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John Giorno, Storied Artist Who Expanded Poetry’s Possibilities, Is Dead at 82

John Giorno. COURTESY SPERONE WESTWATER John Giorno, who blazed an inimitable, almost-impossible-to-believe path through the most venturesome regions of poetry, art, music, and activism in postwar New York, died on Friday. He was 82. His death was confirmed by his galleries Almine Rech and Sperone Westwater. Giorno was one of those extremely rare figures who…

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John Giorno.
COURTESY SPERONE WESTWATER

John Giorno, who blazed an inimitable, almost-impossible-to-believe path through the most venturesome regions of poetry, art, music, and activism in postwar New York, died on Friday. He was 82. His death was confirmed by his galleries Almine Rech and Sperone Westwater.

Giorno was one of those extremely rare figures who would have had an admired career, and earned a place in the canon, even if he had only pursued one of his myriad interests. He wrote gloriously explicit poetry in the 1960s that foregrounded his homosexuality, gave frenetic performances around the world, painted bewitching text paintings, organized efforts to care for colleagues battling HIV/AIDS, and was an early convert in the United States to Tibetan Buddhism and meditation.

The central project of Giorno’s life was dramatically expanding the boundaries of poetry, and—at least equally as important for him—revolutionizing the methods by which it could be presented and distributed. His immersion in the thriving New York avant-garde scene of the 1960s provided him inspiration. He once told the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, recalling his mindset at the time, “It occurred to me that poetry was 75 years behind painting and sculpture and dance and music.” And so he got to work catching it up.

Installation view of “John Giorno: Perfect Flowers” at Elizabeth Dee in New York in 2017.

Perhaps no Giorno piece exemplifies his precedent-busting sensibilities as succinctly as Dial-A-Poem, a service he started in late 1967. It allowed anyone with access to a telephone to call a number—advertised in the New York Times, among other places—and hear short poems by the likes of Joe Brainard, John Cage, and Anne Waldman, as well as speeches and texts on civil rights and opposing the Vietnam War. In 1970, the curator Kynaston McShine included the piece in “Information,” his seminal survey of conceptual art.

There were “poems with sexual images, straight, or preferably gay, as I’m a gay man; and as political activism,” Giorno told Obrist. “It seems strange that, in 1968, everything was still externally puritanical.”

John Giorno was born in 1934 in New York and attended James Madison High School—the alma mater of both Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (she graduated before Giorno) and Senator Bernie Sanders (after), the New York Post has noted. Instructed by a teacher to write a poem at the age of 14, Giorno found it “blissful,” he told the tabloid. He kept at it.

Giorno loved New York, and opted to stay in the city for college, attending Columbia University and graduating in 1958. “I read a copy of Howl on spring break ’56,” he told the Brooklyn Rail. “It blew my mind.” Its author, Allen Ginsberg, would eventually become a friend, like so many of the pioneering cultural figures of his time.

But though he would later become an exemplar of urban bohemia, Giorno actually did a stint as a stockbroker after college. (His parents had cut off his allowance.) That didn’t last.

By the early 1960s, he had thrown himself fully into the small downtown art scene, but he bristled at the constraints of the period. “There were all these gay artists, but they didn’t allow gay images in their work, nor was their gayness reflected in their work because it would have been the kiss of death,” he told Frieze in 2015. “You couldn’t be a gay artist at that time.”

Giorno Poetry Systems, The Dial-A-Poem Poets: Totally Corrupt GPS 008-009, 1976.
COURTESY GIORNO POETRY SYSTEMS

Giorno took a different tack in his work, and in 1964, he delivered one of his essential pieces, “Pornographic Poem,” which begins: “Seven Cuban / army officers / in exile / were at me / all night.” The piece was later released as a record, with contemporaries like the poet and critic Peter Schjeldahl, artist Brice Marden, and others reading his words.

The next year, 1965, would be pivotal for Giorno. He met the writer William Burroughs and artist Brion Gysin—future lovers and artistic collaborators for him at various points. At Gysin’s suggestion, he and Giorno recorded sounds in the New York City subway, and they spliced them together to make a sound piece. Giorno also moved into the Bunker, the storied art building at 222 Bowery that he called home for the rest of his life. (It’s provided studio and living space for artists like Mark Rothko, James Brooks, and Lynda Benglis.) And that same year he started Giorno Poetry Systems, intent on bringing experimental poetry and sound to wider audiences through seemingly any means necessary. Its legacy includes Dial-A-Poem and dozens of record albums, which he sold through retailers and distributed to radio stations.
In the 1980s, Giorno and poets who recorded with GPS used their royalties to provide emergency grants to artists with AIDS. “I had already spent ten years raising money for political causes,” Giorno told Frieze, “but I realized by 1982 that the only thing people with AIDS needed was money for their expenses, direct help.” (Through what became known as the AIDS Treatment Project, Giorno said that he wanted to help people with AIDS “with promiscuous love and compassion, just like when we fucked. We had lots of people helping to lead us to people needing help.”)
The years after meeting Gysin were ones of spiritual searching and travel for Giorno, both physical and mental. The two tripped on LSD 34 times in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, and the poet told Tricycle that he at one point experienced “a fleeting glimpse of the relative, that only mirrors the absolute. … Brion and LSD changed my life.” He began to meditate and at the start of the 1970s traveled to India, studying with Dudjom Rinpoche and converting to Tibetan Buddhism, bringing what he learned back to the U.S.

Endlessly curious, Giorno always seemed to find himself in the right place at the right time, meeting and connecting with forward-thinking people. He helped push art and ideas along—sometimes as a collaborator, other times as a subject. Perhaps most famously, he is the naked man resting in the 5-hour-long film Sleep (1963), which Andy Warhol, his lover at the time, shot over a number of weeks. (The piece is included in the new hang of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection in New York.)

Installation view of “John Giorno: Do the Undone” at Sperone Westwater in New York, on view through October 26.
COURTESY SPERONE WESTWATER

Speaking with the artist Rob Pruitt a few years ago, Giorno said that he was surprised to find that his ass had made an appearance in the film. His role, quite simply, had been to sleep, he explained. “I stayed out of it, because I’m not a filmmaker, I’m a poet, and I know that it’s always best to leave the filmmaker alone and stay out of it.”

The captivating, charismatic performances that Giorno gave of his poetry throughout his career earned him a devoted following. Such live events were a key part of his process. “If there are 500 people in the audience, it’s like 500 mirrors looking at themselves,” he told the journalist Marcus Boon in 2008. “People think that when a poem works, it’s because of the lines of a great poet—Baudelaire, T. S. Eliot, Whitman, or whoever—but it’s not so. The lines, when they magically work, are the reflection of your mind.”
Over the past couple decades, Giorno increasingly focused his efforts in the visual art world, and in 2015 he was the subject of a sprawling retrospective titled “I ♥︎ John Giorno” that was organized by his husband, artist Ugo Rondinone, at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, which traveled two years later to 13 alternative spaces in New York. It was the latest milestone in a career that was enjoying a late-career renaissance.

“We are proud and honored to have worked closely with this incredible artist, poet, and performer,” Almine Rech gallery said in a statement today.

“John was filled with extraordinary generosity, presence, and humor, not to mention a deep drive to be part of conversations and collaborations with artists,” the dealer Elizabeth Dee, who showed him in New York, said in an email, adding that, “In terms of art and the multi-generational influence John had, both as muse and mentor, we may never see the likes of someone like him again.”

Installation view of ‘UGO RONDINONE : I ♥ JOHN GIORNO’ at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2015.
COURTESY PALAIS DE TOKYO

Giorno currently has a show at Sperone Westwater in New York—just a block away from his home at 222 Bowery. “It has been a privilege and a pleasure to work with John,” Angela Westwater, the gallery’s cofounder, said in a statement. “I first experienced Dial-A-Poem in the ‘Information’ show at MoMA, so working closely with him for our exhibition has been rewarding beyond expectation.” And she referred to “his infinite creativity and zest for life.”
The Sperone Westwater show runs through October 26, and features a spread of the paintings that Giorno has became best known for in his last years. Their backgrounds are brightly colored gradients on top of which he has floated crystalline texts in bright white letters: in them, poetry is again finding new audiences through new means. The phrases include “YOU GOT TO BURN TO SHINE,” “WE GAVE A PARTY FOR THE GODS AND THE GODS ALL CAME,” and “DO THE UNDONE.”
That last line, which also appears on a stone sculpture in the exhibition, is an ethos to which Giorno was deeply committed. “I’m not so aggressive about making things happen,” he told me when I visited him at the Bunker a number of years ago and asked about how his first art shows had come about. “I do everything. I’ve spent a lifetime doing everything. I just sort of let it happen.”

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NYU Will Remove Sackler Name from Graduate Institute, Deana Lawson Wins Hugo Boss Prize, and More: Morning Links from October 23, 2020

To receive Morning Links in your inbox every weekday, sign up for our Breakfast with ARTnews newsletter. News New York University’s Langone Medical Center will remove the Sackler name from its Graduate Biomedical Institute following years of pressure from the student body and artist Nan Goldin’s advocacy organization P.A.I.N. [Hyperallergic] Yesterday Marian Goodman Gallery announced that it would close its London location. In an interview with ARTnews, gallery…

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NYU Will Remove Sackler Name from Graduate Institute, Deana Lawson Wins Hugo Boss Prize, and More: Morning Links from October 23, 2020

To receive Morning Links in your inbox every weekday, sign up for our Breakfast with ARTnews newsletter.
News
New York University’s Langone Medical Center will remove the Sackler name from its Graduate Biomedical Institute following years of pressure from the student body and artist Nan Goldin’s advocacy organization P.A.I.N. [Hyperallergic]
Yesterday Marian Goodman Gallery announced that it would close its London location. In an interview with ARTnews, gallery founder Marian Goodman shared what comes next for the enterprise’s British operation. [ARTnews]

Thirteen women, in interviews with The New York Times, have accused the Iranian celebrity artist, Aydin Aghdashloo, of sexual misconduct over a 30-year-period. [The New York Times]

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A New York program that offers perpetrators of minor offenses the opportunity to take an art class at the Brooklyn Museum instead appearing in court, is at risk of defunding. [The Art Newspaper]
Deana Lawson is the first-ever photographer to win Guggenheim Museum’s $100,000 Hugo Boss Prize. [ARTnews]
Artists & Institutions 
After a summer of social and financial turmoil, white-led arts institutions nationwide are reckoning with racism. But what does it take to achieve equity?  [Los Angeles Times]
A show of work by Bruce Nauman at Sperone Westwater Gallery, featuring a new digital artwork activated by an iPad touchscreen, “confirms how sedulously he is still pushing the studio’s limits,” writes Jason Farago. [The New York Times]
Maxwell Alexandre’s first solo show in England is now on view at David Zwirner’s London gallery. Check out some of the work, which centers Rocinha, the Rio de Janeiro favela where he was raised and currently lives, here. [The Paris Review]
Market
Sotheby’s back-to-back modern and contemporary evening sales in Paris and London generated a total of $90.4 million. [Art Market Monitor]
The Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem is facing criticism following the decision to deaccession dozens pieces of art and artifacts at Sotheby’s. [The Art Newspaper]

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Artist Saul Fletcher Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide

Saul Fletcher, a British-born, Berlin-based artist known for moody images of collaged objects photographed against a plaster wall in his studio, was found dead last week in Berlin what several outlets have reported to have been a murder-suicide. The claims have been circulating in the British and European tabloids since late last week, with the…

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Artist Saul Fletcher Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide

Saul Fletcher, a British-born, Berlin-based artist known for moody images of collaged objects photographed against a plaster wall in his studio, was found dead last week in Berlin what several outlets have reported to have been a murder-suicide. The claims have been circulating in the British and European tabloids since late last week, with the tabloids linking Fletcher with actor Brad Pitt (Fletcher was photographed by paparazzi last year walking around the Venice Biennale with Pitt and sculptor Thomas Houseago).
This morning, the three galleries that represented Fletcher at the time of his death—Anton Kern Gallery in New York, Knust Kunz Gallery Editions in Munich, and Grice Bench in Los Angeles—provided to ARTnews a joint statement regarding the reports: “We are devastated, appalled, and shocked by the tragic loss of Rebeccah Blum and Saul Fletcher. We are all grief-stricken and confused. We offer our deepest condolences to their families and together are offering our support and help.”

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Blum is a freelance curator who previously was director of Berlin’s Aurel Scheibler gallery. ARTnews has not been able to independently verify these deaths or the circumstances surrounding them.
According to a Daily Mail article published on July 23, Fletcher confessed to his daughter last Wednesday evening that he had killed a woman, now assumed to be Blum based on the statement of the galleries. Shortly before midnight on Wednesday, according to the Daily Mail, Fletcher’s daughter reported this information to the Berlin police, who subsequently found a woman dead from apparent stab wounds in Fletcher’s apartment. The following morning, Fletcher was found dead in the garden of property he owned near Rochowsee lake, about two hours north of Berlin.
ARTnews has reached out to Berlin law enforcement, but has been unable to verify this reporting at this time.
Fletcher, who was born in 1967 in the village of Barton, on the northeastern coast of England, and was largely self-taught, first came to prominence in the late 1990s when he began showing with New York’s Anton Kern Gallery. In a review of his exhibition at Kern in 2000, New York Times critic Roberta Smith called Fletcher’s photographs “evocative, slightly macabre, sometimes overly precious,” which “appear to be the work of a shut-in working in a nearly empty attic with the occasional cooperation of family members.”

Fletcher’s work has appeared in major international exhibitions as well, including the 30th Bienal de São Paulo in 2012, the 4th Berlin Biennale in 2006, and the 2004 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. His most recent exhibition at Anton Kern was in 2018. That same year, Inventory Press published a monograph of his work with essays by Ralph Rugoff, curator of the 2019 Venice Biennale, and critic Kirsty Bell.

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Unprecedented Toppling of Monument to Slave Trader Shocks British Art World

Until his statue was toppled by Black Lives Matter protesters on Sunday, few people outside Bristol had heard of Edward Colston. Dramatic images of the protests held in the British city show the bronze sculpture of Colston being torn down and thrown into the harbor of the historic port city. But the felling of the…

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Unprecedented Toppling of Monument to Slave Trader Shocks British Art World

Until his statue was toppled by Black Lives Matter protesters on Sunday, few people outside Bristol had heard of Edward Colston. Dramatic images of the protests held in the British city show the bronze sculpture of Colston being torn down and thrown into the harbor of the historic port city. But the felling of the monument to the merchant, whose fortune was earned from the transatlantic slave trade he helped establish in the late 17th century, is just one part of a fierce and reignited debate about public art honoring problematic figures that’s being waged in Britain right now.

“I’ve recorded uprisings since the 1980s, but I was slightly stunned,” said artist John Akomfrah, referring to images on social media of the Bristol demonstration, which was peaceful, like many other protests across the U.K. “There is a remarkable irony. [Colston] has ended up in the place where he put hundreds of lives”—the harbor where bodies of enslaved Africans were thrown overboard during the infamous Middle Passage.

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Colston was a leading member of the Royal African Company, which had a monopoly on the slave trade in the late 17th century. “There’s no sympathy from me about his plight,” Akomfrah said.
The merchant’s statue, which was unveiled in 1895 when the British Empire was at the peak of its power, has long been a source of division in the city. Attempts to add a contextual plaque referring to the philanthropist’s role in the slave trade had reached a political and bureaucratic impass, prompting demonstrators to take matters in their own hands last weekend.
“I was amazed. It was the kind of thing I never thought I’d see in my lifetime,” said Hew Locke, a London-based sculptor who lived in Bristol in the 1980s. “This piece has been on my mind as a problem for years,” he told ARTnews. “Colston wasn’t a bad man. The language was wrong. He was an evil man. That’s the truth of it.”
John Cassidy’s sculpture has been derided as a poor work of art, but Locke disagrees with that assessment. “Aesthetically, it was one of Bristol’s best Victorian sculptures,” Locke said. In 2006, to pay homage to the sculpture’s history, Locke bedecked a large-scale photograph of the Colston monument with the trappings of his wealth based on the exploitation of Africans.

It’s unclear right now what will happen to the statute. Marvin Rees, the Mayor of Bristol, said on Monday that Cassidy’s sculpture will be “fished out” at some point but vowed that it will never return to its former prominent location. The bronze could be destined for the city’s history museum, MShed, which overlooks Bristol harbor, along with a collection of the Black Lives Matter protestors’ placards.
The fate of Colston’s statue and the Black Lives Matter movement raises awkward questions for other cities in the U.K. On Tuesday, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced a review of all London statues with slavery links. One London’s former docklands now business district of Robert Milligan, a prominent slave trader and plantation owner, has been vandalized and covered in protest placards. On Tuesday, it was revealed that the statue would be removed. And there have been renewed calls to remove or at least recontextualize colonial-era statues, including ones in Cardiff in Wales, Dundee in Scotland, and in Oxford. Since 2016, campaigners have tried to banish the statue of the arch-imperialist of the Victorian era, Cecil Rhodes, at the University of Oxford. (A demonstration is taking place on Tuesday.)
Locke expressed skepticism over whether anything would change. “We will see,” he said. Meanwhile, authorities in Belgium have begun to remove statues of King Leopold II after protests. His colonization of what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo involved systematic brutality and atrocities.
Some institutions have begun taking accountability for their role in structural racism, but their responses have done little to satisfy critics. Several big London museums, following their peers in the U.S., issued statements of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests at the end of last week and over the weekend. The British Museum immediately faced accusations of inaction over decolonizing its collection, which includes colonial-era looted art and human remains. The National Gallery in London also posted on social media its rejection of “racism, inequality and violence” in response to the death of George Floyd while being arrested by police. Anti-racist protestors began gathering in Trafalgar Square a week ago on the art museum’s doorstep despite an ongoing national lockdown due to coronavirus.
For nearly 100 years a bronze statue of George Washington has stood on the gallery’s front lawn, making it one of many public London monuments to “dodgy figures,” as Locke has put it. Presented by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1924, it is a replica of the marble sculpture by the French 18th-century sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon that stands in the State Capitol building in Richmond. There is no mention on a plaque (or on the National Gallery’s website) that Washington was a slave owner, or that Richmond was the capital of the Confederate States in the U.S. Civil War.
When reached by ARTnews about whether it planned to make that history available, a National Gallery spokesperson claimed it was not the museum’s responsibility to do so, but rather the U.K. government’s. The museum is “looking” to update its website about the biography of its founding collector, John Julius Angerstein, however. Its current page about Angerstein glosses over the uncomfortable truth that much of the art collector’s wealth was based on insurance of ships used in the slave trade. He also had a financial stake in a slave plantation in the Caribbean.
Such a clarification of institutions’ history is becoming more common in the U.K.—Tate, for example, issued a lengthy statement about its founder’s role in the slave trade last year. Locke said that context such as this is necessary for institutions—and, in particular, the monuments in the cities around them. “The sculptures are part of history, but you need some acknowledgement of who these people were,” he said. “You can’t say police brutality is terrible, institutional racism is terrible, and then you don’t want anything to change in your local landscape.”
Locke, like Akomfrah, seemed resigned that the debate about the relocation of colonial-era monuments in the U.K. will now be framed by the government as a question of law and order after Colston’s violent removal. The U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson was quick to condemn the Bristol protestors’ actions claiming that the Black Lives Matters protests have been “subverted by thuggery.” After coming under fire, he toned down his rhetoric but insisted that anyone who harmed property would face “the full force of the law.”
Many in the British art scene—and beyond—are now left with serious quandaries going forward. “Let’s be clear, [Colston] was a mass murder,” Akomfrah said. “He benefited from the misfortune of others. The real question is, why was that statue put up in the first place?”

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