Museum retrospectives can either serve as tributes to well-known artists or offer reevaluations of under-recognized figures. This survey of some 300 works by Brion Gysin (1916-1986), including paintings, photo-collages, audio pieces, films and a sculptural installation, is a rare event that posthumously establishes a reputation that eluded the artist in his lifetime. A peripatetic man, with wide-ranging interests in poetry, music, film and performance, Gysin worked on the fringes of the art world for most of his life. He was a cult figure to some—Keith Haring, Patti Smith, Sue de Beer and Cerith Wyn Evans, for instance, have cited him as an important influence. And he is known in literary circles for his long association and collaborations with William S. Burroughs. Using a collage technique of randomly cut and reassembled texts, Gysin developed the so-called Cut-Ups, which Burroughs then adopted for several of his novels. Despite the fact that Burroughs always credited Gysin for the idea, the innovative process remains widely attributed to the writer. Among the highlights of the show are Gysin’s Cut-Ups from the early 1960s, which incorporate Burroughs’s texts for Naked Lunch (1959); especially outstanding are intricate compositions comprising passages from The Third Mind (1965) and Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead (1971).
New Museum curator Laura Hoptman, the show’s organizer, assumed the challenge of constructing a cohesive esthetic from Gysin’s frenetic and often drug-fueled endeavors. The result is a visually striking and intellectually engaging exhibition that at the very least succeeds in enabling a dynamic personality to emerge from the chaos of his disparate works and the footnotes of recent art history. A less sensitive approach might have seen Gysin appear rather dilettantish—a minor talent with ADD issues rather than a Renaissance man.
Precocious, restless and queer, Gysin, in his teens, left his hometown of Edmonton, Alberta, to study art and seek adventure in Paris, where he briefly attended the Sorbonne. His work soon gained the attention of a publisher with ties to the Surrealists, and in 1935, at age 19, he was invited to participate in an exhibition of Surrealist drawings at Galerie Aux Quatre Chemins. André Breton, however, judged the young man’s efforts unworthy, and on the day of the opening, Gysin entered the gallery to find Paul Éluard, on Breton’s orders, removing his works from the walls. It was a pivotal moment for Gysin, a rejection that emotionally scarred him and was the source of the mistrust that tainted virtually all of his subsequent art-world dealings.
During the war, he settled in New York and decided to become a writer, but had little success. In the late 1940s, at the suggestion of Paul Bowles, he went to Tangier, where he fell under the spell of Moroccan music, magic rituals, hashish and Arabic calligraphy, which became a central preoccupation and motif in his painting. The most sumptuous works in the show are his large, colorful abstract canvases, in which linear gestures, inspired by but not copied from Arabic script, vibrate against grounds of rectangular shapes in analogous tones. This use of language, in the form of abstracted lettering, recalls a number of his contemporaries, such as Cy Twombly and the underappreciated Chryssa. Gysin’s largest and most ambitious painting, and one of his final works, Calligraffiti of Fire (1985), more than 41⁄2 by 50 feet, is a glowing spectacle of orange-yellow calligraphic strokes covering a field of brilliant yellow. Unfortunately hung in a narrow corridor, it allowed one only a hint of its epic sweep.
Lending a kind of high-tech feel to the show were a number of sound pieces presented via wall-mounted iPods and headphones, offering collaborations with John Giorno and other poets, plus a number of computer screens showing collaborative events with Gysin and various writers and musicians. Filling one room, Am I That I Am? (1961) is a multipanel video projection of a slide show featuring changing self-portrait photos, embellished with scratched lettering and accompanied by Gysin’s voiceover, repeatedly and hypnotically reciting variations of the work’s title. Achieving the effects of hypnosis and hallucination was Gysin’s aim in creating the Dreamachine (1961), the exhibition’s centerpiece, a motorized electric light covered by a spinning cylinder made of sheet metal perforated with geometric shapes. Installed in a darkened room with floor cushions, the Dreamachine purports to offer to viewers, by means of its stroboscopic flickering effect, a chance to experience visions with eyes closed, something akin to mild hallucinations.
Working in collaboration with a computer programmer, Ian Sommerville, Gysin had planned to mass market the piece, but the project was never realized. Nor was the work embraced by the art establishment. Gysin endured another art-world rejection in 1962 when he showed Dreamachine to MoMA director Alfred J. Barr, who dismissed it as a work of passé kinetic sculpture. In some ways, Dreamachine appears as a rather prosaic attempt to mimic the effect of drugs rather than provide a useful meditative tool, and adds to the impression that Gysin was a visionary in search of a vision. Nevertheless, elsewhere in the show, there is plenty of evidence of his unique accomplishments, and one can’t help but admire the scope of his unorthodox and multifaceted oeuvre.
Photos (left) Brion Gysin: Self-portrait, 1961, altered 35mm slide, 13⁄8 by 7⁄8 inches. (right) Gysin and William S. Burroughs: The Third Mind, 1965, mixed mediums on graph paper, 123⁄8 by 95⁄8 inches. Both at the New Museum.