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Standing in a cavernous, nearly lightless space that was once the locker room of a Y.M.C.A. on the Bowery, the iconic poet, painter, and queer activist John Giorno smiles as he recalls how, four decades ago, his friends William S. Burroughs, Anne Waldman, Allen Ginsberg, and John Cage gathered here for the cover photo shoot for their album The Dial-A-Poem Poets: Totally Corrupt. The year was 1976, and all were seated uncomfortably around his dining table.“The politics were really weird that day,” he says, laughing and gesturing to the same table around which his guests still sit when he entertains. Eight years before, Giorno had launched Dial-A-Poem, whereby participants could call a local number and listen to a recording of poets, musicians, and activists reading their own works. John Ashbery, the Black Panthers, John Wieners, Bernadette Mayer, Joe Brainard, Amiri Baraka, and Frank O’Hara were just a few of the voices a caller might have heard.
Giorno later compiled several Dial-A-Poem’s “greatest hits” LP collections, of which Totally Corrupt was the third. But getting the perfect shot for the album cover proved challenging. “We were all such old friends, but the shoot made everyone really edgy,” he says. “It was a long day, I guess. There was just a peculiar energy in the air.” And then he shrugs as if to say that’s all the story there is to tell.
Listening to the eighty-year-old Giorno talk about his brilliant life is to entangle oneself in endlessly lush and vibrant yarns. There are the stories he tells about running with the Beat Poets: “Allen always said — maybe he got it from Jack Kerouac, but he always said — ‘First thought is best thought.’” There are those he tells about his famous paramours, including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol: “Andy was a gay man who just hated himself, but he actually had a great body and a big dick,” he told an interviewer in 2012. All these stories from a man who wasn’t just a muse — he’s the subject of Warhol’s infamous film Sleep, for which the director filmed Giorno sleeping for more than five hours — but was a groundbreaker in his own right.
Giorno was a pioneer in shaking poetry free from the page, performing his work with verve and gusto, rather than just reading it aloud politely. His determination to spring poetry from the margins led to experiments in sound and video art. “He’s more of an ‘anticipatory plagiarist’ than an influence,” jokes the poet Mónica de la Torre. “Younger poets today think that they’re inventing new ways of accessing audiences through different platforms like the internet, videos, performances, and sound art. What they don’t know is that Giorno did it all first.” Giorno has been a lifelong activist, protesting the Vietnam War and joining the battle during the AIDS crisis. Since 1971, he’s also been a disciplined Tibetan Buddhist in the Nyingma tradition.
Since 1962, Giorno has called the old Y.M.C.A. home. Constructed in 1885, the landmark building served as “a clean resort for men on the Bowery,” according to a vintage ad that hangs in Giorno’s studio. He has three different spaces here all to himself, and as he shows me around, stories spring from every room. The bright, airy third floor living space is where he sleeps, writes, and meditates. “For three days around the new year,” he says, “I clear out all the furniture and open the doors and a hundred people come to meditate here, if you can believe that.” His art studio, one floor below, is where he paints and draws: “Lynda Benglis has the studio right next to mine,” he says, pointing toward her door. “The Bunker,” where the Dial-A-Poets shoot took place, is down another set of stairs. This is where Giorno stores his paintings and keeps his Buddhist shrine. “Keith gave that to me,” he says, pointing to a framed Haring hanging on the wall, and then gestures to a cozy if unremarkable guest room off to the side that was Burroughs’s bedroom when the author lived here in the mid-1970s.
“He’s an astonishing presence,” says Michael Stipe, who met Giorno in Kansas City through their mutual friends Burroughs and the musician Patti Smith. “He has experienced so much in his life and seems fearless, capable, grounded — and yet he possesses a childlike curiosity and delight.” It was some of these qualities that led the former singer for R.E.M. to cast Giorno in We All Go Back to Where We Belong, a film he made for the band’s 2011 song of the same title. Shot in the spirit of Warhol’s screen tests — black-and-white, portrait-style — the film captures Giorno in close-up, a blank stare on his face, until the end, when he erupts in laughter.
Giorno is, by nature, a warm, ebullient man, who becomes even more so when he speaks about his husband, the Swiss-born multimedia artist Ugo Rondinone. The two have been partners for nearly two decades and married earlier this year. They met in 1998, a year after Rondinone moved to New York. He saw Giorno read at the Poetry Project’s annual New Year’s Day Marathon and had the idea that they should collaborate. Two months later, Rondinone called. “We became lovers right away,” Giorno tells me, his brown eyes glinting. “The collaborations came later.” Love, too, is a collaborative art form, a space sui generis that lovers carve and color for themselves, and on the eve of this summer’s solstice — the day of the year the sun lingers the longest in the sky — Rondinone will open an exhibition titled I ♥ John Giorno, a love letter to Giorno, writ large across thirteen venues in New York City. When I request to speak to Rondinone about the exhibition, I receive two sentences from him via email in reply:
Love is the message and the messenger of the exhibition.
Love as a virtue of human affection, kindness and compassion.
In other words: That’s all I have to say. I’ll leave the rest to John.
As Giorno tells it, he and Rondinone, who is 28 years his junior, are complementary souls: He sees himself as a poet with the heart of an artist, and sees Rondinone as an artist with a poet’s heart. “For me, he’s a very great teacher,” he explains. “He’s so smart. Sometimes being a poet, I approach my paintings with literary intention, which is wrong. And when it goes wrong, Ugo points it out. He always finds the weak spot in my work, and then I can recognize it like I always knew it was there.”
Rondinone of course always recognizes the strength and singularity of his husband’s work, too. On December 4, 2006, the day of his seventieth birthday, Giorno began to write the poem Thanx 4 Nothing, which has become one of his best known and loved of recent years. In it, he writes, with an almost combustible gratitude, a wish to grant the world “all my good and bad habits/as magnificent priceless jewels,” a prayer to pay his life forward, to gift his experiences, even his lovers, to those who want and need them now. Rondinone’s black-and-white video installation Thanx 4 Nothing, which will be on view at Sky Art, captures Giorno reciting his poem, his image multiplied across a battery of screens. The installation is not a simple portrait, or performance document. Shot over a few years and composed of over 108 takes that were then synced together in post, it’s also a meditation on the trickery of time, on the simultaneity of past and present within the entwined experiences of grief and love. It stands as one of their great artistic collaborations.
May all the people who are dead
Allen, Brion, Lita, Jack
and I do not miss any of you
I don’t miss any of them,
it was wonderful we loved each other
but I don’t want any of them back,
now, if any of you
are attracted to any of them,
may they come back from the dead,
and do whatever is your pleasure…
Nostalgia may hold no power over Giorno, but he has always recognized the value of memory. “I knew from the very beginning it was important to keep things,” he says of his earliest years in New York, when he’d save everything he wrote, made, or was given by his poet and artist friends. “I’d pack boxes — those cardboard supermarket cartons, you know? I’d just jam in as much stuff as I could, and then take it all to my parents’ house in Roslyn, Long Island, to store it.” He knew he was living in a remarkable time, that his friends were extraordinary, though it wasn’t always clear to him or to anyone what the future held. Perhaps it was the combination of unwavering belief coupled with their uncertain destiny that propelled him to hang on to everything.
Giorno has always believed that he’d amassed a treasure, but it was Rondinone who got the boxes out of storage in 2013 to see what exactly was in there. He hired archivists Marcia Bassett and Anastasia Clarke, who worked for nearly three years sorting, cataloging, and scanning the nearly 12,000 documents, papers, publications, art editions, photographs, and other ephemera Giorno had collected over the decades. Laura Hoptman, curator of contemporary art in the department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, describes its contents as “the history of an artist who ignores what’s not permitted to focus on what’s possible.” Words and work by artists, poets, musicians, and activists such as Brion Gysin, Diane di Prima, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Debbie Harry, and Eldridge Cleaver, all in there together — a ringing chorus of radical voices that helped define and shape some of the most vibrant countercultural movements in America.
Hoptman, who met Giorno through Rondinone in the late Nineties, has spent a great deal of time poring over Giorno’s archives, and together with de la Torre, she is editing a special issue of The Brooklyn Rail dedicated to the exhibition I ♥ John Giorno. When I ask what, for her, was the most astonishing piece in the archive, she tells me that’s an unanswerable question. There’s just too much to choose one. She does admit to a favorite find in the collection: an account by Giorno of being set up by the FBI and arrested in 1971 for a collaborative project he did with the late activist Abbie Hoffman titled “Radio Hanoi,” for which the two compiled songs and poems with anti-war messages to be broadcast to American troops abroad.
Giorno has one word for the preservation of his archive: miraculous. “We poets are essentially on the same level as Jack Smith,” he laments. “You have to protect your boxes from being put out on the street.” Smith was the visionary artist and performer whose groundbreaking underground film, Flaming Creatures, was seized in 1964 by the New York district attorney’s office and banned from exhibition under charges of obscenity. Susan Sontag was one of the few critics who recognized the value of Smith’s work at the time and fought for the film’s preservation and circulation. After Smith died in 1989 of AIDS-related pneumonia, the contents of his apartment were thrown out onto the sidewalk, leaving his friends to scramble and save what they could — a fate not unusual for those who lived and worked apart from the mainstream. When I tell Giorno that the books of Jill Johnston, the Village Voice’s notorious dance critic to whom he was very close in the 1960s, are now all out of print, he shakes his head and exhales a heavy sigh.
America, thanks for the neglect,
I did it without you
“Memory is discursive thought,” Giorno explains when I ask him if meditation changes one’s relationship to history, to memory, even to poetry. “Being a meditator is about seeing the empty nature of mind, and how thoughts arise in the mind. I think it’s the best practice for a writer, so you can see your thoughts more clearly.” To treat memory as thought is to keep oneself in the present tense, which is where he desires to be, though his mind is also on the future. He’s in the midst of completing paintings for an exhibition that opens at Elizabeth Dee Gallery this autumn, as well as polishing the final pages of his 670-page-and-counting memoir. When our time together comes to an end, Giorno walks me down to the front door, gives me a hug, and blows me a kiss, then turns to go upstairs and get back to his work.
Ugo Rondinone: I ♥ John Giorno opens on June 21 across thirteen locations in New York City