The Fractured Art of William S. Burroughs

“Life is a cut-up,” proclaimed William Burroughs, the visionary American writer and celebrated drug addict

William S. Burrough

William S. Burroughs in from of the famed Théatre Odeon in a 1959 portrait | Photo: Brion Gysin

Admired as a revolutionary thinker by generations from the ‘50s Beats to ‘60s Hippies, to ‘70s Punks to ‘80s No Wave hipsters, Burroughs is revered today as an underground icon, whose movements spanned five continents: He lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a canary yellow pongee silk suit; he ensconced himself at Café de Paris in Tangier with fellow Beat writers Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gregory Corso; he lived at the Beat Hotel on rue Git-le-Coeur in Paris, and spent a number of years as a guest at the respectable Empress and Rushmore hotels off Piccadilly in London before returning to the U.S. permanently in 1976.

The current exhibition on the life and work of William Seward Burroughs shows once again the range of Kunsthalle director Gerald Matt, who in recent months brought us seminal displays by the American artist duo McDermott & McGough, and the oeuvre of Jean-Michael Basquiat. As early as 1970, Burroughs began writing about the “Electronic Revolution”, achieving late popularity in the young New York art world and No Wave scene of the 1980s.

“He’s up there with the Pope,” eulogised New York poet Patti Smith.


Becoming a myth

In 1983 William Burroughs was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1984 was awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by France. Now the artist has become the subject of countless interviews and essays by renowned international cultural historians and scholars attempting to pick apart and make sense of a radical career of ongoing significance. Infused with ineffable magic and submerged in the dark swirling waters of the unconscious, the mystique of William Burroughs “lives”, and the strange phenomenal fires of his imagination seem only to grow brighter with the passage of time.

Born in 1914 to a wealthy family in St. Louis, Missouri, Burroughs was the grandson of the inventor and founder of the Burroughs Adding Machine Company. He entered Harvard University in 1932, and after graduation in 1936, attended medical school in Vienna. His studies there lasted hardly a year; the anti-Semitism rampant at the university revolted him. So in a gesture of defiance, he married his Jewish friend Else Klapper to help her escape to America, from almost certain death at the hands of the Gestapo. In 1942, he trained as a glider pilot with the American military, but his mother arranged his discharge as psychologically unfit for service. Burroughs entered Columbia University and there, along with acolytes Ginsberg and Kerouac, fell under the spell of the Beat Generation aesthete Lucien Carr. Nineteen at the time, Carr regarded himself the Doppelgänger of Arthur Rimbaud, and captivated his cohorts with rants about bourgeois culture and the path to transcendence through pure creative expression.

Burroughs’ first two novels, Junkie and Queer, were written 10 years later in Mexico City during his forced flight from pending drug charges in New Orleans. While in Mexico City, Burroughs shot and killed his then wife Joan Vollmer through the temple at a party in a deadly game of ‘William Tell’.

Written in Tangier, Naked Lunch is a non-linear narrative with chapters that Burroughs intended to be read in any order. The text transfigures surrealist imagery into a hyperrealist gavotte of the mind and the senses. Originally published in Paris in 1959, American obscenity laws prevented publication of an unabridged U.S. edition until three years later.

Now in Paris, Burroughs shared a flat in a flophouse on the Rive Gauche – appropriately called the Beat Hotel – with his friend and mentor Brion Gysin. An artist, Gysin developed a ‘cut-up’ technique – a new form of writing whereby text and image fragments are intuitively pieced together to form open associative narrative structures. In a 1966 interview by Conrad Knickerbocker for The Paris Review, Burroughs described how he “became interested in the possibilities of this technique, and… began experimenting myself.”

The interactive Kunsthalle exhibition gives visitors a chance to try their own hand at the cut-ups, on a wall of words, terms, and phrases printed on cards. Here museum-goers become participants embroiled in the hands-on process of juxtaposing fractured shards of language and symbolic glyphs which, when reassembled, create entirely new constructions and meanings. This was the way that Burroughs and Gysin worked, hacking up newspaper columns, magazine articles, paper coffee cups, chewing gum wrappers, photobooth picture strips, old condom packets, expired visas, and collaging the artifacts into stand alone art works and fodder for their unstructured novels. The idea was to deconstruct texts and images with utter abandon, then patch the clutter back together in a spontaneous assemblage predicated on sheer chance. The resulting free-form texts could be read backwards, forwards, sideways, and from the inside out to impart a surreal sense of altered meaning and sub-textual meaning not unlike the transports of free jazz.


Cut-ups in print, collage and film

The exhibition itself is littered with these chopped up, Frankenstein-ed specimens of Burroughs’ cut-ups in the form of typed pages, book chapters, collages shot through with random bullet holes, even 16mm films cut together with forward and reverse motion iterations, imploded speech and sound effects, redundant actions and interrogations that flower into narcotised and alliterative montage.

Organised with sensitivity by chief curator Synne Genzmer and British guest curator Colin Fallows, the MuseumsQuartier presentation continues into every aspect of Burroughs’ work, which included 18 novels and novellas, six collections of short stories and four collections of essays. Assembling cut-ups from text-image collages, photomontages, audiotape experiments and film, together with the legendary shotgun paintings, the exhibition highlights the prodigious, multifaceted and cross-over character of his oeuvre.

“Desperation is the raw material of drastic change,” Burroughs wrote. “Only those who can leave behind everything they have ever believed in can hope to escape.”

William S. Burroughs died at his home in Lawrence, Kansas in 1997.

Cut-ups, Cut-ins, Cut-outs: The Art of William S. Burroughs
Through 21 Oct.

Kunsthalle Wien

7. Museumsplatz 1
(01) 521 890


Tav Falco is the author of Mondo Memphis: Ghosts Behind The Sun, Splendor, Enigma, and Death. Creation Books, 2011.

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