After the Guggenheim's 2009 show, The Third Mind, named for a concept of collaboration by famed novelist William S. Burroughs and lesser known painter, writer, restaurateur, raconteur Brion Gysin, inevitably a curiosity would grow around this exceptional artist of many trades. The New Museum does great service to Gysin's work in a new show called Dreamachine, so dubbed for a device he co-created to stimulate hallucinatory states of consciousness. Makeup magnate Helena Rubinstein was said to have had one. And Keith Haring brought Gysin to New York for a show at the Tower Gallery in the 1980's in exchange for one. And now, you too can sit on a cushion and feel the flicker of light over your closed lids. But who was Brion Gysin and why haven't we seen more of him?
As Nabokov wrote of his Lolita protagonist Humbert Humbert, Gysin was a salad of racial genes: a mix of British, Swiss, and Canadian. He lived mainly in Paris, and in Tangier, loci of much literary and artistic experimentation. Many have considered him merely a catalyst of art in others: for example, it was Gysin who invented the cut-ups, a collage technique utilized to random perfection by Burroughs in a series of novels. While the New Museum exhibits this part of his career, this show of 300 works also features calligraphic paintings, drawings, films, notebooks--sufficient evidence for a rethinking of Gysin as an artist on his own.
In the excellent catalogue that accompanies this exhibit, friends and colleagues offer fascinating glimpses into his art. Poet John Giorno provides insights into Gysin as a sound poet, painter George Condo writes of Gysin's photorealist imagery, describing him as "a man of internal music for which no score could be transcribed." Throbbing Gristles' Genesis Breyer P. Orridge explains the uses of cut-ups for his own work and the inspired Gysin notion, "Poets don't own words," opening the door for alternate modes of creativity. James Grauerholz, executor of both Burroughs' and Gysin's literary estate, writes movingly of the personal ties between Burroughs and Gysin particularly after 1974 until each one died, Gysin in 1986 and Burroughs in 1997. Contextualizing William Burroughs as a painter, he claims, begins with Brion Gysin.
In a taped interview, Burroughs laments that the mold is gone for people of a certain caliber-including Becket, Genet, Bowles, and Gysin. The tribute from so close a friend and collaborator goes far in illustrating the remembrance of those who knew him best. You won't, however, get Gysin's drama queen persona at the New Museum. Curator Laura Hoptman spoke about such limitations at a press opening. None of Gysin's Jma el Fna market place paintings -works that were on view in Burroughs's Bunker as well as leaning against the floor in Paul Bowles's Tangier flat-are represented. Morocco career is evident in other calligraphic works. More than other expatriates living there in the pivotal mid-century, he "went native" in adopting habits and perceptions.
In a case of synergy, uptown at MoMA, at the new Matisse exhibition at MoMA, "Radical Invention 1913-1917," such famous paintings as "Zorah in Yellow" show the imprint of Tangier, the place Bowles called "a dream scape." Christopher Nolan's new movie starring Leonardo diCaprio, Inception, a film that plays with states of consciousness, uses the Tangier medina as the perfect maze for working out the Burroughs/Gysin conception of ideas as viruses.
Brion Gysin extolled a humbling worldview: we are Here to Go; nevertheless at the New Museum, it is simply amazing to see the rich legacy he left behind
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