V. BALLING BUDDHAby Sarah Watson
Taking part in Ugo Rondinone: I ♥ John Giorno means collaborating on a celebration of life, love, creativity, and compassion. At the Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Gallery and 205 Hudson Gallery, Hunter presents multiple aspects of Giorno’s practice, moving through the artistic, spiritual, and political to examine the expanse of Giorno’s multidisciplinary influence across the worlds of poetry, art, activism, and Buddhism.
Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Gallery
John Giorno has a long history of collaborative work, often cross-generational and interdisciplinary in nature. The Leubsdorf Gallery presents two of Giorno’s lesser known collaborations: a series of paintings of the poet by Kendall Shaw, entitled Giorno (1964); and Richard Bosman’s drawings for his book Grasping at Emptiness (1985).
In 1963, inspired by a newspaper photograph of athletes jumping through the air, Shaw began a series of silhouetted paintings that attempted to record human energy. Among them were nudes of his close friend, Giorno, that used minimal black outlines and colorful silhouettes to capture Giorno in motion as he danced. Shaw worked from photographs that he took of Giorno dancing to create the paintings and, for the first time, a number of these photographs will be exhibited alongside the paintings. These works, along with Shaw’s athletic event paintings, were first shown in September of 1964 at Tibor de Nagy Gallery after Giorno brought John Bernard Myers, the director and co-owner of the gallery, to see Shaw’s work.1 Grasping at Emptiness, published in 1985 by the independent press and granting organization Kulchur Foundation, is a co-llaboration with the artist Richard Bosman. The book includes five of Giorno’s works from 1978 to 1984—“It’s a mistake to think you’re special”; “We got here yesterday, we’re here now, and I can’t wait to leave tomorrow”; “I resigned myself to being here”; “Grasping at Emptiness”; and “Life Is a Killer,” which are presented alongside the expressive and dynamic drawings of Bosman. The installation in the Leubsdorf Gallery highlights Bosman’s drawings for Grasping at Emptiness, as they express the frustration and tumult evoked in Giorno’s 1978 eponymous poem about the dissolution of a relationship.
205 Hudson Gallery
Through works by Ugo Rondinone, John Giorno, and Peter Ungerleider, the 205 Hudson Gallery is transformed into a site of compassion and meditation in the chapters devoted to John Giorno and Tibetan Buddhism and the AIDS Treatment Project.
John Giorno and Tibetan Buddhism
“When you’re a Buddhist, you work with your mind in meditation, and with various practices you train the mind to realize its empty nature. Strangely, that’s the way I make poems! Maybe it’s developing the ability to see what arises in one’s mind, howit arises and its nature, that makes Buddhism very sympathetic to poets.”
— John Giorno
This chapter focuses on the Nyingmapa tradition of Buddhism, which Giorno has practiced since the early 1970s. His connection to Buddhism began after several trips to India, when he became a disciple of Dudjom Rinpoche (1904–1987), the master of the Nyingmapa lineage. With works by Giorno and Rondinone on view, the gallery is reimagined as a Tibetan Buddhist shrine. The walls and floor are illuminated with bright colors evoking Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags. The space centers around Giorno’s personal shrine, decorated with an intricate brocade from the sacred pilgrimage site of Benaras, India. The shrine also includes several thangkas and other Tibetan paintings dating from the 15th–20th century on loan from the Rubin Museum, as well as two from Giorno’s personal collection.
Many of the works included in the shrine depict Padmasambhava, the founding figure of the Nyingmapa lineage, who played a pre-dominant role in the advancement of Buddhism in Tibet in the 8th century. Padmasambhava, meaning lotus-born, is referred to as the second Buddha, and is endowed with superhuman traits. In Tibetan iconography Padmasambhava is depicted in various forms including Guru Pema Drakpo, one of the most wrathful depictions, having a powerful energy required to neutralize the obstacles that arise on the path to Enlightenment, as well as Guru Pema Jungne, a more peaceful rendering, depicted Padmasambhava as Lotus-risen, teaching Dharma to the people.
During the exhibition, the gallery will host weekly Buddhist teachings by lamas including teachings by Khenpo Tenzin Norgay Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche.
AIDS Treatment Project
“My intention is to treat a complete stranger as a lover or a close friend; in the same spirit as in the golden age of promiscuity, we made fabulous love with beautiful strangers, and celebrated life with glorious substances. ‘God please fuck my mind for good!’ Now that their life is ravaged with AIDS, we offer love from the same root, in the form of boundless compassion.”
John Giorno, “AIDS Monologue,” You Got to Burn to Shine, 1994
Conceived as a direct-action program, Giorno started the AIDS Treatment Project in 1984 describing it as “my personal effort to combat with all-pervasive compassion, the catastrophe of the AIDS epidemic. Cash grants for emergency situations: back rent, telephone and utilities, food, nursing, alternative medicine not covered by Medicaid, taxis, whatever is needed. Money given with love and affection.” The AIDS Treatment project, which ended in the mid 2000s, was run through Giorno’s non-profit foundation, Giorno Poetry Systems. There was an outpouring of support for the AIDS Treatment Project—many artists on Giorno’s LP series, including William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Patti Smith, donated their royalties to the fund. Additionally, Giorno organized benefit performances at the Beacon Theater with artists such as Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Debbie Harry, and Sonic Youth.
205 Hudson Gallery will be activated by mural-sized installations of texts, concert posters, and other visual materials relating to the AIDS Treatment Project. Loving Kindness, the 1995 film by Peter Ungerleider, will be shown along with these materials. Ungerleider’s film is a portrait of John Giorno that centers on the AIDS Treatment Project and Giorno’s practice as a Tibetan Buddhist, especially as it relates to death and dying.
Chief Curator of Hunter College Art Galleries