New York

William S. Burroughs

Tony Shafrazi Gallery

Of all the American novels to be published since the end of World War II, William S. Burroughs has written some of the most powerful. His most famous are Junkie (1953) and Naked Lunch (1959), but since then he has written nearly a dozen more among his thirty-odd books, including the trilogy Cities of the Red Night (1981), The Place of Dead Roads (1984), and The Western Lands (1987). In The Western Lands, Burroughs offers a succinct summary of his provocative, searing vision: “The road to the Western Lands is by definition the most dangerous road in the world, for it is a journey beyond Death, beyond the basic God standard of Fear and Danger.”

Burroughs has been giving himself all the permission he has needed to be on the road to the Western Lands. He began crashing through the barriers of “fear and danger” when he wrote Junkie, which was based on his experiences as a drug addict; and he has been exploring what lies on the other side ever since. The Western Lands also seems to be Burroughs’ bittersweet adieu to both the world and the world he has made out of words. The stench of mortality—which both fascinates and repels him—is also an essential aspect of the 27 “Shotgun Pieces” in this recent exhibition (which also included some non-“Shotgun” collages on wood, works on paper, and collaged scrapbooks). Burroughs began making the “Shotgun Pieces” after he moved from New York City to Lawrence, Kansas, in 1982. In a recent interview, he said: “I started painting in 1982. I didn’t switch mediums, I was just sort of fooling around. I was out shooting. I just had a shotgun and a piece of plywood as a target. I didn’t have a recoil. When I looked at it later I said that looks like art. I called it ‘Sore Shoulder.’ ” Onto a rectangular piece of plywood, which has been torn through by clusters of shotgun pellets, Burroughs has written his name, the date, and the work’s title.

After Sore Shoulder, 1982, Burroughs began elaborating on this method by making a piece and then irrevocably defacing it. He would spraypaint the plywood, stencil it, shoot at a can of paint dangled in front of it, or add collage elements. The final step was usually to blast it with a shotgun. His process thus conflated the antinomies of making and destroying, choice and accident.

Unfortunately, the “Shotgun Pieces” were presented here in tasteful, oversize frames, which work to neutralize Burroughs’ coolly destructive rage. The gallery’s decision to put his work in frames—ostensibly to make them more presentable and therefore salable—goes against everything I know about Burroughs, who cannot ever be accused of writing books to please an audience. I imagine that, without the frames, the “Shotgun Pieces” look like rural detritus that one would probably throw away. And yet Burroughs thought they looked “like art.” It’s a revealing statement, when one remembers that he has “cut up” texts in an attempt to find other ways to put words together and written disturbingly pungent parodies of such pulp genres as detective novels and science fiction. The trouble with this exhibition was that someone took Burroughs’ work, which looks “like art,” and tried all too successfully to turn it into ART.

John Yau