“If you are famous you can get away with anything!” So declared Allen Ginsberg in a 1991 interview while discussing the artworks of William S. Burroughs. Ginsberg didn’t mean it as an explicit criticism of the work, he was simply marveling at the fact that Burroughs was making more money selling his paintings than he ever had from his groundbreaking writing. (Ginsberg was doing the same thing with the sale of his own photographs.) Nevertheless a lingering suspicion has persisted that Burroughs’s art was simply a cash cow. This show, which included 42 drawings and paintings in a range of mediums, went some way toward overturning that misconception. Although Burroughs did not begin creating artworks until the 1980s, he had been closely involved with artists since the 1950s. Most notable was his relationship with Brion Gysin, who showed Burroughs how the methods of visual art—especially collage—could be used in literature. The result was Burroughs’s famed “cut-up” technique of writing, in which a prose passage was cut up and rearranged to make a coherent new text. This slicing and reorganizing was for Burroughs the surest way to replicate modern consciousness, not to mention a quasi-magical method for shaking free from the communications and control systems Burroughs saw as omnipresent.
It was through the lens of the cutup that the paintings in this show came into focus. This was particularly true of those Burroughs made using firearms, for guns were to his paintings as scissors were to his books, a means of brutally reordering form. In Ten Gauge City (1988), an approximately 3-foot-tall wood panel, marked with sigils in Day-Glo red and green, has been shattered by buckshot. The shotgun blast reveals the splintered wood cross-hatching beneath the smooth surface grain, a visual equivalent of his revelatory approach to writing. Similarly, in an untitled work from 1987, two bullets, from a pistol or rifle, have pierced another tall board along with the mystical graffiti that covers it, providing peepholes through the obscurity.
Burroughs was fascinated with guns. Indeed one could say that his shotgun paintings are as much a record of a performance as they are works in their own right, a witness to the dark narcotic thrill he found in gunfire. Yet as much as Burroughs’s artworks are extensions of the cut-up technique, they are also manifestations of the lurching paranoid worldview that infused his books. This can best be seen in his paintings and collages on paper, created without firearms, in which spray paint, ink, acrylic and photographs battle for dominance. Take Death by Lethal Injection, a piece made with spray paint and ink on paper (1990). In a melee of yellow and black, a hypnotic grid, reminiscent of the work of Gysin himself, is overlaid with sordid graffiti huffs of spray paint. Elsewhere, as in an untitled black-and-white work on paper (ca. 1988), a rippling, expansive flame is covered with a crudely stenciled smiling face, its mouth a hideous “v,” its square eyes as empty as those of a hooded Klansman.
Creating swirling abstractions on cardboard and plywood, Burroughs disrupts the patterns with rudimentary silhouettes or jarringly placed newspaper cuttings. It is almost as if he took the large colorful abstract canvases of his former mentor, Gysin, and decided to circumscribe their soaring Moroccan-fueled mysticism with a mutilated, chain-link fence esthetic. The result is a series of backyard grotesques that are as comic and deranging as anything from Naked Lunch (1959).
William S. Burroughs: Ten Gauge City, 1988, house paint on wood panel with gunshot holes in a Plexiglas case, 381⁄2 by 117⁄8 inches; at October.