John Giorno: Do The Undone
New York CitySperone Westwater
September 5 – October 26, 2019
“who is john giorno?” his husband, the artist Ugo Rondinone, asked in a love poem in the 2017 Giorno-dedicated edition of the Rail. “a small white sailboat on the bay?” “a long solitary walk? / a palm tree growing out of a crack in the rocks? / a manual for happiness and misery?” “a gate? a world? a vision? / a place to stay?”
Over the past year, Giorno, who passed away suddenly in mid-October, produced a new body of work that affirms the expansiveness of poetry and poetry beyond the page for Do the Undone, his first show at Sperone Westwater. The poet-artist-Buddhist was consistently generous to those he loved, to strangers, and even to those who betrayed him, and his artistic output is similarly giving in both its scope and content. This includes silkscreen and lithograph poem prints, inscribed bluestone boulder sculptures, and an expanded edition of Dial-A-Poem.
“In 1965, the only venues for poetry were the book and the magazine,” Giorno told the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2002 , “nothing else.”1 Realizing that poetry was 75 years behind painting, sculpture, dance, and music and under the influence of Pop pioneers Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Warhol, Giorno took it upon himself to update the medium. This necessarily included how and where poetry could be encountered. As an alternative venue to printed matter, Giorno founded the record label and non-profit Giorno Poetry Systems in 1965, which used “all the entertainments of ordinary life”2 to transmit poetic writing: television, music albums, radio, and the telephone. Just two years later, after a conversation with William Burroughs, he started the Dial-A-Poem service, wherein anyone could call in and listen to a pre-recorded poem. First exhibited at the Architectural League of New York in January 1969 with 10 telephone lines, it was then included in MoMA’s 1970 landmark show Information. The poet Anne Waldman has likened Dial-A-Poem to agitprop. Giorno inverted a culture industry of deception, instead promulgating sexual revolution and radical compassion. In 1969 alone, the service had more than one million callers.
The 2019 version broadens its scope, featuring 293 poems by more than 100 poets, including mainstays like Waldman, John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, and the Black Panther revolutionary Kathleen Cleaver, as well as new voices, among them Einstürzende Neubauten and Susan Howe. Unlike past iterations, advertised in newspapers and accessible anywhere (just call 641-793-8122), you must be in the gallery to listen. The single line aligns with Giorno’s understanding that poets speak directly to an audience, one to one.3 In this way, Giorno anthologizes his friends, their words, their voices. I picked up the receiver, pressed “1,” and Giorno began deliberately reciting “There Was a Bad Tree,” an allegory about a tree that withstands incineration, chemicals, robotic lasers, smart missiles, radiation, and continuously grows back after each assault until, when treated compassionately, it grows jewels.
Giorno’s “poem prints,” which he has been making since the early ’60s, are, as they suggest, another poetry. Much of their language is excerpted from Giorno’s writings throughout his lifetime, committed to canvas. THANX 4 NOTHING shares its name with a poem written on his 70th birthday, in which he embraces heartbreak with a healthy dose of irony. WE GAVE A PARTY FOR THE GODS AND ALL THE GODS CAME is the final line of the 1990 erotic poem, “Hi Risque,” an elegy to former lovers lost to HIV/AIDS. Giorno’s turn of phrase reckons with the mortality of countless partners—friends and strangers alike—whose beauty and eroticism he compared to that of deities. In the midst of the epidemic, Giorno collaboratively founded the AIDS Treatment Project with other musicians and artists, which continues to provide direct financial support to patients. LIFE IS A KILLER is the name of a 1982 poem and YOU GOT TO BURN TO SHINE is the title of an anthology of his writings, and Giorno’s retort to an audience member after an attempted firework attack at a performance. Excerpted on rainbow backgrounds, the phrases read like mantras or koans to contemplate, public notices or signs, monuments to queerness. They are massive, and Giorno’s language becomes a gallery to walk through.
Giorno’s bluestone boulders, too, are signs, and poems. The three “stone poems” are respectively engraved with “NOW AT THE DAWN OF MY LIFE,” “YOU CAN’T HURT ME CAUSE STORMS CAN’T HURT THE SKY,” and the titular “DO THE UNDONE.” Similar works were first shown in 2017 at the Château de Versailles’ Apollo’s Baths, built in the 17th century. Indoors, they retain their mortuary quality. Clearly they are beginnings, too. The stones are covered with lichen, growing.
“I want to jump inside your heart,” Giorno writes in the epilogue of You Got to Burn To Shine. He’s jumped into mine, into ours. Like Rondinone says, Giorno is a place to stay, a palm tree growing out of a crack in the rocks.
1. Hans Ulrich Obrist: Interviews Volume 2, Milan: Charta, 2010.
2. John Giorno, You Got to Burn to Shine, “Giorno Poetry Systems,” 182.
3. John Giorno, You Got to Burn to Shine, “Epilogue,” 190.