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John Giorno. Photo: Marco Anelli.
John Giorno. Photo: Marco Anelli.

John Giorno (1936–2019)

John Giorno, whose kaleidoscopic work fused and furthered poetry, visual art, and activism, has died at age eighty-two. He is survived by his husband, the Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone. From the 1960s onward, Giorno was a vital countercultural force in postwar New York, where—from his legendary “Bunker” on the Bowery, his studio/loft for over five decades—he first collaborated with lovers such as Robert Rauschenberg, William S. Burroughs, and Andy Warhol, whose silent “anti-film” Sleep (1963) stars a naked Giorno. The artist recently enjoyed a late-career renaissance, in part for his silk-screened, often rainbow-colored canvases emblazoned with capitalized mantras. “My various projects all have the same purpose: to connect to an audience,” Giorno said in a 2009 interview with Artforum. “A poem is wisdom in a few words.” His death was confirmed by New York’s Sperone Westwater gallery, which is currently showing new watercolors, sculptures, and painted posters by Giorno. The show is up through October 26.

Born in New York in 1936, Giorno wrote his first poem at age fourteen. In 1956, while completing a degree at Columbia University, he read Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” finding it transformative. But as he inserted himself into Manhattan’s downtown milieu, he looked mainly to art for inspiration—specifically Pop and its appropriative techniques. “It occurred to me that poetry was seventy-five years behind painting and sculpture and dance and music,” he told Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2002. He circulated a found poetry volume, The American Book of the Dead, in 1964 and grew interested in sound art around that time, recording MTA subway sounds with partner Brion Gysin and devising “electronic sensory poetry environments” at the Poetry Project in St. Mark’s Church. In 1967, he founded the collective and record label Giorno Poetry Systems (GPS), from which emerged Dial-A-Poem, his most famous work—a service in which participants could call an advertised number to hear the artist’s various friends, from Kathleen Cleaver to Frank O’Hara, read a poem. (Curator Kynaston McShine selected the work for his formative “Information” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970.) The project is emblematic for a poet who repeatedly sought, whether in paintings, sound pieces, or invigorating performances, to forge intimate networks and push the experience of poetry off of the page.

Giorno’s social experimentation with verse lent itself to activism as well. In the 1980s, GPS developed the AIDS Treatment Project, which gave money to people suffering from AIDS and dispersed grants for artists with the virus. In 1993, Giorno made two broadsides for Visual AIDS that remain iconic reflections of grief and solidarity. “TREAT A COMPLETE STRANGER / AS A LOVER, HUG THEM,” one begins. “When I thought about my life from ‘Pornographic Poem’ to being a part of the gay liberation movement—whatever that meant—it was a complete catastrophe,” he told Andrew Hultkrans in an interview for Frieze. “Everything I had aspired to was a failure. I decided I had to do something.”

Although his texts adopted tantric and Pop styles early on, Giorno officially committed himself to Tibetan Buddhism in 1971 after a trip to India and claimed to be among its first Western practitioners. (For the last thirty New Years, he has invited one hundred Tibetan monks to his Bowery loft.) His many exhibitions include “Ugo Rondinone: I ♥ John Giorno”—a survey and tribute show featuring contributions from Verne Dawson, Pierre Huyghe, Elizabeth Peyton, Michael Stipe, and Billy Sullivan—originally held at Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2015 before roving to thirteen venues in New York in 2017. “I’m not really overly cautious about what I think my story is,” Giorno said in a 2017 Artforum interview about the exhibition. “It’s silly to be overprotective of one’s own history, isn’t it? . . . Things are still changing—it’s always shifting.”