BRION GYSIN: The Man Who Was Always There

From a piece by Randy Kennedy in yesterday’s Sunday NYTimes in advance of a show celebrating Gysin’s work that opens on July 7 at New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York:

“IF you want to disappear … come around for private lessons,” the artist Brion Gysin once offered in a prose poem. And during a period in Paris in the late 1950s, when he and the novelist William S. Burroughs were experimenting with crystal balls, mirrors and other contraptions of the occult, a mutual friend swore that he saw Gysin exercise the powers of dematerialization, perhaps with help from the various narcotics that always seemed to be lying around for the taking.

“Brion disappeared before my eyes, for periods of 10 or 15 or 20 minutes,” the friend, Roger Knoebber, told an interviewer.

But during a ferociously productive, wildly eclectic career in painting, writing and performance that lasted half a century, it often seemed as if Gysin, who died in poverty in 1986, had too great a facility for disappearance, at least as far as his reputation in the art world was concerned. Despite a longing for recognition, he was generally known less for his own work than for his associations with a prodigious number of more famous artists for whom he was, by turns, a teacher, friend and all-around guru: Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Max Ernst, Alice B. Toklas, Keith Haring, David Bowie and Iggy Pop, among others.

As death approached, Gysin feared that his peripatetic life had been only an adventure, “leading nowhere” except through a procession of illustrious homes like Tangier, the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan and the poet’s bunkhouse in Paris known as the Beat Hotel, where he spent several of his most productive years. “You should hammer one nail all your life, and I didn’t do that,” he wrote in a lament cited by his biographer, John Geiger. “I hammered on a lot of nails like a xylophone.”

But now the New Museum of Contemporary Art has gathered the widely scattered pieces of Gysin’s strange, necromantic career and is working to haul him up from the underground once and for all with “Dream Machine,” the first retrospective of his art in the United States. The show, which opens July 7, will include more than 300 paintings, drawings, photo-collages and films, along with an original version of the Dreamachine, the spinning, light-emitting, trance-inducing kinetic sculpture that Gysin helped design with a computer programmer, Ian Sommerville, in 1960 that has become his most famous work. (The exhibition’s catalog includes a paper foldout and instructions to build your own Dreamachine, provided you can locate your old turntable.)

Gysin’s lack of mainstream success can be attributed in part to the nature of his work, which was always about finding ways — as a gay, irreligious, stateless artist — to escape the controls of conventional society and of the conscious mind. He pursued this mission with vast amounts of kif (a blend of tobacco and marijuana) and with psilocybin pills, supplied by none other than Timothy Leary. In the show’s catalog the poet John Giorno, one of Gysin’s lovers, recalls descending into the New York City subway with him one day in 1965, lugging a suitcase-size tape recorder to create one of Gysin’s sound poems.

“It was very exciting,” Mr. Giorno wrote. “We were stoned, of course, sweating from the heat and seeing with great clarity.”

If Gysin had done nothing else, he probably would have earned a footnote in cultural history as the man who supplied the hash fudge recipe for “The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook.” (Toklas was an innocent in this caper; she had never heard of the ingredient “canabis sativa,” as Gysin spelled it.)

But Gysin was, among other things, an authority on the Sufi music of the Moroccan village of Jajouka, which led to his serving as a guide there in 1968 for Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. He was also an important literary innovator who picked up where the Surrealists left off, pioneering the Cut-Up Method, the aleatory springboard for Burroughs’s best writing. Gysin stumbled upon the idea in 1959 after accidentally slicing through some newspapers, unmooring words that he then arranged at random. Burroughs adopted the Cut-Up as a narrative technique, one that worked perfectly to expose what he later called “the monumental fraud of cause and effect.”

Gysin considered himself primarily a visual artist, however, and painting and drawing were woven through everything he did. His work, which has affinities with that of Cy Twombly and Mark Tobey, was heavily influenced by Japanese and Arabic calligraphy but also by a strange discovery in 1956 behind a wall of a restaurant he ran in Tangier: a Moroccan curse that included a paper with lines of script arranged in a grid pattern. The motif impressed him deeply and gridded, letterlike images — a kind of meeting of magic and mathematical rigidity — dominated his work.

Full article: New York Times
Exhibition info: New Museum of Contemporary Art
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge in Conversation about Brion Gysin and Other Matters: July 15 at New Museum Theater
Brion Gysin in Arthur No. 7 (2003): The Arthur Store

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About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.

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