John GiornoJohn Is Loved By All
Written by Becky Elmquist

photography by Brendan Burdzinski
written by Becky Elmquist

To say John Giorno is a prolific artist would be an understatement. He continues to create work and redefine the poetry genre to this day at age 79.
 Even as a successful artist, he’s both sincere and an entertainer who continues to spin his talents into crafty language threads, socially relevant poetry and performance, and ironic textual wall work. To encapsulate the essence of John Giorno it is important to appreciate his effervescent personality. He is loved by all, yet possesses an unapologetic, “act first, apologize later” attitude that may be attributed in part to his long-time practice of Buddhism. His studio and apartment occupy three floors on the Bowery that have changed little, apart from a recent repainting and a few minor updates here and there, since his arrival in 1962. Nostalgia permeates every nook and cranny. William S. Burroughs, once a resident in the basement, aka “the bunker,” wrote City of the Red Night on a typewriter that still resides in the space which Giorno took over. The building was host to many gatherings that were attended by the New York art scene of the 60s; a collective that Giorno reminisces, “consisted of 60 artists.” Giorno’s apartment is something of a “Buddhist Narnia”.
The architecture and Giorno’s mementos made me long for the microcosmic New York art world that was once a haven for the ingenuity and postwar grit of the Beat poets and Pop artists, before landlords carved up loft spaces and rising rent pushed New York’s artists to the outer boroughs. Giorno can still recall specific years without pause and fondly cites Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac as formative gures in his life. He read Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956 and still refers to it as “tran- sformative.” The influence of the Beat poets pushed Giorno to create his own distinct work and comfort with bending the rules of the genre in his own writing. Giorno wanted his poetry to allude to and not exclude his life as a gay man. The 60s was a paradoxical time of great change that concurrently saw little by way of and acceptance for queer culture and rights for the LBGTQ community. Beyond writers he looked to the “60 artists” in the small New York art scene to guide his practice, “I saw all of these artists expanding their mediums… if they are doing that with painting why [couldn’t] I do that with poetry?” he questioned. “I became friends with all these artists and I saw what they did everyday, they had an idea and they followed it” recalls Giorno. Eventually, this initiative along with an impatience with the genre as a whole fueled Giorno to participate in his first reading in 1962.
He graciously admits he had no idea what a reading entailed, and describes the experience as both embarrassing and a revelation for his future practice: “My legs were like Jell- O, I couldn’t breath, I started pouring sweat, and my lungs locked.” The reading led him to invent a particular style of performing that utilized his breath, “By using this same energy and erasing fear I was able to discover it myself.” This discovery was his entry into performance poetry, a movement in which he is a titanic gure.
While other artists of the time often closeted their queer sexuality, Giorno celebrated it and chose to candidly, explicitly, and proudly announce it to the world in which he lived. In 1964 he introduced Pornographic Poem, an account in which the subject is a participant in a sexual encounter with seven Cuban army of cers, I lost count / of the times / I was fucked / by them / in every conceivable position and concludes but with two / big fat / Cuban cocks / up my ass / at one time / I was / in paradise. Pornographic Poem was a perfect compliment to an evening at the Folklore Center where Giorno played a recording of this poem with 15 contemporaries and friends including Robert Rauschenberg, Patti Oldenburg, Nena Thurman, and Henry Geldzahler.
Giorno’s unapologetic survey called for liberation, not only for poetry, but of the bustling culture at the center of the queer community. In another piece entitled Just Say No To Family Values, Giorno denounces how precious and perhaps contradictory these ‘Family Value’ ideals of normative culture had become; Just say No / to family / values. / We don’t have to say No / to family values, / cause we never / think about them; / just / do it, / just make / love / and compassion.

In the performance space Giorno comes alive, manifesting his points through his visceral connection with his audience. In a sense he went against the grain of his Pop Art counterparts, seeing the world for what it was and is, rather than as a condensed, mirrored view of reality. “Whether it is intentional or not, my work is always informed by the moment,” explains Giorno. “The last big poem I  finished was God is Man Made and I released it one year before the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris and it was all about that.” He goes on to say that one could not write this material following an event of this nature because you are then tainted by the experience and “poisoned with feelings.” Five weeks after the opening of Ugo Rondinone: I ♥ John Giorno at Palais de Tokyo, the November Paris terrorist attacks occurred. Giorno was scheduled to return to Paris for a performance coinciding with the exhibition  five days after the attack.

 

GIORNO

 

GIORNO2

 Exhibition view of Space Forgets You, Elizabeth Dee, 2015
Photography by Etienne Frossard

 

“WHETHER IT IS INTENTIONAL OR NOT,
 MY WORK IS ALWAYS INFORMED BY THE MOMENT.”

 

Giorno considers the 21st century as “the golden age of technology.” Reflecting on previous decades, he notes, “Everything we did was so painful [back then], it was like walking backwards up a hill, every little bit of technology that succeeded was so primitive and simple.” John gladly welcomed these advancements as a means to an end; dissemination created access, and access initiated acceptance. This simplicity met charm in his Dial-a-Poem in 1968. Giorno recounts his initial idea for this, “One morning in May 1968, I was talking on the telephone with a friend listening to boring gossip, just waiting for it to end. I could be listening to a poem on the phone, instead of hating what I’m hearing.” The idea stuck in my head. In July 1968, the Architectural League of New York asked me if I had an idea for a work of art for their gallery. I said, ‘Yes!’ Dial-A-Poem.” The poems addressed a multitude of topics and included poets Amiri Baraka, Ted Berrigan, Taylor Mead, Joe Brainard, William S. Burroughs, Jim Carroll, and David Byrne. The original Dial- a-Poem lasted 5 months and received more than one million calls. Curiosity prompted incarnations of the project that included more complex systems. Dial-a-Poem also saw the introduction of Giorno’s work into an institutional setting initiating a change within the curatorial platform that providing a grey area in a commonly traditionalistic setting. Giorno is an intuitive character. Not only has he discovered and pursued different venues and dialogues for poetry, but he actually gives a damn about the function of the genre in the present and what that might look like in the future. His subject matter is forever topical, addressing and pinpointing the signs of the times and presenting subject matter that requires immediate attention and reaction. This immediacy is further perpetuated through his performance technique and stage presence.

“Everyone came out for the  rst time, everyone came out to hear something,” explained Giorno. Watching him perform is exciting; his uplifting spirit is accessible to all and falls outside all realms of a traditional poetry setting. One doesn’t have to understand an inside joke or a scholarly reference. This public access binds culture to art and art to culture. “For me this show is a miracle. It was such an elaborate project,” says Giorno in reference to Rondinone’s large- scale installation of Giorno’s work. It’s very surprising that this marks the  rst survey honoring the work of an artist as in uential as Giorno. He notes that poetry has been outdated for years, but that the current generation is receptive; most of the current and forthcoming artists of this genre have called upon Giorno to conceptualize and contextualize what poetry means today. Needless to say, 2015 was a busy year for the artist. In addition to his monumental show at Palais de Tokyo, which closed in January of 2016, curator Mark Beasley and Giorno co-organized a reading at MoMA PS1 in conjunction with the recent exhibition Greater New York. In April Giorno presented a solo show at Elizabeth Dee in New York. He con- jures up excitement when referring to forthcoming projects including a large-scale textual installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Oslo and the inclusion of a perfor- mance piece at Centre Pompidou that will focus on the Beat Generation. Even at this age, in a New York City that bears little resemblance to the New York in which Giorno came of age, he is still actively engaged, and as Frank O’Hara put it, a true “poet among artists.”