The Life and Death Of A Poet: Penny Arcade on John Giorno

“…thanks for allowing me to be a poet
a noble effort, doomed, but the only choice.”
from Thanx 4 Nothing.

On October 11th 2019 the pioneering poet, painter and artistic entrepreneur John Giorno left his body at 222 Bowery, the Queen Anne Romanesque Revival style building built in 1880 as the first YMCA in New York. Giorno lived there since 1962, spread out over three lofts in this building, which was once honeycombed with the studios of countless artists including Mark Rothko and Ferdinand Leger.

222 Bowery contains William Burroughs’ notorious ‘Bunker’, and Giorno preserved the writer’s bedroom just as he left it since Burroughs’ death in 1997. The Bunker’s famed dining room has housed a shrine for the Nyingma, Red Hat tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, which has been the cornerstone of John Giorno’s life and his life work. For more than three decades Giorno hosted annual gatherings, known as fire pujas for hundreds of Tibetan Buddhists adherents, where as many as 100 monks would gather around the third floor fireplace. An auspicious place, one would think, to cast off one’s body.

Perhaps, too often these days, we hear that an era has ended. Yet it is an irrefutable fact that John Giorno was the living embodiment of so much that defined the cultural, political, and sexual revolution of the latter part of the 20th century. A renaissance man in every sense, Giorno was an artistic and social activist, always moving forward yet without the loss of history. He combined serious Buddhist studies and meditation, with an expansive poetic practice and a rich history of extensive collaborative practice with fellow poets, artists and musicians.

A compassionate trickster, Giorno was transparent: from his philanthropy to his life long depression, to his quest for Gay Liberation in what he called “The Golden Age of Promiscuity.” There was no one behind the curtain, because there was no curtain.

“In the early 1960s, I had the good fortune of meeting a lot of artists. Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Trisha Brown and Carolee Schneemann. These artists and painters were the real influence on me as a poet. Whether it was a performance or a painting, they did what arose in their minds, and made it happen. It occurred to me that poetry was seventy-five years behind painting and sculpture and dance and music. I said to myself, “If these artists can do it, why can’t I do it for poetry?”

He worked on Wall Street as a stockbroker after a break up with a lover caused a suicide attempt and his father withdrew financial support. He became known as ‘the poet who worked on Wall Street’, but after two years, John’s father reinstated a small income and he was free to pursue the artist’s life.

The engine that made downtown Manhattan’s art scene combust in the early ’60s was artists pushing towards new frontiers in music, theatre, painting, film and dance. Giorno, young and good looking with his patrician Greco-Roman profile, was enthusiastic, friendly and loved attention; and soon he was a muse for a coterie of mostly closeted gay artists, nearly all of whom would find enormous fame in a handful of years.

In 1963 he met the then unknown Andy Warhol, who became both friend and lover, and for two years they were inseparable. Warhol would influence Giorno’s penchant for found imagery and archiving and drive what would become his particular entrepreneurship, fueling his impact on art, poetry and downtown society.

In 1963, New York’s downtown art scene was small, made up of perhaps less than 100 artists and their friends. These people met and formed around the emerging experimental film scene shepherded by filmmaker Jonas Mekas, in a revolving set of small downtown cinemas where Mekas presented the work of Kenneth Anger, Ken Jacobs, Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren and Jack Smith, among many others. By Giorno’s own count he saw Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures over 20 times.

It was here that Warhol got the idea to start making films and armed with a recommendation by Surrealist poet Charles Henri Ford, Warhol sent his assistant, poet Gerard Malanga to purchase a Bolex camera. Thus began the arduous task of creating the film that brought both Warhol and Giorno enormous attention, Sleep, July 1963. Five hours and twenty minutes of Giorno sleeping, shot on three-minute rolls of film, from multiple perspectives, made John Giorno the first Warhol superstar. Warhol followed Sleep, with the film Hand Job, with the camera settled on Giorno’s face while masturbating.

“It was a very daring move”, said Giorno in an interview with artist Rob Pruitt. “In Sleep, Andy focused on shooting my head and upper body from different angles. I don’t know how my ass got in there! Making anything ‘gay” was at that time verboten, those were very homophobic years in the New York art scene.”

Giorno had studied Dada, Surrealism and the Italian Futurists at Columbia, and Inspired by Warhol and Duchamp, he began making “Found Poetry,” culled from newspapers. “I met all these artists, painters and at the same time I met poets, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, They liked me because I was gay, but they only liked your poetry if you wrote exactly like the ‘New York School of Poets’, otherwise you were off their list. Allen liked me because I was gay and maybe because I was a little famous because of Sleep, but I didn’t write like him so I was off his radar! What I am saying is that the poets weren’t any help at all. I was making Found Poetry, drawing from newspaper articles and stuff like that and they were negative about it. But Warhol, Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, the painters – they were my main influence – seeing their openness of mind, seeing that whatever idea came into their mind, they worked with it.”

A chance meeting with writer William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, mystic, painter, sound poet, and discoverer of the cut up method utilized by Burroughs, introduced Giorno to Sound Poetry. “Poésie Sonore” was an art form that Gysin along with Bernard Heidsieck and Henri Chopin had been doing in Paris since 1959. It was a poetry made up of words and sounds using early electronics. Giorno tried his hand at it and came up with the poem Subway, for which he recorded subway sounds. He was encouraged by Gysin, who sent it to Heidsieck who was curating the Biennale at The Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris. It was accepted and Giorno began his trajectory into audio poetry.

He became lovers with Gysin and Giorno accompanied him to Morocco, where they lived next door to the writers Jane and Paul Bowles,

When he returned to New York in 1966, his friends the dance critic Jill Johnston and dancer/ choreographer Lucinda Childs, suggested he volunteer for artist Robert Rauschenberg’s, E.A.T., Experiments in Art and Technology, the historic collaboration with Bell Lab scientists at the East 26th Street Armory. He became a video operator and soon Rauschenberg and Giorno became lovers followed by a relationship with painter Jasper Johns.

During this time Giorno met and worked with Robert Moog, the inventor of the synthesizer, who was working at E.A.T., and together they created Electronic Sensory Poetry Environments, using synthesized loops of his own voice and distortion. It pretty much doesn’t get more rock and roll than that!

While often mistakenly identified as a Beat poet or as a poet of the New York School, because of his long associations with both, Giorno was actually a product of the Pop Art and psychedelic movements. He was therefore connected to rock and roll rather than to jazz. Giorno was one of the very first performance poets, dedicated to performing poetry rather than reading it, to freeing the word off the page. He anticipated the Spoken Word movement by over a decade. “You can’t kill poetry, said Giorno, “Poetry keeps reinventing itself and changing its skin.”

He published his first three books of poetry beginning with 1964’s American Book Of The Dead. His second small-press book, Poems by John Giorno (Mother Press, 1967), was lauded by critic John Perrault as “a literary event, a paradoxical indictment, and a perverse celebration of raw language.” This was followed by Consumer Product Poetry (1968-74), which consisted of words printed on matchbooks, T-shirts, flags, and chocolate bars—the latter commissioned by a German art gallery.

In 1968 he became a gossip columnist for artist Les Levine’s a quarterly magazine, Culture Hero. His Vitamin G columns shocked the downtown art scene with graphic descriptions of his famous ex-lover’s penis sizes and sexual preferences. This was an outrageous ‘first”, and with other salacious gossip, infuriated the art world and burned many bridges including with Brion Gysin, who furiously called John “the Pepys of the pariah set.”

Giorno’s anger at the lack of political engagement from the art world concerning the Vietnam War and his criticism of the growing commercialization of the New York art world brought him to yet another collaboration, and in the fall of 1969 he became actively involved with the co-founders of the Yippies, (The Youth International Party), founded by Paul Krassner, Abbie and Anita Hoffman, Nancy Kurshan and Jerry Rubin.

Giorno said, “I was determined to make poetry a razor blade cutting through the ego of America karma,” He was the central organizer of a 1969 30-hour-long New Year’s Eve benefit at St. Mark’s Church for White Panther “political prisoner” poet John Sinclair, who had been busted for selling two joints to an undercover agent and sentenced to ten years in prison. In March 1970, Giorno participated in a press conference that kicked off “Free Radio” WPAX, and he eventually personally assembled ten 90-minute recordings of rock music, gay and feminist themed content, and anti-war news for Radio Hanoi, broadcast in both the north and south of Vietnam. After which, Vice President Spiro Agnew personally denounced Giorno and Abbie Hoffman as “would-be Hanoi Hannah’s,” and called for their arrest as traitors.

Inspired by a phone conversation with William Burroughs, Giorno created, Dial-A-Poem, 1969-1971. Dial-A-Poem was the freshest presentation of poetry in centuries giving pertinent meaning to the medium as the message and credited with creating the concept of the now ubiquitous 1-800 information lines.

His anti-war work continued at the “Information” show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in June 1970 where Giorno installed twelve Dial-a-Poem tapes, including political messages from Bobby Seale and Abby Hoffman. Diane di Prima’s, How to Make a Molotov Cocktail, created a scandal.

Emotionally worn out, in 1971 Giorno went to India and met H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche, head of the Nyingmapa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism who gave him the name Wisdom Jewel, and he began in earnest the Buddhist practice and meditation which would be foundational to his life for the next 50 years.

An electronic Johnny Appleseed, John fully owned his role as a disseminator of poetry, utilizing every means that was available at the end of the 20th century: the telephone, LP’s, live rock and roll poetry shows. Beginning in 1965 with Giorno Poetry Systems, a nonprofit foundation committed to opening unexplored channels, Giorno released over 50 studio LP’s of poetry, both his own and with a wide number of collaborators: William Burroughs, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Gregory Corso, Anne Waldman, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Husker Du, and Meredith Monk among others.

Giorno spent much of the 80s selling recordings of his poems and performing in order to raise money for patients dying of HIV/AIDS, in what he remembers as a rather improvised fashion. “The way one had great sex in the Golden Age of Promiscuity was you just ‘made it’ if you wanted to! You should help people in the same fashion,” he said.

In 1984, with his fellow practitioner and longtime companion, the classical pianist Paul Alberts, Giorno founded The AIDS Treatment Project, a year before he himself tested negative. The AIDS Treatment Project, was a mechanism to provide relief, often in the form of cash, “hard cash” he sometimes said, “to people dying.” “My intention is to treat a complete stranger as a lover or close friend. My way is to give money personally and directly, with strong emotional support—by bringing it to the hospital, or to the person’s apartment, or by the person coming to my home. Indiscriminate compassion, not making distinctions between people—not “I’ll help this one, but not that one, because I don’t know him.” By 1994, Giorno’s one-man operation, which he administered out of his own pocket, gave away $460,732, directly into the hands of people in need, without any of the typical institutional expense or politics.

Today, John Giorno is perhaps most famous for his pop art paintings made with the graphic font designed by Mark Michaelson, who created the distinctive font for him in 1984. The paintings display bold text – the essence of compelling poetry. “These things work because they’re so brief you almost don’t read them,” Giorno explained, “They become iconic.”

On October 14th three days after his solitary death, he lay in a quiet chapel at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home, the elegant funeral parlour on Madison Avenue and East 81st Street. As beautiful in death as he was in life, he was flanked by four red and gold votive lamps, with soft classical music playing. John was dressed in an elegant black suit and crisp white shirt. Underneath his white pocket square, two joints awaited the fire of his cremation.

John is survived by his husband of 20 years, the painter Ugo Rondinone, a union that brought him great domestic happiness and his final and perhaps most expansive collaboration which culminated in, Ugo Rondinone: I ♥ John Giorno, a comprehensive imagining of Giorno’s extraordinary archive and most seminal art works, first presented at The Palais de Tokyo in Paris and then spread across thirteen locations in New York City including: 80WSE Gallery, Artists Space, High Line Art, Howl! Happening, Hunter College Art Galleries, The Kitchen, New Museum, Red Bull Arts New York, Rubin Museum, of Art, Sky Art, Swiss Institute and White. A show of Giorno’s latest work, Do the Undone, at Sperone Westwater in New York, closed October 26, 2019.

Shortly before he passed away John Giorno completed his epic memoir, Great Demon Kings: A Memoir of Poetry, Sex, Art, Death and Enlightenment. 23 years in the making, Great Demon Kings, will be published in 2020 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. John said he hoped it would communicate to others the possibilities of a life radically open to art. Gratefully, we have not heard the last of John Giorno.