William S. Burroughs at the Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989

By Jennie Skerl; Robin Lydenberg | Go to book overview

25
On Burroughs' Art

James Grauerholz

I nevitably, William Burroughs' artwork is considered in terms of his writing, but it may also be considered in terms of his ideas: for what have been influential in his writing, in several fields of contemporary art, are the central ideas in his work. And it is first necessary to put his paintings, qua paintings, in the context of the enormous personal and artistic influence of Brion Gysin, his closest friend. This is as true for his writing as for his painting, so any attempt to "contextualize" Burroughs as a painter must begin with Gysin, who--if we approach the question purely as a matter of art history--was Burroughs' teacher.

Of course the difficulty of "contextualizing" both Burroughs and Gysin in this way is that their work has taken place at the center of a worldwide shift of philosophy, politics, religion, and art: the postwar period in the latter half of the twentieth century, in America and Europe. Burroughs and Gysin were born during World War I, and were mature by the time of the Second World War. Both men traveled the world through their twenties and thirties, along different but intersecting paths, to their first meeting in January 1953, which took place at the gallery in the Rembrandt Hotel in Tangier, where Gysin and Hamri ("the Painter of Morocco") were exhibiting drawings.

Gysin began painting in 1934, at the Sorbonne, in his teens. His circle included Max Ernst, Meret Oppenheim, Valentine Hugo, Salvador Dali, Dora Maar, and Picasso. The story is often told of how his works were removed by Paul Eluard on André Breton's orders in 1935, at Aux Quatre Chemins in Paris, from a show of works by Pablo Picasso, Hans Arp, Hans Bellmer, Victor Brauner, Giorgio di Chirico, Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Joan Miró, Man Ray, and Yves Tanguy.1 This brutal rejection from the pantheon of Surrealists in the 1930s was triggered by Gysin's design for a poster, meant to celebrate the execution of Louis XVI which depicted a huge calf's head in a periwig sitting on a beach, and which Breton apparently felt too closely resembled him. Gysin says he

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James Grauerholz, "On Burroughs' Art," in Gallery Casa Sin Nombre catalog ( Sante Fe, 1988). Copyright © 1988 by James Grauerholz. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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