writing of Stanley Fisher has as yet received scant attention.
Who was Stanley Fisher?
Fisher (1926-1980), was born in working class New York, and in early adulthood was a successful and conventional teacher in the Brooklyn schools, according to his friend and colleague Boris Lurie. But he was also a poet, and interested in the downtown art scene in Manhattan, Lurie notes, particularly the 10th St galleries coop scene.
It was a scene that was politically charged and somewhat obscured by the more prominent abstract expressionist and pop art movements of the day. Fisher quickly became an associate with two of the most important figures on the scene -- Sam Goodman and Lurie -- and was a prominent spokesperson on behalf of the artistic and political turbulence of that scene.
"This Brooklyn lower middle-class schoolteacher and devoted family man seemed hardly the type to wrap himself in the Prophet's mantle to arouse, accuse and smite," says Lurie. "But he had been to Normandy in the War, with the Medics. He must have seen much of injured bodies, for his later NO!art collages were based on the grafting of photo faces onto faces and bodies onto bodies."
In its heyday, Fisher was a central figure as the NO!art group created quite a stir on the local scene. His name is prominently placed in a number of shows which attracted the attention of underground and countercultural downtown society. Among these exhibitions was the Vulgar Show, in 1960, and the following year, the Doom and Involvement shows. By the end of that year, the Gertrude Stein Gallery was mounting an exhibition of the group, entitled "NO!Show."
Fisher's collages and other visual works were classic NO!art, full of spit and fire. However, they were not so 'schooled' as the productions of some of his associates.
"We accepted Stanley as a poet, but not quite at first as a visual artist," says Lurie candidly. "To Stanley borrowing styles meant nothing: if he made it his own it belonged to him... He worked with unbelievable ease and speed and nonchalance and left the "originator" gaping with his ventriloquistic talent."
But for all his success on the NO!art scene as a visual artist, it was Fisher's wordsmithing that his colleagues hankered after the most. "To Sam Goodman and I...(he) was a veritable Godsend or so it seemed. He was the natural propagandist for our "cause." It was a talent that Stanley Fisher was able to apply in essays, prose introductions to show catalogs, and to prose poems and other literary works that appeared during the day.
Little of Fisher's work is readily available. A few of his prose-poem style essays, from NO!art catalogs, have been transcribed and posted on the internet. It is possible, with some persistence, to obtain a copy of the very fine Beat anthology he edited in 1960, which includes three of his poems. More rare, but traceable, are the 21 poems from his self-published chapbook "Eryngo."
Eryngo is a handmade, limited quantity mimeographed set of 21 poems - no publisher, no date, printed on three-hole punch paper with brass staples and dark cover art of his own devising. In it, Fisher offers up a world view that is tinged with the influence of French symbolism.
He wanders late night streets of a vagrant city past "dour houses in/which lamps prowl through gloom./Past the Hubcap-silver sea..." He encounters 'people with abbreviated lives/who gamble all night without knowing why..." When dawn arrives, it is an equivocal one at best: the sun is 'void like a tilted pinball machine..."
Perhaps the most successful of the poems in the collection is also its proseiest.
"The night presses on me as once you had,
and now dawn is my silhouette, and dusk
extends your arm to me. Hours are your
round breasts, pressing, salvaging.
Sunlight drinks from your visitation
wounded by my salvos. You breathe into
the leaves stunned by my asphyxiation..."
As editor of "Beat Coast East: An Anthology of Rebellion" (Excelsior Press, NY 1960), Fisher adeptly negotiates an uneasy merger between NO!art's violent social criticism and the playfulness of young Beat literature.
The anthology is, in its essence, a joyful celebration, typical of the Beat era's unequivocal enthrallment with the societal misfit's 'dark glory on a rooftop altar.'
But Fisher amply reveals his NO!art leanings in the anthology. Illustrations of his own, those of Boris Lurie, and also Claes Oldenburg and Elaine deKooning, all starkly juxtapose a violent tone to the otherwise innocent hipster mayhem. There is a palpable violence to all of these illustrations -- more abstractly so in deKooning's case -- and become particularly graphic, confrontational and disturbingly direct in several photographs of an installation by Oldenburg.
Here we have the kernel of NO!art themes revealed in an otherwise breezy Beat anthology -- "Violent Expressionism" in its nascent form.
Editor Fisher succeeds in bringing together a marvelous collection with a lineup of Beat poets that is hard to top. He offers up a melange of authors and styles, from the jazzy and sometimes fractured excursions of Ray Bremser, Diane DiPrima, Leroi Jones, Gregory Corso and Jack Kerouac to the Blakeian/Whitmanesque visioning of Allen Ginsberg; and from the faux-innocence of Peter Orlovsky and Wavy Gravy (Hugh Romney) to the cerebral ruminations of Norman Mailer and Daisy Aldan.
But as a contributor himself, Fisher neatly fits himself into the mix.
In "Sunday," Fisher is in a hipster mode, and brings us an angular casualness, lightly praising the bedlam of strange morning wakeup, asking rhetorically "What is this strange/rickshaw of towels/at my bedside?"
And in his second poem "I Like Tall Green," that Fisher further demonstrates his talent for prose poetry, which he will reveal more fully and later put to good use in NO!art catalogues. Here, Fisher takes an ancient theme in English literature, going back to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at least, and restages it in a be-bop street talking modality, unselfconscious and with a boyish bop-celebratory sexual edge to it: "god made the image of tall girl in virginal green and smothered in her pheasant-puffed breasts he's been trying to get fingers and all up her crotch but he's real shook up...and so there are tall girls in green dresses all over the scene and lavender nods from absent eternity..."
Fisher is not unaware of the pretentious quality of such writing. In fact he makes note of it with pride, in his preface to the anthology. He is also quick to suggest that there is a "Whitmanesque quality to it -- magnanimous and magnetic, with the jazzy beatitudes of flip America..."
While he turned more and more to visual arts -- and eventually from those to the building of an alternative lifestyle -- in order to express his alienation from society, Fisher reaches full stride as a poet in the sixties, with a number of prose writings in association with the NO!art movement.
Many of these were collected in an anthology of NO!art paintings (Lurie, Boris; Krim, Seymour (Ed.): NO!art. Köln 1988.), and more recently have found their way onto www.no-art.info, the internet website dedicated to this movement.
Here, we find Fisher at his Kafka-esque best, leaping from rage to hysteria, and from terror to resignation, as he depicts the inhuman condition of the individual in an A-bomb world. We live, he says, in a world that is like a 'line drive single to the slaughterhouse.' In such a world, "Art should be temporary. No substance beyond the rubbish of a bomb blast and beauty parlor. It must be hideous like a body crushed in aluminum."
With overt, blatant and confrontational bodyblows, his pieces border madness, and snarl with neo-Dada resistance. "Drink emptiness...inertia is in flames..." he declares in Art In The Fallout Shelter. " The titles pull no punches. Human Debris. Spasm. Chain Gang. Demented Corpse. "A child is not an eggshell," he declares in Paid Flame, yet "The bomb is in our beds, seeking refuge from its foulness..."
Here is a full vignette by Fisher, entitled Stained:
Something happened to my nose. It had been there, and now it was gone. Now, only a hole. And still I was shaving. The mirror shriveled and collapsed, like a centipede into the wash basin. I was in a raging costume of color, my body black against the light, except for parts of me that were gone. I tried to touch myself, but a smoking glove on the floor was all that was left of my crouching hand. I laughed and sat on the toilet seat. It was searing my hot flesh with an icy brand. I heard the zombies in the courtyard, dying, dreamy with perspiration and blood. It was through jagged windows that I walked to meet them, more glass than flesh, over chains of stained heads and others screaming from their eyes.
As in his art, this is poetry of "satire, violence and castigation," as his colleague Boris Lurie wrote soon after Fisher died. "He was the natural propagandist for our cause." As an artist and as a revolutionist, said Lurie, Fisher "was wild and unstructured... totally liberated from limitations of human modesty, he knew not the meaning of the words fear or shame...Lenin would have smirked at this sex-anarchic nonsense. But then Lenin was not around in those days, only Stanley."