After love affairs with Andy Warhol , Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, it’s no wonder that poet John Giorno has always maintained that contact with visual artists is more important to his work than the influence of other writers. "It occurred to me," said Giorno of the early 1960s in a 2002 interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, "that poetry was 75 years behind painting and sculpture and dance and music." So he set out to help it catch up.
Inspired by his lovers and friends, Giorno started using found texts for poetry in 1962. He also did quite a bit of curating, starting a company called Giorno Poetry Systems to record himself and his colleagues reading poetry on LPs. For the 1970 Museum of Modern Art show "Information," a who’s who of conceptual art curated by Kynaston McShine that also included Joseph Beuys, Gilbert and George, Robert Smithson and Yoko Ono, Giorno contributed Dial-a-Poem, a service modeled on the then common telephone numbers giving the correct time and providing info on the weather. A provocatively belligerent lineup could be heard, including poems by Giorno himself, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, Abbie Hoffman and Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver. The program was changed every day.
Giorno began making text paintings of his poetry in 1967, and he’s continued with the form ever since, setting up mental dialogues between words that are written, words that are heard, and words that turn into objects to see. "Black Paintings and Drawings," which is surprisingly Giorno’s first New York solo show of his visual artwork, can now be seen at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery in Chelsea, Apr. 30-June 12, 2010.
The gallery walls are painted silver, and bear a series of Giorno’s short aphoristic slogans painted in white letters senciled at mural size. The sayings reappear on small paintings and drawings hung on top of the larger ones. Though Giorno has done his stencil paintings in color, this show is entirely black and white. "BIG EGO," "EVERYONE GETS LIGHTER" and "A HURRICANE IN A DROP OF CUM" are among his favorite lines.
Giorno’s poetry mirrors its time, and his found phrases -- sometimes taken from advertising, often altered -- are apt expressions for our era of sound bite bombardment. "In the poem and in life, negative images are juxtaposed with positive images, going back and forth," he has said.
A video of Giorno’s 70th-birthday performance of his poem, Thanx 4 Nothing, plays in a separate room. Perhaps like an American Genet, Giorno speaks aggressively, sticking out his chin, forcefully enunciating each word and rising and falling on his toes. The stream of sound that makes up this very long poem provides an experience very different from reading the pithy phrases hanging on the walls of the other room
"Nothing recedes like success," and "life is a killer" are among the paradoxical statements from a poet who embraces the paradoxes of life. Practicing Tibetan Buddhism since the early ‘70s, turning the apartment below him into a center for visiting monks, Giorno is also a militant gay activist who often performs his poetry with rock music. "Just say no to family values," is written on several of his paintings. It’s also the title of a poem celebrating drugs, alcohol, tobacco and unbridled sex. "Just do it, just make love and compassion," are its final words.
"John Giorno: Black Paintings and Drawings," Apr. 30-June 12, 2010, at Nicole Klagsbrun, 526 West 26th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001.
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and writer.