RED BULL ARTS
by Max Wolf
Over the course of sixty years, John Giorno challenged what he saw as a fatigued tradition of poetry: a dynamic that placed the poet on a page, and the audience in a library. His efforts effectively democratized the medium by creating social and artistic interventions that acted as vessels for his writing and mirrors for his audience. In the 1960s, Giorno began creating silkscreened poem-prints and paintings—often entire poems with mirrored typesetting, whimsically justified within the frame. It wasn’t until the early 1990s, when Giorno collaborated with designer Mark Michaelson, that the series shifted, incorporating acrylic paintings and works on paper, resulting in a distinct design rubric. These works, which are simple, bold excerpts from his poetry, read like metaphysical mantras, musings, and confessions, packing the aesthetic punch and efficacy of well-oiled corporate marketing slogans. Michaelson, the art director for the great Downtown art and culture paper NY TALK (who would go on to oversee various successful publications, such as Newsweek, Men’s Health, and Entertainment Weekly), used a computer at his Time Warner office to achieve Giorno’s designs at a time when this kind of graphic design was impossible given the limitations of early home computing. Their uncomplicated format, much like a meme, earmarks carefully extracted sound bites from Giorno’s poems, catapulting some of his most searing and irreverent observations directly at his audience in a manner that is both confronting and compassionate, crestfallen and charged. While works like ANGER NEVER DOES WHAT YOU WANT IT TO / NOTHING EVER DOES WHAT YOU WANT IT TO (2009) may sound grim, they are not fundamentally pessimistic. In a past interview, he reminisces, “Everything I’ve always done is based on compassion.” Giorno’s quips attempt to strike solidarity with his audience in what he believes are relative—if not absolute—truths of our shared human condition. In Ugo Rondinone’s comprehensive homage to his husband, these visual works are presented at Red Bull Arts in a sweeping mélange throughout the gallery’s top floor, mirroring the incantation of John’s poetry itself.
On the same floor, fourteen monitors sandwich seven imposing columns, featuring Giorno’s innovative sound poems. These works, created in collaboration with pioneering sound engineer Bob Bielecki between 1965 and 2004, engage the audience in a karaoke-styled format—poems scroll down the screen like song lyrics, with John serenading each listener through the headphones.
Nestled within the audio/visual installation are six stand-alone rotary telephones playing selections from Giorno’s seminal Dial-A-Poem—a public phone line imagined in the early 1960s with his close friend and collaborator William S. Burroughs to create a new mode of distribution, to harness the potential of viral methodology. Callers would be randomly serenaded by the voice of over 250 artists including Vito Acconci, Kathy Acker, Nick Cave, and Charles Bukowski. When the work debuted in 1969 at the Architecture League of New York, it was a smashing success, with over a million people calling in and jamming the phone lines. This visionary intervention forecasted the ensuing seismic shift in our collective on-demand consumer consciousness—one in which our every need and desire is just a call or click away.
On view in the theater, visitors are presented with a film by Rondinone of Giorno performing his powerful THANX 4 NOTHING (2015). In the poem, written on his 70th birthday, John is seen gleefully holding the court of nostalgia, recounting his life’s fortunes and misfortunes with a wry sense of fulfillment and wise appreciation. He recalls the “golden age of promiscuity” and offers “hugs to all my friends who betrayed me.” The film, beautifully stark in its direction, spotlights Giorno’s poetic agility as he vacillates between humor, bravery, and compassion.
From 1982 to 1989, the John Giorno Band, comprised of a rotating cast of talented musicians, toured punk rock venues and new wave clubs around the world, with John at the helm. The lower level of the gallery celebrates this chapter in Giorno’s career when music became a primary platform from which he could transmit his poetry. Where the force of poetry as literature was staid, limited to the confines of the printed page, rock and roll was jet propulsion. The inebriated audiences and their combined enthusiasm provided a new type of reception for Giorno and his poetry. The band and their instruments furthered his experiments in sound, supplanting the layered tape methodology Giorno had championed in the 1960s with collaborators like Brion Gysin and Bob Moog. John once recalled, “When you make people feel good they surrender themselves to you.” He viewed this mode of performance less like conceptual performance art of the 1970s and more as an act of entertainment—a moment of collective exaltation shared with the audience. In the song “The Strength Of Pleasure,” he repeats, “I want you to be thrilled and I want to help you.” This pursuit of connectivity is a resounding sentiment woven through his total work.
Accompanying this installation, unreleased tracks from the album I’m Rock Hard (1982–1989) play on loop at separate headphone stations, ensconced by salon-style, wheat pasted documentation of the band in action. In July, a limited-edition double LP will be released featuring the nine songs, complemented by a
foreword from Giorno, signed, like a love letter to this portion of his life.
Spilling out from the basement-level gift shop is a playful retail installation by the artist Scott King. An extended table, littered with kitsch I ♥ John Giorno merchandise, takes its inspiration from the bargain-basement objects one might find on Canal Street, such as stress balls, hats, note pads, and stuffed animals. A selection of publications will also be available, where visitors are invited to sit and read some of the many titles associated with Giorno and the other collaborators featured throughout this sprawling citywide retrospective.
John Giorno has walked many paths to establish new and meaningful connections between the poet and the audience. His oeuvre, diverse in medium, rich in collaboration, and often employing experimental technology, is formed from chunks uprooted from his writings. Giorno’s devotion to Buddhism has been a central driving force in his life, underscoring a sense of generosity and freedom to fail that permeates his practice. He has always been wholly uninterested in his job security as an artist, eventually distancing himself from his notable friends and collaborators like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg, who he felt sidestepped controversial subject matter like homosexuality and politics because it was bad business. Perhaps it’s this freedom from such financial confines that has allowed his work to maintain a continued social relevance. When considering the velocity with which we share and consume content today, it feels especially poignant when Giorno claims, in an early interview, “I adore the quality of people’s short attention spans.” As our collective attention span continues to diminish, carted off and consumed by the perpetual feed, John’s words, now, more than ever, feel anchored. He often speaks of this certain magic moment that occurs as a poet, when the heart’s of the audience and the artist collide. An early, iconic work of Giorno’s proclaims “NOTHING RECEDES LIKE SUCCESS.” In John’s case, his success seems enduring— a success measured not by his market or business acumen, but one quantified by a gracious output and a prolonged magic moment, shared with his audience.
On the occasion of the exhibition, the Dial-A-Poem phone line has been fully reprised and updated to include subsequent contributions from artists such as Eileen Myles, Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü, and others.
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Chief Curator at Red Bull Arts