John Giorno: DO THE UNDONE
New YorkSperone Westwater
September 5 – October 26, 2019
Two days prior to the unexpected passing of John Giorno, I decided to go see his current exhibition at Sperone Westwater. I had missed the gala opening over a month earlier, and I had thus also missed a last opportunity to catch up with this remarkable artist. We had met briefly several years earlier, and I recall us discussing the plays of Samuel Beckett, an artist whose writing had influenced Giorno and whom he held in high regard. For me, this exchange threw into sharp relief the fact that Giorno’s often brilliant experiments with language, which extended throughout his career, emerge from a strong involvement with poetry and avant-garde writing.
Giorno’s taste was ecumenical. Whether dealing with the playwright Beckett, the performance artist Laurie Anderson, the “stargazing” filmmaker Andy Warhol, or the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, nothing could impede his interest and appreciation for their work. Giorno’s own practice was equally diverse. He worked assiduously in many domains—poetry, music, theater, printmaking, painting, film, sound installation, and sculpture—and collaborated with artists working in just as many disciplines. His work was contingent on both his passion and his precision, both qualities that are made immensely clear by the works on view in this current exhibition.
Although there have been others who worked consistently with words and images—Ed Ruscha and Barbara Kruger come to mind—Giorno’s message functions on a somewhat different level. While his work is less conceptual, his use of language carries a certain intimacy that projects our awareness of time beyond the present moment. I am thinking, for instance, of the predominantly textual paintings that occupy the large gallery on Sperone Westwater’s first floor. In these works, white sans serif text is layered against a series of horizontal stripes in rainbow colors, all silkscreened on linen measuring 56 inches square.1 We may read these prints in no particular order. For example, “THE WORLD JUST MAKES ME LAUGH” and “LIFE IS A KILLER” may appear in opposition to one another—but not necessarily. Another, perhaps offering a synthesis of the first two, reads ”SIT IN MY HEART AND SMILE.” On the opposite wall and in a smaller adjacent room the scale increases to nearly 10 feet square. Here we read: “DO THE UNDONE” (the title of the show) and finally, the romantically eloquent “YOU GOT TO BURN TO SHINE.”
In addition to the text fragments and poetic phrases on the first floor, we find two graphite works on paper upstairs, along with six watercolors in variations of the color blue, three sculptures of words carved into bluestone boulders, and an installation of Giorno’s famous “DIAL-A-POEM” (2019, original 1968). This work, a telephone installed on a pedestal, is the one participatory piece in the show. Any visitor can pick up the phone and listen to recordings of various poets and artists reading their work. There are 135 options, ranging from Peter Orlovsky (Allen Ginsberg’s lifelong partner), who talks about his gardening, to Robert Creeley, who offers a sentimental yet moving paean to his suddenly grown-up daughter.
Although I enjoyed the overall presence and installation of the works selected for this exhibition, I was particularly taken by Giorno’s three bluestone sculptures, all completed this year. Despite the celebratory elegance of the rainbow colors behind his large white letters and the seductiveness of his blue watercolors, when cut into stone Giorno’s words carry more weight, and hold their meaning quite differently than they would on a two-dimensional surface. A colleague of mine remarked that when isolated on stone, the poetic phrase “NOW AT THE DAWN OF MY LIFE” offers something more than an artist’s existential awareness. It reads as an evocation of stillness, or something brought back from the natural world, a meditation made all the more powerful by the fact that the artist communicating it is, suddenly, no longer with us. This work reverberates in the depths of the mind, evoking the poetic way of life that both pervades Giorno’s art and informs a viewer’s ability to see and to reflect on who they really are.
- The font was developed for Giorno by Mark Michaelson in 1984.