As many readers of these here illuminated letters surely know, the great author/Beat ghost/junky/exterminator William S. Burroughs also added the title of “painter” to his resume before his death in 1997. He began painting in his later years while living in Lawrence Kansas, but his relationship with painting and painters began much earlier.
I like to trace Burroughs’ origins as a painter back to his 1959 meeting with Brion Gysin. Gysin was also a polymath. Gysin’s written work is as underrated as his paintings were during his lifetime. Gysin died in 1986 and while his sometimes-stunning prose has yet to be reconsidered, the publication of a few great books and the organizing of gallery retrospectives have seen his visual art getting the respect it deserves all these years later. Of course, Burroughs was way ahead of the curve: “I don’t think I’d seen painting until I saw the painting of Brion Gysin,” he once snarled. It goes without saying that it was Gysin’s painting practice that lead directly to the pair’s developing of their version of the “cut-up technique.”
I’ve recently moved into a new place and a friend gave me a housewarming gift of a framed poster announcing an exhibition of Burroughs’ paintings in Santa Fe in 1988. The image on the poster is typical of the spray painted, shotgun blasted panels that Burroughs is best known for. But, this poster has inspired me to look for more examples of his art and I’ve been pleasantly surprised. It turns out that WSB actually had a fairly wide range as a visual artist and his output includes creepy/funny simple drawings, Gysin-esque abstract grids and collage.
Here is a fun online gallery that shows a wide range of his work, including one image that features a figure that looks like the silhouette of one of Ralph Steadman’s Hunter S. Thompson cartoons.