WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS
"Nothing is true, everything is permitted." With this anarchic call to arms, William S. Burroughs has led the attack from the front lines of the perceptual revolution, begun in the 1950's with fellow Beat generation artists and writers - among them, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and Brion Gysin. Most people know Burroughs as the legendary author of Naked Lunch, Junkie, The Yage Letters, The Soft Machine, among numerous other works of groundbreaking literature, film and performance. Yet "Ports of Entry", the retrospective exhibition organized by Robert Sobieszek at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, provides the first important overview of the rich output of experimentation and art making essential to any real understanding of Burroughs' writing and thought. Concurrent exhibitions of Burroughs more recent paintings, held jointly at Track 16 and Robert Berman Galleries, underscore the point.
Burrows has challenged our enslavement to the linear logic of verbal perception, and begun to explore the uncharted waters of nonverbal experience. As a consequence this most well known of writers has called on us to "rub out the word" and cast off the shackles of preconception. Burroughs has argued that the word is a virus, self-replicating and prerecorded, controlling and limiting our abilities to perceive. "We are not setting out to explore static pre-existing data. We are setting out to create new worlds, new beings, new modes of consciousness." Accordingly, Burroughs' cut-ups, fold-ins, collages, montages, shotgun and stencil paintings and the rest of his visual art making are not mere adjuncts to his writing, they are essential components to exploring these new modes of consciousness.
The sheer energy of the exhibitions is amazing. When I first saw Burroughs head through the museum exhibition, balancing precariously from the height of his eighty two years, Ginsberg steady at his side, it seemed almost impossible that all this could have come from this slight, slightly spectral, frame. What follows is a brief interview with Burroughs, with additional thoughts from Allen Ginsberg.
Venice - Is that a clove cigarette ?
Burroughs - Yes. Yeah. I gave up smoking tobacco four years ago.
Good for you. I understand from talking to your dealer, Jose, that this is special for you to come out for this exhibition. This is the first major retrospective of your work, how long was this exhibition in the making ?
Well it's been over many years. It's a retrospective.
Right. Seeing the work all together like this, does it inspire any particular memories, thoughts or associations for you ?
Yes, yes of course. Memories, thoughts and associations of where I did the work. It's extensive. Tangiers, London, Paris, New York, Kansas of course.
Your work in making visual art has intensified over the last 15 years or so-
-Ten years. Well, I started with the shot gun paintings in '82. I never would have done it if I'd been in New York.
You would have had to use a pistol in New York ?
A pistol would have been more appropriate in New York ?
You know about New York and the laws. Where you most need a gun you can't have one. You can't carry one. I tried to get a permit to carry one. A twenty -two. You got to get a license to carry one. My God. They gave me the first form. " Are you an habitual junkie", well I don't go any further. I walk out.
Can you comment a little on the different purposes for you between your painting and your writing.
Well they are completely different mediums. You can paint when you're blind but you can't write when you're blind... I've done a lot of paintings with my eyes closed. But in writing, you have to know, you can't help but know because there it is in front of you. Unless you're attempting some sort of trance or automatic writing which I've never been able to do at all. There are a number of very definite differences. Painting you see everything all at once, you can't help seeing what you put on the paper. Writing you do sequentially, from left to right. The Arabs go the other way...Because it is read sequentially, there is no way to effectively portray simultaneous events in writing. But that's the whole point of painting: multiple points of view can be simultaneously presented. A shotgun blast produces explosions of color that approach this basic randomness. .
It seems that there is nonetheless a directed spontaneity in your shotgun paintings in that you point the gun and shoot.
You can not foresee where the can is going or the paint. There is no way of predicting what patterns will emerge...The tonal universe is the everyday cause and effect universe, which is predictable because it is prerecorded. The nagual is unknown, unpredictable, uncontrollable. For the nagual to gain access, the door of chance must be open. Perhaps the most random factor is the shotgun blast, producing an explosion of color into unpredictable, uncontrollable patterns and forms. Without this random factor the painter can only copy the tonal universe and his painting is as predictable as the universe he copies.
Is there any other symbolic purpose for you in the fact that a shotgun is an instrument which can be quite destructive and you are using it to creative purposes ?
In the exhibition at the LA County Museum you have a number of pieces that are collaborations with other artists. The one with George Condo seemed particularly successful. Tell me a little of how the collaboration worked.
All we did was tune in on the current, a cosmic current.
What are your thoughts about the possibilities presented by the new media, CD-Roms, Virtual reality, the Internet etc.
I have no feeling for it. No feeling for it whatever.
In Burroughs' exhibition I noticed that he also likes using collages of imagery that are, or could be, the subjects of his writing.
ALLEN GINSBERG: Did you see the show at the Berman Gallery ? Remember that one of "Monkeys take over Capitol" ? (A collage painting made essentially from a newspaper clipping)
GINSBERG:I bought that. I thought it was so classically funny Burroughs that I wanted to have it. It was totally his humor. I like that one and it was the cheapest one there. Amazing.
The fact that it has the credibility of a newspaper account only makes it more surreal. It is like a Burroughs scene come to life.
GINSBERG: It's amazing how much like scripts from The Wild Boys, Naked Lunch and everything have developed like photographs over the years. So many of the things that seemed outrageous or insane or impossible came true. Particularly, do know you know Burroughs routine of Roosevelt after the inauguration ? Roosevelt gets himself up in a Roman toga and has this banquet with the justices of the Supreme Court, raped by a couple baboons. It's this Roman banquet-Burroughs has read a lot of Roman history-and it was a take off on one of these Nero banquets. And then years later someone sent me or showed me a photograph that had been in Time magazine of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and all his cohorts at a Roman banquet dressed in togas ! Unbelievable. I sent it to Bill in case an edition ever comes up. It's in the Yage Letters . He sent me the funniest piece saying that he woke up, wound up laughing and rolling around on the floor it was so funny, he was writing it. I laughed. It was so outrageous that Ferlinghetti wouldn't publish it at first as part of the Yage letters - it was meant as part of that. It was only in the later editions that he realized that it was actually funny and not an attack on liberalism.
When did you first notice Burroughs' experiments and pursuits in painting evolving. Were they concurrent with his early writing.
GINSBERG: While he was writing Naked Lunch there were several pages where the writing went into calligraphic semi-writing, hieroglyphics. He was always interested in Mayan hieroglyphs, Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Curator Robert Sobieszek states in the exhibition's catalog that Burroughs' ultimate goal in pushing randomness to the extreme is "toward the breakdown of all limiting structures, toward silence." And Burrows himself has earlier stated that, "Words, at least the way we use them, can stand in the way of what I call non-body experience. It's time we thought about leaving the body behind."
BURROUGHS LOOKING AT HIS ART WORK
A brief exchange between William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Dennis Hopper and William Turner, as they toured Burroughs paintings with him.
Ginsberg: What's the title of this one ?
Turner: One Blue Eyed Lemur ?
Burroughs: I like this one. Good color.
Turner: What are the qualities that strike you in a piece that you like.
Burroughs: The color. Lots of things. What are the qualities that strike you in a piece you like ?
Turner: Rhythm, color. Lots of things....That one has a haunting look to it.
Burroughs: Its a lemur. Lemur means ghost. That one's extinct. Last one seen in '35.
Hopper: You didn't shoot this one Bill . (Looking at a large abstract painting).
Hopper: Did you sell any work from that show we did together ?
Burroughs: No, did you ?
Hopper: Not a damn thing.