William S. Burroughs at The October Gallery

All Out Of Time And Into Space is an exhibition of William Burroughs’ ‘art’ that opened last week and is on at The October Gallery (24 Old Gloucester Street, London WC1N 3AL)  until 16 February 2013. Burroughs’ cultural reputation rests as much upon his autobiography (rich kid who became a junkie, rich kid who killed his wife in a shooting ‘accident’ and got off scot free etc.) as on anything he actually produced. Influenced by Brion Gysin’s ideas on the cut-up (using collage in writing), back in the 1960s Burroughs produced The Nova Trilogy of experimental novels which are both interesting and entertaining. Burroughs was a better writer than Gysin and used his friend’s notion of cut-up literature to greater effect than its initiator. That said, Gysin was a good artist and Burroughs wasn’t, and it is no great surprise that some of Burroughs’ pictures come across as a very poor imitation of his friend’s calligraphic painting.
Worse yet are Burroughs’ collages, which are even more embarrassingly bad than his poor Gysin knock-offs. And then there are the ‘shotgun’ pieces including a ‘No Trespassing’ sign that Burroughs has shot holes through. To put it bluntly these ‘works’ are pathetic. Why bother after Niki de Saint Phalle’s shooting paintings anyway? To be charitable Burroughs appears fascinated by texture, but then that hardly makes up for the fact that his pictures suck. Many of his paintings are at first glance abstract but can also be viewed as containing figurative elements – such as two badly rendered figures representing men in British police uniforms (basically a couple of black blotches). Ultimately the pieces on show at The October Gallery look like an exercise in cynicism. Burroughs enjoyed a certain celebrity status and could sell bad art. So he knocked it out to make money. So what?
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!


Comment by Michael Roth on 2012-12-10 06:58:08 +0000

While I think Niki de Saint Phalle’s shotgun paintings are wonderful, I don’t mind Burroughs’ shotgun paintings. Sure, they are a bit more “obvious” and certainly shallower than Niki’s work (which is more nuanced and layered). I still like the explosive aspect of some of the paintings. The collages I’ve seen are very poor, almost embarrassing. He just does not have a visual sense. I think you are right to call it an exercise in cynicism, at least with his later works, as they really look like an attempt to cash in on the Burroughs brand. I was not aware that Burroughs did any calligraphy paintings. I did a quick search and found one that looked quite silly, and boring. I think Gysin is an underrated artist. His calligraphic work is quite trippy and has a lively energy to it. Burroughs just could not replicate that with his attempt(s).

Comment by mistertrippy on 2012-12-10 13:44:19 +0000

I think we pretty much agree. They didn’t have that many shotgun pieces in the October and I think I just left feeling totally bummed by the memory of the collages – which are so bad! Anyway, what they had of the shotgun pieces didn’t groove me. One was priced at £35,000 and another said ask at desk for price – so presumably it was quite a lot more expensive. Selling on the Burroughs brand and not the merit of the work at that price for sure! I think I might have liked the shotgun stuff more if I hadn’t been reacquainted with that area of Niki de Saint Phalle’s work at Tate Modern so recently….. But the whole show just left me cold. But Gysin is wonderful as a painter – his calligraphic pieces have an incredible energy – and leave Burroughs looking so bad especially when I last saw a complete show of Gysin’s work in the same gallery!

Comment by Joan Smith on 2012-12-10 14:44:15 +0000

Maybe he should’ve stuck to writing. Junky is such a highly impressive debut novel with one of the best depictions on getting stoned in literature.

Comment by The Man in the Iron Mask on 2012-12-10 18:05:21 +0000

JUNKY is vivid and funny… Where is Bill’s shotgun? It should be used to take out a few Ladies and Gents of the British Literary Establishment…

Comment by Lucy Johnson on 2012-12-10 18:24:41 +0000

I will look into Gysin. I tried to read Junky but didn’t get very far.

Comment by Don Mac on 2012-12-10 20:40:57 +0000

… and i’ve never stopped loving naked lunch either, tbh.

Comment by mistertrippy on 2012-12-10 21:09:11 +0000

Those (Junky and Naked Lunch) with the Nova trilogy are the good books – I like ’em all (those novels), his non-fction sucked and his painting was worse.

Comment by Sandy Anderson on 2012-12-10 23:04:29 +0000

If William Topaz McGonagall had tried his hand at painting the results would have probably looked liked William Burroughs work!

Comment by Steve on 2012-12-10 23:39:49 +0000

Burroughs’ books work best when you can hear his voice – the audiobook of Junky was great. If only he’d done more of them.

Comment by Frank Discussion on 2012-12-11 00:27:48 +0000

Supposing Burroughs had come from a family that had made a fortune from soft drinks rather than adding machines, would he have still been so hip?

Comment by Michael Roth on 2012-12-11 04:03:04 +0000

@ Frank Discussion – No, he would have been part of “Pop” culture …

Comment by Michael Roth on 2012-12-11 04:21:01 +0000

Stewart, I am surprised at how dull his nonfiction is. For someone whose fiction really opens up doors (intellectually), his nonfiction certainly fails to do the same. I might give a pass to The Yage Letters (which I think City Lights classifies as a work of fiction in any case, so there you go) and some of his interviews (if you can consider those nonfiction). I still remember my disappointment when I first read The Adding Machine …

Comment by Lucy Johnson on 2012-12-11 10:30:57 +0000

Actually I think it was The Naked Lunch I tried (and failed) with.

Comment by Lucy Johnson on 2012-12-11 10:31:26 +0000

Naked Lunch?

Comment by The Man in the Iron Mask on 2012-12-11 12:23:00 +0000

Ms Lucy, why don’t you start with a half-naked lunch (Manet’s Dejuener sur l’herbe) and ease yourself back in that way? Burroughs’ recordings with Bill Laswell might also be a help – ditto Bill’s appearance in the film CHAPPAQUA which also features Ornette Coleman, Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders with the Fugs…

Comment by mistertrippy on 2012-12-11 15:27:26 +0000

Chappaqua (1966) is a curious film… my mother had some dealings with writer/director Conrad Rooks, and I seem to recall Chris Gray telling me about working with Rooks too. I found the follow up Siddhartha (1972) pretty dull… but Chappaqua is worth a peak for some glimpses of early psychedelia. I know it has been issued on DVD in the USA, not sure if there is a region 2 release but then a multi-region player overcomes that minor difficulty.
@ Michael Roth – yes the Burroughs’ non-fiction is just incredibly bad. The Adding Machine is a joke. But he isn’t the only experimental novelist with this problem – for example Kathy Acker’s non-fiction never came anywhere close to being as thrilling as her fiction.

Comment by Lucy Johnson on 2012-12-11 17:56:24 +0000

Mmmm yes I am thinking a half naked lunch with lots of wine and cheese and a couple of nice men would be right up my street! Ha ha. I shall investigate the kindly provided cultural references accordingly!

Comment by Food Fetish Phil on 2012-12-11 21:12:37 +0000

Did anyone ever translate Naked Lunch into Japanese using the title Nyotaimori?

Comment by Bud Miller on 2012-12-12 02:22:10 +0000

Painting? That’s so nineteenth-century!

Comment by Valerie Sultana on 2012-12-12 12:43:28 +0000

Burroughs may be famous for cut-up novels but he wasn’t cut-up about killing his wife…

Published At