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May 11, 2013

Brion Gysin — A life much more than a Dreamachine


Randy Kennedy's June 23, 2010 New York Times story has been gathering dust in a folder on my shelf since I carefully clipped it from the paper.

Finally, it sees the light of boj day.


The Unknown Loved By Knowns

"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 [top, Gysin and his device], 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.)

The show is the first devoted to a dead artist by the New Museum since it moved into its sleek new home on the Bowery in 2007. The institution's programming there has generally reflected its name, showcasing recent art by those still working, many of them young. But Laura Hoptman, the museum's senior curator and the organizer of the show, said the departure in Gysin's case made perfect sense because his work remains largely unknown to the American public and his influence — the kind that eluded him during his lifetime — now seems to be everywhere in the contemporary art world.

"I knew about him, and then six or seven years ago it felt like I started hearing his name from everyone," Ms. Hoptman said. "I kept trying to figure out all the ways they had arrived at Gysin."

As she learned more about his life, she said, she quickly realized that her challenge would be to try to extricate Gysin from that life, from the reputation that he was a scene maker first, a temperamental and eccentric one — "an exquisite, to use a good old-fashioned term" — and an artist only second, a second-rate one at that.

"But I wasn’t interested in the personality of Brion Gysin," she said. "A lot of people loved him, and a lot of people loathed him, and I wanted this show to be about his art."

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."

Another probable reason for Gysin's failure to achieve fame was the one he grudgingly acknowledged toward the end of his life, his restless zinging from one discipline to another, a disregard of boundaries that resonates strongly today with young "I'm in a band; I paint; I design clothes; I'm an actor" artists.

"There were times in his life when people would recognize this genius at work," Ms. Hoptman said, "and then — bang — he was off in another direction doing something new."

The artist Sue de Beer, 36, known for her hallucinatory video work, included a Dreamachine in one of her pieces, from 2007 and said that Gysin's work had always "connected a lot of things for me, between sculpture and filmmaking."

She added: "The way he worked certainly speaks to me. I go through phases where I'm writing, and then I'm building, and then I'm trying to find someone with a trained Persian cat, and then I'm hanging out in a sensory-deprivation tank to try to have a psychedelic experience."

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."

[Below, Burroughs and Gysin with the Dreamachine]


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.

Burroughs called Gysin the only man he ever respected, and he diligently acknowledged his creative debts to him. But Gysin usually wound up in the shadow of his closest friend and collaborator. It didn’t help that the two men even closely resembled each other, with long faces, fleshy noses and deep-set eyes, though Burroughs wore a hunted look while Gysin always seemed somehow regal, like a "courtier in one of the early German princely courts," in Burroughs's telling.

Ms. Hoptman said that in her "mind’s eye Brion Gysin will finally emerge, fully formed, in this retrospective as the artist he really was." But for a man who was always a "specter, a see-through," she added, getting at who he really was is much more difficult, as he probably intended it to be.

"This will be one version of him," she said. "And maybe someday all the musicians he knew or all the people he slept with or all the people he has influenced so deeply will end up giving us their own Brion Gysins."


Below, Martha Schwendener's July 30, 2010 New York Times review of the show.



The Dreamachine was featured here in 2005 and again in 2010.

I would've bet good money in 2005 that it would have long since been declared illegal by now but apparently not.

Fair warning.

May 11, 2013 at 08:01 AM | Permalink


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