Certain traumatic experiences have made me conclude that at the moment of birth I was delivered to the wrong address. I have done what I could to make up for this. —Brion Gysin
The late-twentieth century experimental artist Brion Gysin was a changeling. Throughout his career, he engaged in a project of blotting out his race, his nationality and — in what many see as his best work — his language. A proud saboteur of divisions in the art community and broader social mores, Gysin intended his work as a space “for the real functioning of thought outside of any control.”
‘Brion Gysin: Dream Machine,’ the first U.S. retrospective of the artist’s work, is currently on view at the New Museum in New York City. The exhibition is comprised of over 300 paintings, drawings, films, photo-collages, slide projections, and audio recordings, as well as the Dreamachine, a device that flickers at a rate of eight to thirteen pulses per second.
Gysin was a dilettante defined less by technique than by attitude and a bold inventiveness, who anticipated the rise of the artist who writes, paints, acts, sings, films, blogs, and tweets all at the same time. Gysin’s willingness to engage any medium “makes him very contemporary,” says exhibition curator Laura Hoptman.
Eschewing traditional divisions in the artistic community, he also defied social and political categories: “Gay, stateless, polyglot, he had no family, no clique, no fixed profession, and often, no fixed address,” Hoptman writes in the catalogue. At the age of 16, Gysin set out from his hometown of Edmonton, Canada, to live at various times in Paris, Tangier, and New York.
In 1935, the Surrealist artist Andre Breton thwarted what would have been Gysin’s debut into the art world, by insisting his work be removed from a show at the Galerie Aux Quatre Chemins in retaliation for an impudent drawing. He fulminated against the Surrealists for the rest of his life, saying decades later that “I felt that everything Breton said was false, but I was too young at the time to know how to stand up to him.”
Gysin viewed words as an instrument of oppression, saying that he intended to “destroy the assumed natural links of language, that in the end are but the expressions of Power”. During his travels, he gobbled up languages like French, Japanese and Arabic, then disgorged a weird hybrid on the page or canvas (a species of language, but language degraded beyond recognition). Many of the paintings in the show are calligraphic, an amalgam of language and what Hoptman calls the “painted mark.”
“He created his own personal glyphs…” says Hoptman. “A kind of Orientalist mixture of… Japanese kanji and Arabic script. You read his work from right to left a la Arabic or Hebrew.”
In A Trip From Here to There (1958), a menagerie of glyphs unspools across 48 connected sheets of mulberry paper like values on a Richter scale. A series of untitled works from 1959 contain lines like knotted filaments, vibrating like beams of light refracted on the bottom of a pool.
Though paranoid and subversive, Gysin was not immune to the dominant artistic methods and movements of his time. He co-opted the calligraphic mark from abstract expressionism, orbited the Surrealist clique upon his arrival in Paris in 1934, and later collaborated with William S. Burroughs, an elder statesman of the Beat Generation. Like the Beats, Gysin set out to breach the wall between the conscious and unconscious minds, and he lived for four years at the “Beat Hotel” in Paris, the unofficial headquarters of the holy brotherhood.
Despite his friendship with Burroughs, Gysin’s enthusiasm for rearranging words through the “Cut-Up” method alienated the movement’s other well-known members. Gysin invented the Cut-Up — which involved the random dismantling and splicing of linguistic fragments — when he inadvertently cut up a stack of newspapers while preparing to mount a drawing.
While Burroughs used the method for many of his most famous works, the other “poets and writers did not want to cut up their work. In fact, it was ‘anathema,’ according to Allen Ginsberg, to what they were all about,” says Hoptman.
To spend “their entire waking hours crafting a certain way of saying something just to have this aleatory intrusion, to cut it up again, seems ridiculous to them and was not at all connected to what they were thinking in terms of their art.”
Gysin harvested fragments from the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton, slogans of the Beat generation, and even audio recordings. In one, Gysin utters every permutation of the phrase “I Am that I Am,” inflecting his voice to match the scrambled syntax.
Aside from the Cut-Up, Gysin is probably best remembered for the Dreamachine, a collaboration with Ian Sommerville, a onetime lover of Burrough’s who studied mathematics at Cambridge. The Dreamachine was designed to induce hallucinations by synchronizing the brain’s alpha rhythms with a strobing light, known as the “flicker effect.”
Gysin conceived the device as a portal to a “cerebral world,” which would “[throw] back the limits of the visible world.”
The colorful patterns emitted from the Dreamachine “are almost exactly like Brion Gysin’s calligraphic pictures,” says Hoptman. “The strange colors that he uses in his paintings at the time, pinks and oranges and yellows — particularly this funny, hot yellow — are the colors that you see when you close your eyes.”
‘Brion Gysin: Dream Machine’ is on display at the New Museum until October 3.