July 1, 1996

William S. Burroughs at LACMA, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Ports of Entry: William S. Burroughs and the Arts
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
July 18 - October 6, 1996

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) will premiere the exhibition Ports of Entry: William S. Burroughs and the Arts from July 18-October 6, 1996. Organized by the museum, the first-ever retrospective will survey Burroughs's career with 153 works, beginning with his 1960s and early 1970s photocollages, scrapbooks, and his collaborations with Brion Gysin on photomontage "cut-ups". The exhibition will include Burroughs's later shotgun art and recent abstract painting, and will explore how his work has influenced today's cultural landscape, resulting in the absorption of his ideas and routines into newer art, advertising, and current popular culture. On display will be graphic art as well as works produced by Burroughs in collaboration with such artists as David Bradshaw, George Condo, Keith Haring, Robert Rauschenberg, Philip Taafe, and Robert Wilson. Portraits of Burroughs by Allen Ginsberg, Annie Leibovitz, Robert Mapplethorpe, Herb Ritts, and Kate Simon will be on view, and works by other artists will suggest Burroughs's continuing influence.

Robert Sobieszek, curator of photography at LACMA and exhibition curator, commented, "For more than forty years, William Burroughs has been at the center of much of our culture and has exerted a tremendous influence on both literature and the arts, and he continues to be a compelling figure for a younger generation. Wishing to finally rub out the word and the attendant, restrictive logic of language, he turned to the purely pictorial art of photomontage, collage, and ultimately painting."

Born in 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri, author William S. Burroughs is best known for his revolutionary novel Naked Lunch, which was published in Paris in 1959 and banned in the United States until its publication in New York in 1962. As a member of the Beat Generation, Burroughs's cult standing throughout his life has been enhanced by his literary and artistic statements, and by the unconventional and sometimes marginal way he has lived his life. Born into a family made socially prominent by his grandfather's invention of the modern adding machine, he attended private school before enrolling at Harvard, where he studied literature and anthropology.

William Burroughs's first formal artworks may be the calligraphic drawings in the style of Brion Gysin (1916-1986) that he produced for the dust jackets of the first Olympia Press edition of Naked Lunch (1959) and the Grove Press edition of The Soft Machine (1966), as well as some earlier photomontages. Collaborations between Burroughs and Gysin began in 1959 in Paris, though the two had known each other vaguely in Tangier before that time. Gysin, who was more of a painter than a writer, demonstrated to Burroughs the essential pictorial value of the calligraphic form. During the Beat Hotel days in the early 1960s Burroughs admitted that he had never "seen painting" until he saw Gysin's work. When he was asked how he got into the paintings, he replied: "Usually I get in by a port of entry, as I call it. It is often a face through whose eyes the picture opens into a landscape and I go literally right through that eye into that landscape." Otherwise Burroughs confirms that his ideas on painting have been strongly influenced by the Swiss artist Paul Klee.

Images--hieroglyphs, pictographs, photographs, newspaper illustrations, collages, montages, prints, paintings, and film--have held an important if not central position in Burroughs's working methods since Naked Lunch, which used the "cut-up" technique subsequently employed by Burroughs and Gysin in their collaborative works. The first true "cut-ups" were published in Minutes To Go (1960), and Burroughs and Gysin in 1964 collaborated on a folio-sized handwritten manuscript The Cut-ups, whose calligraphic and textual passages are coordinated by colored gridwork. In describing the cut-up method, Gysin stressed that "the cut-up method treats words as the painter treats his paint, raw material with rules and reasons of its own." Burroughs also used the cut-up process on tape recordings beginning in 1961, in Tangier, London, New York, and Paris; and with Antony Balch on moving films (Towers Open Fire, 1963; and Bill and Tony, 1963).

From 1963-72, Burroughs and Gysin collaborated on literary experiments and theoretical articles that they combined into one anthology, The Third Mind. (The total number of artworks created for The Third Mind is unknown; but more than seventy works of art including mechanicals, manuscripts and collages are owned by the museum). Burroughs has often referenced T.S. Eliot as an influence, and a source of the title may be The Wasteland--"Who is the third who walks beside you ?" Each collage employs a loose grid, and the cut-up technique is used when text is involved, as in Plan Drug Addiction (c. 1965), in which the rendering of an anguished man's face is surrounded by typed and cut-up texts mostly concerned with drugs and their criminalization. For William S. Burroughs, everything that controls us is a virus--"junk" included. Permutations (c. 1965) combines snapshots of the authors with two of Gysin's brayer-and-text paintings and one of Burroughs's collages. (Gysin used a printer's brayer to visually enlarge his grids). A blurring of identities did occur in the creative process, though almost every text produced during the collaborations is initialed by its original author. For example Rub Out the Word (c. 1965) combines a typescript of hand-lettered "faux arabic" calligraphic permutations on grids (initialed by Gysin); its transformation into typescript and punctuation marks are initialed "W.B." Other than these, none of the other plates for the edition is initialed or signed.

In 1981, William S. Burroughs moved from New York to Lawrence, Kansas, and began his own experimentations with a process that while not without precedent was remarkably innovative. Like the cut-up, the idea behind Burroughs's shotgun blast paintings is chance operation, where the explosive randomness created by the shotgun blast, and the Zen act of shooting, are valued. The process adopted by Burroughs for such paintings as Traveller on the Yellow Wave (1982) was to place small containers of paint on the wood and shoot at them and the wood at the same time, later collaging photographs to the pieces of plywood. Nearly all of the shotgun paintings function as double-sided works; both the "entry" and "exit" wounds are significant. According to Burroughs, "the shotgun blast releases the little spirits compacted in the layers of wood, causing the colors of the paints to splash out in unforeseeable, unpredictable images and patterns." For Burroughs, no other technique so completely removes constraints on the body and the mind, or offers such ease, liberty, and the prospect of infinity.

Also on view in the exhibition are Burroughs's automatic paintings of the late 1980s. Derived from Gysin and from the Surrealists in Paris, the works are founded on the hallucinatory aspects of painting as a catalyst for provoking dream images that in turn serve the imagination--the paintings, according to Burroughs, bring about the "appearance of the invisible." Finally, Burroughs's Crazy Man (1988) embodies the potential danger that Burroughs sees as central to his work. "I want my painting to literally walk off the goddamned canvas, to become a creature and a very dangerous creature." The strongly mythic cut-out figure, emptied of eyes and mouth--and literally heartless--confronts the viewer with just this presence. As the "invisible man," Burroughs continues to affect popular culture with his art and ideas, collaborating with other artists and participating in such films as Towers Open Fire (1963), Drugstore Cowboy (1989), and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1994).

Curator: Robert A. Sobieszek, curator of photography at LACMA

This exhibition was organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Catalogue: Ports of Entry: William S. Burroughs and the Arts, by Robert A. Sobieszek; published by LACMA, dist. by Thames and Hudson; 192 pp.; 98 illus. in color, 112 illus. in black-and-white; softbound $24.95 at the LACMA museum shop.

LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art