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William S. Burroughs, Untitled, ca. 1988, Spraypai

William S. Burroughs's Shot Gun Paintings

As we preview the literary outlaw's rarely seen paintings with spraycan and shotgun, we speak to his friend on his unique art

William S. Burroughs is cemented in the popular imagination as the archetypal literary outlaw, the third part of a holy trinity of Beats; father to Ginsberg’s son and Kerouac’s ghost. Novels including Junkie, Queer and Naked Lunch pioneered a new and uniquely American literary form, shamanistic and paranoid, sanctifying the outsider. But Burroughs’ experiments in form and creative process extended beyond writing into film, sound and the visual arts, and he spent much of his later years in Kansas making paintings. A selection of those works can be seen in All out of time and into space at October Gallery, London.  

In advance of the opening I caught up with Kathelin Gray, founder of the Theater of all Possibilities and a close friend of Burroughs, to talk about the man, his paintings, and how the mythology surrounding the most American of artists might impede our appreciation of his work.

Burroughs is best known here as a writer, so I wonder if you could expand on the relationship between his literary and painterly practice.

Burroughs had associated with artists through the forties and fifties, the era of Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting. He was very influenced by process art, recombinant art, by art that incorporated incorporating text into paintings, and he was always concerned with the relationship between word and image. Burroughs thought in images, in symbols, and that’s visible in both his writing and his painting.

How influential was Brion Gysin on Burroughs’ work as a visual artist?

Gysin and Burroughs began to collaborate in Paris in 1959, when they were living together in the Beat Hotel. Gysin had steeped himself in the cabbalistic traditions of North Africa and his work drew heavily on ritual and magic; that influenced Burroughs, who was more scientific in his approach. Gysin introduced Burroughs to the cut up too – he realised one day, when he was cutting through newspaper with an Exacto knife, that the strips could be recombined and the word sequences re-examined.

What was so attractive about the cut up technique to Burroughs?

He saw it as a means of undermining the power structures that govern the behaviour of the populous. Burroughs was constantly trying to get at the way that things are programmed beneath the surface. The cut-up technique was one of the tools by which he did this, but not the only one.

What were the other tools, the other processes? With respect to the paintings I’m thinking of those abstract compositions creating by taking a shotgun to a can of spray paint…

Well I think Burroughs and Gysin met [auto-destructive artist] Gustav Metzger at one of his early lectures at Cambridge. Metzger was fed up with the commodification of art and was trying to get back to the act, the essence of what’s done by the artist in the moment of creation. That was another influence.

But Burroughs didn’t start painting until late in his life?

Burroughs really began painting in 1987, in Kansas, the year after Gysin died. Burroughs was devastated by Gysin’s death – he was the only man he ever truly respected as a man and an artist. You know, Burroughs only really started writing after he killed his wife Joan [in a drunken and famously ill-advised game of William Tell], and I think that taking up painting represented another way of working through trauma.

What of the way that Burroughs is perceived now?

I’m really not keen on the Burroughs stereotype of him with the needle in his arm and the three-piece suit, because that’s not what he was.

You don’t think he deliberately cultivated that iconography?

He cultivated the iconography but not the stereotype. I wouldn’t say that he resented the stereotype – it’s just that it’s counterproductive when it comes to understanding his work.

He was always keen to dissociate himself from the Beat Generation, which hasn’t stopped him being lumped in with them by posterity. How did he consider his work, and that of Gysin, to be different from that of Kerouac, Ginsberg or Gregory Corso?

He was a close friend with Ginsberg, particularly, but he wasn’t like the Beats – he wasn’t a Buddhist, he wasn’t Zen, he didn’t like jazz, he wasn’t cool. Burroughs’ work was about deconstructing the hypnotic effect on human nature of the corporate world, the military-industrial complex, and the military-educational complex. He was extremely concerned by the ecological devastation of the planet, by terrorism, by the militarisation of society, and he deeply wanted to create tools that would allow the individual to think for themselves. That drove everything that he did.

Text Benjamin Eastham