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The artist, poet and Warhol muse designing bags for Dior

John Giorno is collaborating on the return of the Parisian house’s Lady Art #2 project

Have you heard of John Giorno? Well, he’s the brilliant poet who narrated the beating heart of New York’s art scene from the 60s through the 70s and 80s and into the 90s, and he continues to write even today. Known by many for his relationships with Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, it would be easy to cite Giorno as one of the luckiest lovers in history. But while serving as a muse to these artistic greats, Giorno was narrating that process through his own practice too, showing just how intensive and creative the role of ‘the muse’ is while demonstrating the reductive nature of the label itself. A lifelong collaborator, Giorno was front and centre of New York’s art, music and poetry scenes – playing at CBGBs, trailblazing the concept of the poetry slam, and incorporating found sounds and imagery into his poems much like Warhol would with his art.

The living artistic legend and queer philanthropist was celebrated across New York city just this Summer, in a retrospective curated by his husband Ugo Ronidnone as a love letter to the poet. The show, entitled “I ♥ John Giorno”, was held across thirteen not-for-profit spaces throughout the city, meshing Giorno’s output with responses to it by contemporary artists. It depicted his multi-medium artistic history, throughout which he incorporated sound, painting, film and music into his work. Known for his collaborations, it’s no surprise that Giorno was invited by Dior to give his artistic take on the iconic Lady Dior bag for this year’s Lady Art #2 project, which asks ten artists to put their mark on the bag made iconic by Princess Diana. Here are five things you need to know about the genius that is John Giorno.


After Giorno graduated Columbia in 1962, he briefly worked as a stockbroker on Wall Street. In the same year, while at the Stable Gallery in midtown, he met Andy Warhol at his first solo New York exhibit, and they swiftly became lovers. There’s never a mention of Giorno going back to the world of finance after meeting Warhol, opting for a life in art instead.


Sleep was one of Warhol’s first movies – a long take scene of five hours and twenty minutes depicting Giorno sleeping for its entirety. It was created as an experimental riff on Warhol’s “anti-film” idea, a technique which he later extended to over eight hours in his 1964 film Empire, which sees a single shot of an unchanged view of the Empire State building filmed in slow motion for its duration. At the premiere of Sleep at the Gramercy Arts Theatre, it’s said that of the nine people who attended, only five lasted the whole five hours. Giorno was also the star of Warhol’s lesser known 1964 film John Washing, which ran at a mere four and a half minutes.


In 1965, Giorno founded the not-for-profit organisation Giorno Poetry Systems, with an aim to bring poetry to a wider audience. Under this initiative he founded the first ever Dial-A-Poem, in which anyone could call a number and be connected to a poet reading their poetry on the other end of the line. The idea was not just to platform brilliant artists, it was to platform these brilliant artists’ most radical and transgressive works and get as many people to hear them as possible. People on the calls included Patti Smith, John Ashbery, Philip Glass, Robert Mapplethorpe and all the other incredible New York icons you wish you could speak to. In its first five months alone, the Dial-A-Poem line received 1,112,237 calls in total, mainly from New York. And you can still call the number today – (641) 793-8122 – give it a go.


He and Burroughs became close friends in the early 1970s, after Burroughs contributed to the Dial-A-Poem project. Together they toured rock clubs, and became key players in the CBGBs scene of the early 70s. Using found sound elements and distorted soundscapes, Giorno would read his poetry over these sounds. Known for his upbeat, persuasive, temperamental deliveries, it was in these clubs that he was one of the forerunners of the New York poetry slam scene inviting people to offer new work around an open microphone. Giorno’s confrontational style also influenced the work of performance art legends such as Penny Arcade and Karen Finley.


His work has always confronted the joys and pains of life as a queer person. From his queer sex epic – Pornographic Poem (1964) – to his exploration of 1970s New York gay nightlife in his psychedelic poems and LPs of the late seventies. In 1984, he founded AIDS charity The AIDS Treatment Project which directs funds directly to individuals living with HIV and AIDS even today. His 1994 poem Just Say No to Family Values is a scathing critique of queer assimilation, telling you to “Do it, with anybody you want, whatever you want, for as long as you want, any time, any place, when it’s possible, and try to be safe”. The 2006 poem, and accompanying film by Ugo Rondinone, THANX 4 NOTHING is a look back at the highs and lows of an artist who found himself emotionally, sexually, and artistically entangled with the greatest artists and scenes in modern history.


‘PREFER CRYING IN A LIMO TO LAUGHING ON A BUS’, ‘GOD IS MAN MADE’, ‘BAD NEWS IS ALWAYS TRUE’, ‘A HURRICANE IN A DROP OF CUM’, ‘EVERYONE IS A COMPLETE DISAPPOINTMENT’, are just a selection of the aphorisms that can be found in block capitals emblazoned across rainbow backgrounds in Giorno’s recent ‘Space Forgets You’ series. Taking the statements from Giorno’s original poetry, the series, which premiered in 2015 at New York’s Elizabeth Dee Gallery, was about applying some of the poet’s boldest statements atop a rainbow, the symbol usually associated with happiness, as well as whitewashed apolitical queerness – two things Giorno has been a longstanding critic of. And it’s this style he’s applied to the new Dior collaboration, Giorno’s Lady Dior reading ‘YOU GOT TO BURN TO SHINE’ across an iridescent rainbow background. Quite.