Old Man's Curse

I never feel the heat closing in, this 10-year specter over my head, setting up his flaccid old man revenge fantasy, putting a curse over me and my home maybe a higher-up elbow in Kansas City, vault a decade and two cities, catch a flexible writing gig: An editor, young, mellow, college MA, writing type fruit sends me back. I am evidently his idea of a sucker. You know the story, comes on with flattery and reverence, how the old bastard made such a footprint on our town. A real overstatement. And we forget Albert Bloch (imagine your trumpet blaring in such company-good choice in mythology cultivators I guess) on the platform. I can hear the way he would say it holding my collar in his fist, right hand on his ego: "Rub out the word-laughable if you will, Leslie-"

On November 21, 1996, I wrote: "...[Burroughs' and Brion Gysin's] attempt to create a 'perceptual and cultural clean slate expressive of total freedom' is not only a failure, but laughable."

It was one of many barbs leveled from my Pitch column toward the Spencer Museum of Art, which was hosting the Burroughs-gasm exhibition "Ports of Entry."

On December 15, 1996 (and published in 2000), Burroughs wrote: "Rub out the word-laughable if you will, Leslie-"

Looking back on the article today, I'd change some of the verbiage, but the basic support beams of my column hold fast: Burroughs' visual art was derivative; his gunshot paintings are offensively buttressed by his wife's murder; and if ever there was a poster boy for the cult of personality, this f*cker was it.


Courtesy Spencer Museum of Art

"Four Celestial Babies," by William Burroughs (1992).

The most egregious mistake in the whole endeavor, however, rested on the shoulders of the Spencer. Everyone has the right to make art, even bad art, but an educational institution has the responsibility to place that art in context. To avoid an uncomfortable consummation, the Spencer hushed Burroughs' killing of his wife (gunshot to the head, "an accident," and a case of rich kids getting off easy) and excluded many possible forebears to his assumed visual genius. The show begged the question, which I posed in my column-"Can we expect the Spencer to showcase O.J.'s stab series in 30 or 40 years?" (Fortunately, leadership of the Spencer has since changed hands.)

Admire as I do the barreling nature of the Burroughs train, I am relieved to at least see a maturation of the surrounding conversation. Sympathetic Burroughs biographer Graham Caveney observed that "What is interesting about Burroughs' canvases is that they are canvases made by Burroughs-his signature inscribing them within the crossfire of his own iconography."

In other words, his paintings are a key example of the masturbation that has come to signify the art world.

In 2005, Paul Pieroni, curator of Burroughs' Riflemaker Gallery exhibit in London, continued Caveney's point: "...Viewing the artworks...is wholly reliant upon the viewer's ability to relate the visual percept received to a priori knowledge of Burroughs' literary work. This much is clear: Burroughs' paintings do not stand up alone, they cannot."

In other words, this is bad art.

During his last months the heaping negative reviews festered, and on January 25, 1997 (my 26th birthday, no less), Burroughs wrote: "I must tell James: Please never conceal from me any nasty letters or reviews. I want the names of these creeps. The addresses, so I can put one of my curses on them. It will give me something to do. And jog a few higher-up elbows hiding behind [the] nameless assholes. I will make a list and cross names off one after another."

This was a minor triumph to my credibility: finally, I could count one verifiable reader of my art column. »


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.