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Radical Point of View

William S. Burroughs' first museum retrospective shows the visual side of a provocative mind.

July 14, 1996|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

William Burroughs has been called many things during the course of his remarkable life, but Renaissance man has never ranked high on the list of superlatives. That may change this week with the opening of the exhibition "Ports of Entry: William S. Burroughs and the Visual Arts" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The author of "Naked Lunch," a wildly scatological novel that won a landmark anti-censorship Supreme Court decision in 1959, has long been recognized as one of the most radical minds of the 20th century. Burroughs, born in St. Louis in 1914, was openly homosexual long before that choice was tolerated by society, spent several decades as a heroin addict and accidentally killed his wife with a gunshot wound to the head. These are things most people know about him. His output as a visual artist, however, has thus far gone largely uncommented upon.

And as will be seen in Burroughs' first museum retrospective, opening Thursday, his creative output is surprisingly substantial. An accomplished photographer, he has produced a voluminous body of visual art that includes drawings, paintings, sculpture, action pieces, collages and scrapbooks, along with collaborative works with artists Andy Warhol, Jean Michel-Basquiat, Robert Wilson and Keith Haring, among others.

"Ports of Entry," assembled by LACMA's curator of photography, Robert Sobieszek, attempts to give a comprehensive view of Burroughs' artistic practice, presenting 153 works along with contributions from 43 artists and filmmakers who have worked with the author or been influenced by him.

As in his writing, Burroughs' loosely figurative abstractions employ the element of chance in an attempt to create an environment in which magic can enter (hence the title "Ports of Entry"). This is particularly true of the "shotgun paintings" begun in 1982, wherein he positions cans of paint in front of a wooden surface, then blasts them with a shotgun.

"The shotgun blast releases the little spirits compacted into the wood," explains the 82-year-old artist, speaking by phone from the Lawrence, Kan., home he has shared for 15 years with his longtime friend and assistant, James Grauerholz.

Explaining the genesis of the show, Sobieszek says: "In 1978, I curated an exhibition on photomontage dating from 1851 through Dada and Surrealism. I ended there, because at that point, I saw a big change in how artists approached montage, and in thinking about this change I kept going back to six pages in a book called 'The Burroughs File' that depicted images from the scrapbooks Burroughs completed in the '50s and '60s with the late Brion Gysin."

(Many of the 20 or so scrapbooks completed by Burroughs and Gysin, a legendary underground figure who died in 1986, have disappeared, but three will be on view at LACMA.)

"The scrapbooks introduced a radically new approach to montage," Sobieszek says. "Whereas Dada took an iconic approach to picture making, and Surrealism intermingled pictures and words to create narratives, these montages exploded iconicity and narration and pivoted on indeterminacy and open-endedness."

Central to the innovation Sobieszek refers to is the cutup, a creative methodology Burroughs and Gysin devised when they were sharing quarters at the Beat Hotel in Paris. Cutting a mat for a drawing in September 1959, Gysin was working on top of a stack of newspapers and accidentally cut through several layers of newsprint. He realized that he could shuffle the layers of newsprint and read three different stories simultaneously, and thus was born the cutup.

"William always credits Brion with the cutup method and says he's responsible for any power in the visual art he's made," Sobieszek says. "In France, Gysin is well known as an artist, but he's virtually unheard of here, and one of our intentions with this show is to introduce him to people who don't know him."

New York poet John Giorno (who performs at LACMA on Sept. 1 in conjunction with "Ports of Entry") met Burroughs and Gysin in 1964 shortly after they arrived in Manhattan to work on their collaborative novel "The Third Mind." He recalls that "Brion had a great talent for making people dislike him, and consequently many people with vastly less talent are more successful than he was.

"He and William had a very strong connection, though--the devotion they felt for each other was stronger than any reason, and it was almost as if they were lovers, though they never were," says Giorno, who himself was in a romantic relationship with Gysin at the time.

In any conversation about his visual art, Burroughs is quick to bring up Gysin, whom he describes as "a most extraordinary character--I've never known anyone as brilliant as he was."

"He was a dazzling conversationalist who spoke several languages, and he taught me what I know about painting," Burroughs says.

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