RA Magazine Winter 2008
Issue Number: 101
I’ll be right back
Cult figure of the Beat Generation and author of Naked Lunch William S Burroughs also made an indelible mark on the London art scene in the 1960s. GSK Contemporary pays tribute to the legend who lives on among today’s artists. Alan Taylor reports
William Burroughs. Photo © Jon Blumb
As is often the case with true mavericks, William S Burroughs made little effort to live up to his exotic image as an outsider when it came to his appearance. On the contrary, he seems to have been determined to undermine it. His British publisher, John Calder, remembers a man who ‘looked like a small-town bank manager, perfectly decently dressed but shabby’.
Conrad Knickerbocker, who interviewed Burroughs in 1965 for The Paris Review, described the author of Junkie (1953) Naked Lunch (1959), and Queer (1985) in similar, conservative terms. ‘He wore a grey, lightweight Brooks Brothers suit with vest, blue-striped shirt and a deep-blue tie with small white polka dots. He might have been a senior partner in a private bank, charting the course of huge but anonymous fortunes.’
At the age of 50, after decades of heroic drinking, drug-taking and flirting with mortality, Burroughs looked preposterously fit and trim, a consequence of his daily exercise regime and his habit of taking long walks.‘His manner,’ Knickerbocker added, ‘was not so much pedagogic as didactic or forensic.’
José Férez, who met Burroughs ten years before his death in 1997 aged 83, and who is a partner in William S Burroughs Communications, agrees. Their first meeting was in Fort Worth, Texas, when Burroughs was on the lecture circuit and Férez was managing the theatre where he was appearing. ‘I thought he was a gentleman, and we got along from the very beginning,’ says Férez.
By the time Knickerbocker caught up with him, Burroughs had been a published author for twelve years. In 1966, he moved to London, where he was to spend much of the following seven years. Now the spirit of Burroughs, and his ability to influence artists and writers, returns to London with ‘ Burroughs Live
’, a show inspired by his work, at GSK Contemporary.
London may have been swinging and Burroughs may have met Mick Jagger and Francis Bacon, Paul McCartney and John Lennon, and appeared on Peter Blake’s album cover for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but accounts of that period point to a lonely, sometimes embittered man, frequenting male prostitutes in Piccadilly and increasingly interested in sects such as Scientology.
‘I think by that time the pop music scene in London (Beatles, Stones, Bowie) had pretensions to become more arty,’ says James Campbell, author of This is the Beat Generation (2001). ‘Burroughs-the-well-known-junkie provided a good way in. He was much too accommodating to suggestions of artistic dialogue or experiment by people who had never read a book, yet Burroughs was primarily literary.’
Having said that, his time in London was extraordinarily productive, covering the gamut of art forms, including books, films, artwork and the theatre. In 1968, at the Open Space Theatre, London’s leading experimental theatre created by Thelma Holt and Charles Marowitz, Burroughs appeared in The Chicago Conspiracy, in which he played a judge.
Marowitz recalled Burroughs as ‘an excellent cast member who approached the entire project with a diligent austerity. He was an eerie and imperturbable presence throughout rehearsals and I found the actors who played the defendants to be as intimidated by him as if he had been the ice-hearted presiding judge himself – but in his case it was the literary reputation of Burroughs himself that was so awesome. In fact, Burroughs was gentle and unassuming; he submerged the character with a dry wit which was simultaneously spooky and hilarious.’
None of which, perhaps, will surprise Burroughs devotees. His debut novel, Junkie, which appeared in 1953, unleashed on an unsuspecting public a writer whose words made the page blister and brought blood to the noses of the establishment – even though he was of that class himself. But for more adventurous palates he was instantly the stuff of classics.
The critic Eric Mottram was quick to hail him as ‘undoubtedly a major force in twentieth-century literature’; while Norman Mailer announced that he was ‘possibly the only living American writer of genius’. Others, however, were less impressed.
Martin Seymour-Smith, for example, dismissed him as ‘a spoilt child, mildly funny when dealing with the most obvious deficiencies of the modern world’. Where Burroughs was concerned, it seems, opinion was implacably divided.
It is beyond dispute, however, that he was an artist who was hugely influential, not only among his contemporaries but also to future generations, as the exhibition and related events at the Royal Academy demonstrate. Portraits of Burroughs by David Hockney RA and Robert Mapplethorpe feature alongside Burroughs’ collaborations with artists such as Keith Haring, George Condo and Brion Gysin.
There is also a previously unseen Damien Hirst cabinet, I’ll be Right Back – the title comes from Burroughs’ last words before he died – filled with Burroughs artefacts. The show also includes a screening of Shallow
, a multi-media work by Malcolm McLaren that pays homage to Burroughs’ famous ‘cut-up’ technique. A seemingly random fusion of words and pictures, the cut-up was described by its inventor, Gysin, as ‘the method for finding truth’.
Certainly, Burroughs was convinced of its transformative power, and ever eclectic in his use of sources. Every day, he told Knickerbocker, he would sit down with scissors and photographs, many of which included his own family, pasting for hours on end.
Though he spent much of his life in denial of his privileged upbringing, escaping it entirely was impossible and futile. William Seward Burroughs II was born in 1914 in St Louis. His forenames came from his grandfather, who in 1891 invented a calculating machine, an improved version of the adding machine. Stories written when he was young indicate the direction he would take in the future. In one, a boy grieving over the death of his dog is offered, and accepts, drugs from a stranger, then becomes addicted. At Harvard, where Burroughs studied English literature, he aimed a revolver at a classmate, who leapt aside as Burroughs pulled the trigger. He missed, as he would some years later with more dramatic consequences when he tried to shoot a glass William Tell-style from his wife’s head, the bullet striking her fatally in the forehead. Somehow Burroughs escaped jail.
Another man might have thanked his lucky stars and left well alone. Not Burroughs. Throughout his life he remained fascinated by guns and other weaponry. When John Calder visited him, he would notice scattered around his living quarters ‘gun collectors’ manuals and magazines about military warfare, the kind of thing hard-line young American fascists like to read. He’d shoot a dog with an air gun’.
Guns, too, helped form the glue between Burroughs and Férez, who was one of his shooting partners in Kansas, where Burroughs spent his last years. ‘I liked guns; he liked guns,’ says Férez. In 1992, Burroughs began a series of ‘shot target’ drawings. A figure was drawn on a target and the gunman would pace around until ready to shoot at it with a hand gun. The bullet holes created shade and depth on the target. Ink or pools of watercolour were then added tothe marker pen and brush drawings. The RA has reproduced three of his shot target drawings on T-shirts to accompany ‘Burroughs Live’.
Where Burroughs was concerned, such experimentation was where art in the broadest sense was at its most meaningful. Asked what art is, he replied: ‘A three-letter word’. For him it defied definition, being barrier-free, an infinity of possibilities. Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message’, said Burroughs’s efforts to apply to his writing the most advanced techniques of painting, music and film is an attempt ‘to reproduce in prose what we accommodate every day as a commonplace aspect of life in the electronic age’. Or, as Burroughs himself said: ‘What I want to do is to learn to see more of what’s out there, to look outside, to achieve as far as possible a complete awareness of surroundings.’
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