LA exhibit examines Burroughs' art

Tuesday, July 16, 1996

— While a wide-eyed 19-year-old student in Chicago in 1962, Robert Sobieszek had his first encounter with William S. Burroughs, the grandfather of contemporary American letters and Lawrence's most famous living writer.

It was not a personal meeting -- that would come many years later -- but a meeting through the pages of the first American edition of Burroughs' opus, "Naked Lunch."

Throughout Sobieszek's academic and professional career, Burroughs' name and work -- literary and non-literary -- would pop up from time to time.

As curator of photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Sobieszek became fascinated with Burroughs' scrapbooks while doing research for an exhibit on the history of photomontage. To Sobieszek, the scrapbooks represented a revolutionary transformation that embodied the discord, tumult and breakdown of traditional power structures of the 1960s.

Sobieszek continued to study Burroughs' scrapbooks and works and began to realize their significance and Burroughs' ability to transcend categorization and reshape "reality."

Four years of tireless work will come to fruition Thursday as Sobieszek opens "Ports of Entry: William S. Burroughs and the Arts," at LACMA.

Rub out the word

The show -- a large retrospective of Burroughs' travels away from the word -- is a formal, detailed examination of Burroughs' non-literary work and a testament to Burroughs' wide-ranging impact on American culture.

The exhibit includes Burroughs' shotgun art, cut-ups, collages, collaborations and paintings. It will open in October at the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art at Kansas University.

"For more than 40 years, William Burroughs has been at the center of much of our culture and has exerted a tremendous influence on both literature and the arts, and he continues to be a compelling figure for a younger generation," Sobieszek said.

"Wishing to finally rub out the word and the attendant, restrictive logic of language, he turned to the purely pictorial art of photomontage, collage and ultimately painting."

Many people are familiar with Burroughs' written works, such as "Naked Lunch" and "Queer," novels characterized by narrative invention, graphic scenes of sex and violence and dark deadpan humor.

Students of his novels often view Burroughs' forays into art simply as a diversion. But Sobieszek maintains that they're missing the point.

"William's writing and art are enmeshed," he said. "Literary people should look at his art, to understand in a different way what he has been saying.

"Although some see him as a high-modernist, in actuality William is much more post-modern in the sense that what he does in his literature and his visual arts is not express the unexpressible, but unexpress the expressible ...

"That is a strategy and a tactic that very few other people did at the time. I think he's a genius for it, and it goes all the way through all of his art."

A liberating challenge

The show's design, research and reproductions reflect Sobieszek's ability to write perhaps the most intelligent and coherent treatment of Burroughs' career.

Sobieszek said items in the "Ports of Entry" show came together after countless hours of poring over slides and scrapbooks until the story emerged.

"At one point I had over 250 works in the show, which was way too big and not necessary," he said. "Size did not help. I became my own harshest critic and went through and just started to subtracting anything that was redundant or not so good and got it down to the 153 that are currently in the show."

As a photographic curator and historian, Sobieszek had to change disciplinary hats and jump into Burroughs' art. He embraced the challenge.

"It was absolutely liberating, because it forced me to think about different aspects. In a way, it was like opening a door," he said.

Tim Wride, assistant curator of photography at LACMA , said Sobieszek is a fearless man who attacks his work with refreshing zeal.

"Robert has an amazing breadth of knowledge and an incredible depth of knowledge, and he makes that all completely available," Wride said. "Here is a guy who is ostensibly a photo curator, and he has put together this amazing art show."

Lawrence poet Jim McCrary, office manager of William S. Burroughs Communications in Lawrence, said Sobieszek had done an outstanding job on the exhibit.

"At this time Robert probably understands and has a better understanding of William's life than anyone else on planet," McCrary said. "The catalog for 'Ports of Entry' will stand, as it should, as the seminal work on Burroughs for years to come.

"Both the show and catalog will open new doors to fans who only know the written word ... and there are many. Now they can see that the word is not only written, but drawn, painted, recorded and filmed."

Pursuit of education

Sobieszek has received several honors for his work, including the Josef Sudak Medal by the Czech Republic in 1989 for his contributions to the field of photographic history.

He was a key defense witness in the 1990 Robert Mapplethorpe obscenity trial and won the International Art Critics' first prize for his exhibit "Robert Smithson: Photo Works" in 1993-94.

Rather than resting on his professional laurels, Sobieszek continues to seek new projects and challenges.

Education is part of what led Sobieszek to LACMA after years of curatorial work at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.

"Museums are educational institutions. We teach," he said. "It is not direct education, like universities or high schools. But it is indirect education."

"Basically I want to put together a coherent story about a kind of work or a specific artist and share that story with the public. I also enjoy being caught up for a couple years into thinking about serious questions about the art or artist and learning as I go.

"I see myself as a conduit to a general, somewhat-educated public and giving them an opportunity to see things that they might not otherwise have."