Brion Gysin (1916 – 1986), Ab-Ex painter, surreal novelist, experimental sound-poet, performance innovator, and Shaman of Magic Art had many tricks up his sleeve, sur-techniques ranging from cut-ups and frottage to scrachitty-slide projections heightened by richly textured soundtracks. Masterfully blending European culture (specifically Surrealism) with the American Beat Generation, he melded a new form of 20th century avant-garde.
Often called a “serial collaborator,” Gysin created books, films, performances, recordings and exhibitions with the English mathematician Ian Sommerville, the Chilean-French surrealist Roberto Matta and his son, Ramuntcho, and the French surrealist poets Gherasim Luca and Jean-Jacques Lebel.
But Gysin is best known for his collaborations with William S. Burroughs, and his proximity to the literary Beat master has reduced him in the eyes of some critics as having played second fiddle to genius.
Indeed, Gysin’s collaborative nature and broad artistic range have perhaps worked against his reputation in some ways. His experiments gained authority through his partnerships with better-known creators, and he did not go out of his way to steal the spotlight.
All of which makes Brion Gysin: Dream Machine an especially welcome, if long overdue, arrival on the scene. The show took three years to assemble. It is comprised of 300 works, including drawings, books, paintings, photo-collages, videos, slide projections, sound works, computer-algorithm poems that appear as if by magic on a screen, and much more. The exhibit, organized by Laura Hoptman, Kraus Family Senior Curator, marks the first major museum retrospective of the artist, and it firmly elevates Gysin to a position where he belongs—that of first fiddle.
Two large, U-shaped rooms on the museum’s second floor become a shrine to Gysin’s overactive imagination, connecting to a third room full of multiple mirror-reversed slide projections accompanied by sound recordings of his original performances. Another small viewing room offers black-and-white historical footage of Gysin and the other inhabitants of the Beat Hotel in Paris.
Gysin’s surrealist paintings, some on display for the first time, need to be studied further. We know that they started as drawings of biomorphic forms, with dreamlike landscapes in strange colors using the method of decalcomania, in which pools of paint or ink are covered by a sheet of paper or another pliable material and pressed into unpredictable patterns. His acrylic canvases of the 1960s, clearly influenced by the art of Henri Michaux, who had taken mescaline as part of his personal research into human consciousness, are minimalistic Ab-Ex paintings with monochromatic backgrounds (red, yellow, blue) adorned with calligraphic stick-figurines dancing across “the desert.”
His friendship with Roberto Matta (they shared an art studio) paved the way for Gysin’s artistic recycling of ancient calligraphy, encouraged by his study of Japanese while in the Canadian Army. Leonor Fini taught him the rudiments of oil painting, but it was Max Ernst who influenced him the most, steeping him in the ways of collage and frottage, “during an untimely visit to Ernst when his wife Marie Berthe let me enter his workshop, when I learned in a few minutes what I would not have learned in three years at the painting school. Max must have been in the process of making frottages, and I saw the idea was to force the painting to make itself.”
Another innovation, the cut-up, resulted from the chance slicing and clipping of the newspapers that the artist had placed on his worktable to protect the surface. When Burroughs arrived at the Beat Hotel in September 1959, Gysin showed him the discovery, which Burroughs put to use while finishing Naked Lunch, moving on to employ the method in subsequent works such as Interzone, The Soft Machine, Nova Express, The Ticket That Exploded, and others. The culmination of their collaboration was The Third Mind (1964), a lengthy manifesto on the cut-up method in the form of a densely interwoven combination of typeset text, newspaper clippings, photographs, drawings and glyphs organized on grid-like scaffoldings of ink. As Burroughs tersely explained in a short vignette, “Gysin is in charge of the mapping department. His ideas showed the way and his roller grid plotted the route.” Burroughs also suggested that cut-ups may be effective as a form of divination saying, “When you cut into the present the future leaks out.”
Later, when interviewed by The Guardian toward the end of his life, Burroughs, who died in 1997, explained that Gysin was “the only man I’ve ever respected in my life.”
Gysin claimed that words and images are viruses that lodge in the sections of the brain not yet contaminated by logic and reasoning. He transferred this notion to experiments with tape-recorded poems manipulated by computer algorithms and cut-up magnetic tape, and in the process creating sound poetry, a pioneering use of the computer in poetry and art.
During his time in Morocco, Gysin had become a smoker of kif (finely ground marijuana), and in either early ‘60 or ‘61, he experimented with psilocybin, courtesy of Timothy Leary, who sent batches to Gysin and Burroughs at the Beat Hotel. The numerous small drawings he made under the influence of the drug have a visual correlation to his verbal descriptions of images produced later by the Dreamachine. Featuring starbursts, crosses, halos, and crosshatched patterns, the works are rendered with lacquer-based paints in hot pinks and glowing oranges and yellows.
Gysin invented the Dreamachine, a kinetic light sculpture to be experienced with eyes closed, in 1962 after a bus trip to Marseilles. Sitting in a window seat, the dappled sunlight from overhanging trees played across his closed eyelids at a steady enough rhythm to induce the flicker effect, a stimulation of alpha waves in the brain. Back at the Beat Hotel, collaborating with Ian Sommerville, Gysin built the first prototype, a cylinder lampshade mounted on a 78-rpm turntable. The cylinder was perforated with slits resembling inverted commas or letters from Japanese or Arabic calligraphy. As it rotated on the turntable, light from a bulb inside the lampshade escaped through the slits, achieving the flicker effect. Gysin described the effect as kaleidoscope-style patterns in supernatural colors on his closed eyes—a psychedelic throwback to the motion-picture machine prototype, the zoetrope.
In the exhibition, the Dreamachine is introduced in a small, cushioned, meditation-style room. After several attempts at sitting in front of the machine and achieving only a pleasantly hypnotic effect, I concluded that psychotropic drugs were required to augment the experience (as probably originally intended). Without them, the effect is subdued, a mildly entertaining diversion.
Whether using advanced or pre-industrial technology, Gysin’s experimentations were a revolt against the rules of a “culture” controlled by linguistic and iconographic clichés. Perhaps my favorite Gyson poem-painting is “Untitled” (1964), a gray gouache on paper that quotes Burrough’s Naked Lunch, “I woke up with someone squeezing my hand…it was the other hand!”
Gysin died in poverty in 1986, never having had a major book or exhibition on his work. But he never stopped creating, with or without collaborators, leaving behind an extensive body of work. Fittingly, Gerard Audinet, chief curator at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, titles his essay in the accompanying catalogue, “The Wounded Man: Brion Gysin, Unhung Surrealist.”
The reintroduction of Gysin’s art into museum culture coincides with an upswing for many of the artists who were influenced by him: John Giorno, Brian Jones, David Bowie, Patti Smith, Keith Haring, Iggy Pop, and many others. He helped pave the way for modern sound poetry, concrete poetry, avant-garde videos, performance art and all things multimedia. Although his own work may still not be particularly marketable, he has nevertheless achieved the pivotal role of a “psychic-Argonaut” or, as Timothy Leary called him, “the great hedonic mystic teacher.”