WE LOVE JOHN GIORNOby Laura Hoptman and Mónica de la Torre
Ugo Rondinone: I ♥ John Giorno is a sprawling, multipart exhibition that presents the extraordinary life and work of poet, artist, activist, and muse John Giorno as an artwork by his husband, the internationally known artist Ugo Rondinone.
Encompassing nine nonprofit venues around Manhattan and a total of fifteen partnering institutions, this unique combination of portraiture and curatorship features paintings, films, sound installations, drawings, archival presentations, performances, and a video environment by both Giorno himself as well as by others whom he has inspired. This special edition of The Brooklyn Rail is one of the elements of this unprecedented project and serves as a catalog for the exhibition. The show and this publication are divided into nine “chapters,” each of which represents a body of work or a period of activism or innovation that has marked Giorno’s remarkable career. Luckily for all of us, Giorno has kept a detailed archive of his life and work, and it serves as the organizational and chronological spine for both this publication and the exhibition.
Giorno has been a participant in the cultural life of Downtown New York for more than half a century, moving effortlessly from the milieu of the Beat poets, to the heart of the Pop art explosion in visual art, to performance at Judson Church to CBGB, to the activist trenches of the AIDS crisis. He has always defined himself first as a poet, but one who looks at poetry through the lens of visual art. This ambidexterity between the literary and the visual marks a career in which words and objects are intimately connected, and this is made evident in Giorno’s constant exploration of the transmission of verbal content across different support systems.
Born in Brooklyn in 1936, Giorno studied at Columbia University where he was shaped by the works of avant-garde poets such as Federico García Lorca as well as more contemporary radicals like Allen Ginsberg. (Apropos of Lorca, as a student, Giorno was astounded to discover that the god-like Spanish poet had written Poet in New York in a dorm at John Jay Hall, across from his own on campus: “It was very confusing. I did not want Lorca living in my dumb, middle-class, bourgeois, fucked up world. He would hate it.”) As a young man immersed in the New York counterculture, Giorno’s friends were poets like Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, but also artists—like Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and, most consequentially, Andy Warhol, who cast the young Giorno as the sole protagonist in his classic Sleep and several subsequent films. This mix of influence from poetry of direct experience, found object, and Pop art, inspired Giorno to write poems composed of phrases plucked out of found print sources such as newspaper headlines. His first major publication, The American Book of the Dead, was a single, book-length poem composed entirely of found content.
In 1965, he met William Burroughs and Brion Gysin and found kinship with their experiments with the cut-up, a method of word permutation and collage that means to elide the distinction between words and images. Around the same time, Giorno began to transform his poems into visual forms by silk screening excerpts of them on posters, handbills, and T-shirts. In 1968, he made his first “Poem Painting,” beginning a series that he would turn to periodically over the next fifty years. “Painted like a poet,” as he had said, their unwavering format is comprised of stacked words in emphatic capitals, silkscreened on canvases with smooth monochrome backgrounds. Like street signs, they can be simultaneously looked at and read.
Understanding that sound was another way to embody language, and encouraged by his friend, the electronic musician and inventor Bob Moog, Giorno also experimented with magnetic tape during the 1960s, recording, manipulating, and layering his own voice, as well as other poets reading their work. In 1969, Giorno started to distribute these taped poems telephonically, creating an interactive conceptual art work that allowed the public to call a telephone number and hear a randomly selected poem. Included in Information, a 1970 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, “Dial-A-Poem” became wildly popular, and still remains his best known and most frequently exhibited work of art. Moreover, Giorno’s fascination with alternative methods of distributing his own poems and those of his wider community led to the creation of his nonprofit record label in 1965: Giorno Poetry Systems inaugurated a period of intense collaboration with poets, artists, musicians, and performers that spans three generations. Hundreds of the most important cultural voices of the late 20th century were recorded by Giorno over the twenty-five-year period that the label was active. Some of the voices included in the numerous record anthologies he compiled and released include John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, Diane di Prima, Amiri Baraka, John Cage, Frank Zappa, Philip Glass, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, and Laurie Anderson among many others.
Giorno had an uncannily prescient understanding of virality before it was named thus. His findings have permeated the culture in such a way that , for many younger poets, his presence is that of an “anticipatory plagiarist” as much as an influence. Contemporary practitioners who take poetry off the page in order to activate it politically might not be fully aware of the fact that Giorno had “been there and done that” fifty years ago. In the age of the increasing professionalization of the arts, Ugo Rondinone: I ♥ John Giorno reanimates a legacy of experimentation that is as bound to formal innovation as it is to social justice and community building through projects that united constellations of artists across disciplines.
Collaboration and inspiration coalesce at many points in Giorno’s career; in his film projects with Andy Warhol, and more recently with artists like Pierre Huyghe, who made a contemporary version of Sleep starring Giorno in 1998, and Rirkrit Tiravanija, who, in 2003 created an eighteen-hour film of Giorno performing his entire poetic repertoire. Over the years, many artists have been moved to make portraits of Giorno. In the past several years, Elizabeth Peyton, Billy Sullivan, Verne Dawson, and Judith Eisler have painted Giorno from life, and in 2011, the singer Michael Stipe made a touching black-and-white film of Giorno’s face for the official music video of the song “We All Go Back to Where We Belong.” In 1997, Giorno met his life partner, Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone.
Conceived by Rondinone in 2014, Ugo Rondinone: I ♥ John Giorno is the latest, and by far most ambitious collaboration of Giorno’s career.
It documents and celebrates Giorno’s myriad contributions to contemporary culture, as well as the joyousness of his very presence in it. Rondinone, who has been creating sculptures, paintings, drawings, and multimedia installations for more than two decades, considers the show to be an artwork, a prismatic portrait of his lover assembled from a careful arrangement of the materials, experiences, and relationships that have defined Giorno’s astonishingly wide-ranging artistic career. Each of the nine chapters of the show takes the form of an immersive installation designed by Rondinone and is dedicated to a body of work, an interest, a relationship, or a collaboration that has marked Giorno’s life. This includes his poetry, painting, sound work, and performance; his recording projects, and his founding of Giorno Poetry Systems; his AIDS activism; his Tibetan Buddhism; and his vast personal archive that comprises a history of radical art and poetry in New York during the second half of the 20th century. Several installations feature portraits of Giorno by different generations of filmmakers, painters, videographers, and musicians. One consists of a single work; a multi-channel video installation by Rondinone featuring multiple images of Giorno performing one of his recent epic poems, “Thanx 4 Nothing.”
Ugo Rondinone: I ♥ John Giorno is a unique artistic and curatorial experiment. The cooperation between so many disparate nonprofit institutions around New York in the presentation of a single project is similarly unprecedented. Both are a testament to the breadth, variation, and longevity of Giorno’s ongoing career, as well as Rondinone’s artistic vision and devotion to his subject. Those lucky or stalwart enough to visit all nine installations of the exhibition will come away with a deeper appreciation for both these artists’ achievements and will fulfill the multiplication promised by the first-person pronoun in its very title. The “I” in Ugo Rondinone: I ♥ John Giorno is clearly Rondinone, but it is also expansive enough to include all of us. Featuring contributions from more than twenty poets, artists, scholars, and friends of Giorno, this free publication seeks to document what is, in essence, a citywide work of public art. It is a parallel form of celebration for the bonds between lovers and for a poet, artist, and personage unique in the history of New York City at the turn of the twenty-first century.
—Laura Hoptman and Mónica de la Torre
Curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern ArtMónica de la Torre
A poet whose most recent book is The Happy End/All Welcome (Ugly Duckling Presse). She teaches at Brown University.