William S. Burroughs: Paint it Blacker

As many readers of these here illuminated letters surely know, the great author/Beat ghost/junky/exterminator William S. Burroughs also added the title of “painter” to his resume before his death in 1997. He began painting in his later years while living in Lawrence Kansas, but his relationship with painting and painters began much earlier.

I like to trace Burroughs’ origins as a painter back to his 1959 meeting with Brion Gysin. Gysin was also a polymath and his written work is as underrated as his paintings were during his lifetime. Gysin died in 1986 and while his sometimes-stunning prose has yet to be reconsidered, the publication of a few great books and the organizing of gallery retrospectives have seen his visual art getting the respect it deserves all these years later. Of course, Burroughs was way ahead of the curve: “I don’t think I’d seen painting until I saw the painting of Brion Gysin,” he once snarled. It goes without saying that it was Gysin’s painting practice that lead directly to the pair’s developing of their version of the “cut-up technique.”

I’ve recently moved into a new place and a friend gave me a housewarming gift of a framed poster announcing an exhibition of Burroughs’ paintings in Santa Fe in 1988. The image on the poster is typical of the spray painted, shotgun blasted panels that Burroughs is best known for. But, this poster has inspired me to look for more examples of his art and I’ve been pleasantly surprised. It turns out that WSB actually had a fairly wide range as a visual artist and his output includes creepy/funny simple drawings, Gysin-esque abstract grids and collage.

Visit Joe Nolan’s Insomnia to check out an online gallery that shows a wide range of his work including one image that features a figure that looks like the silhouette of one of Ralph Steadman’s Hunter S. Thompson cartoons.

Stay Awake!


Joe Nolan was born under a bad sign on June 13th in Detroit, Michigan in the last Metal Year of the Dog. Polymath, provocateur, inter-media artist, his tell-tale signs have turned up in music, visual art, journalism, poetry, fiction, video and film. A double Gemini, his interests range from the pharmacology of phenomenology to fly fishing; from mysticism to mixed martial arts; from chaos science to chaos magick. Joe Nolan's Insomnia blog republishes to some of the most read counter-culture sites on the web and the Coincidence Control Network podcast which he hosts has been downloaded more than half-a-million times.He is recording his fourth CD in Nashville, Tennessee where he lives to the east of the Cumberland river on a little wooded lot dubbed Bohemian Walnut Grove.

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  • InfvoCuernos

    I guess I will always be a philistine-I’ve never been able to see the Art in this sort of thing. The value of most celebrity art seems to be in the signature.

    • http://profiles.google.com/joe.e.nolan Joe Nolan

      An important point to make, but I think Burroughs is a little different here in that he is not just a celebrity star – he’s definitely a real creative artist. And I find all of his work to be interesting parts of a whole.

  • liquidself

    His visual work always surprises me, refreshing really. Was a pleasant surprise back in the day to discover his paintings, as had already been sucked into the radioactive, soul-destroying, mutagenic, space western vortexes of his writing.

    • http://profiles.google.com/joe.e.nolan Joe Nolan

      Agreed. I was familiar with the shotgun paintings – which are bit of a novelty. But, I didn’t know about these others. Again, they are rather derivative of Gysin’s work, but they show more breadth and curiosity about the process than I knew was there. Thanks for the comment!

  • http://www.facebook.com/matthewlevi.stevens Matthew Levi Stevens

    Readers of this piece might be interested in my article ‘Millions of Images: The Paintings of William S. Burroughs’ which includes a conversation I had with William while he gave me a ‘guided tour’ of his first exhibition of paintings @ The October Gallery in London back in 1988. It has only just been posted on Reality Sandwich and can be read here: http://www.realitysandwich.com/paintings_william_s_burroughs
    Thank You.

  • Sean Anomie

    I saw Burroughs’ sculpture exhibit featuring exploded pieces of metal in New Orleans in 1990. It was brilliant, three-inch thick corrugated steel plates ripped into these exotic shapes, difficult to see exactly how. The plates were around 6 x 10 feet, and the finished pieces covered expanses of 24 feet diagonally, and some were more that six feet high. At the end, when you’ve wound your way through, you became more aware of a specific background sound, and at the end it turned out to be a videotape loop of him laying the steel plates over holes in the ground with dynamite in them, yelling ‘Fire in the Hole!”, and boom. There were also several smaller pieces, framed and hung as paintings, which had been blown apart with (you guessed it) a shotgun.