New York

View of “Brion Gysin: Dream Machine,” 2010, New Museum, New York. From left: Untitled, 1973–79; That I Am I, 1961; untitled, 1973–79. Photo: Naho Kubota.

View of “Brion Gysin: Dream Machine,” 2010, New Museum, New York. From left: Untitled, 1973–79; That I Am I, 1961; untitled, 1973–79. Photo: Naho Kubota.

Brion Gysin

New Museum

View of “Brion Gysin: Dream Machine,” 2010, New Museum, New York. From left: Untitled, 1973–79; That I Am I, 1961; untitled, 1973–79. Photo: Naho Kubota.

IN 1962, AT THE GALLERIA Trastevere di Topazia Alliata in Rome, Brion Gysin covered a wall with paintings and filled the space with manipulated, tape-recorded sound poetry. Neither paintings nor poetry could be contemplated serenely, however, for—in addition to permuting the canvases’ arrangement each day—Gysin bathed the room in the vision-inducing light effects of a Dreamachine, the rotating flicker device he created with Ian Sommerville in 1960 and patented in 1961. The goal, explained Gysin, was to produce “A Chapel of Extreme Experience.” Although the New Museum in New York chose not to re-create Gysin’s optimal exhibition when it organized the artist’s first US retrospective, “Brion Gysin: Dream Machine,” which closed on October 3, all the elements of that ideal show, and more, could be found there.

The exhibition made short work of Gysin’s early years, dispatching his Surrealism of the 1930s and ’40s with a drawing and a book illustration and devoting equally little space to his visionary desert landscapes of the ’50s. Resisting any temptation to portray him primarily as a painter, curator Laura Hoptman foregrounded his multidisciplinary endeavors of the ’60s. Before confronting the first canvases, viewers encountered Brian Jones’s LP of the Master Musicians of Joujouka (to whom Gysin introduced both Jones and Ornette Coleman), Gysin’s expanded cinema performances of Le Domaine Poétique, and a monitor and a vitrine devoted to his permuted poetry. (Permutation, the serial rearrangement of discrete components, was one of Gysin’s enduring interests, related in his mind both to mysticism and to computer technology.) Several such vitrines, and the relatively large space devoted to the collages and mechanicals for the unpublished version of Gysin and William S. Burroughs’s collaboration The Third Mind (a manual for Gysin’s infamous cut-up method of dis- and rearticulating texts and images), sometimes gave the exhibition an archival feel, inducing the desire to leaf through its many glass-encased books and sketch pads.

A series of paintings from 1961, lining the back wall of the first gallery, evinced the two principal components of Gysin’s mature style (in all media): “silent script,” the abstract calligraphy he derived from Japanese and Arabic writing, and “machine drawing,” the grid he applied with an incised rubber brayer (wallpaper roller). Gysin’s grid connects him to but also distances him from that structure’s modernist lineage, for in his hands it generates qualities strict modernists suppress: depth, temporality, and, at times, reference (particularly to the Centre Pompidou’s facade, the subject of a couple of delicately tinted 1977 gouaches with photocollage). Ink drawings made under the influence of Timothy Leary’s psilocybin pills reveal at least one source of the paintings’ subtly but disquietingly acidic colors.

Arguably, the exhibition’s most compelling “paintings” were made for the Dreamachine: a fiery patterned cylinder of 1979 splayed out across the wall and a ghostly gouache on gray paper of 1964 that seems like its afterimage. Other, roughly meter-long paper bands ornamented by calligraphy (all 1961) recall the scroll A Trip from Here to There, 1958, purchased by Alfred Barr for the Museum of Modern Art, and foreshadow Gysin’s monumental last painting, Calligraffiti of Fire, 1985. Their stamped or stenciled “cells” invoke both the Dreamachine’s apertured cylinder and photographic film, a connection further specified in Gysin’s contact print compositions of the ’70s.


Brion Gysin, Pistol Poem, 1960. Recorded for the BBC.

A darkened gallery contains the Dreamachine while another screens The Cut Ups and Towers Open Fire (both 1963), movies on which Gysin collaborated with Burroughs and filmmaker Antony Balch. Particularly since the films have been readily available (on VHS, DVD, and the Web) for decades, it would have been nice to see the actual celluloid. Film’s physical characteristics—its existence on a reel (emphasized by Burroughs’s incantation over film canisters in Towers) and discrete cellular structure—relate to the Dreamachine’s rotating apertures, the roller-gridded paintings and notebook pages, the Third Mind photomontages (which, like film edited in the days of scissors-and-tape splicing, were produced by physical cutting), and the very model of thought that, Burroughs explained, “like a moving film . . . seems to be continuous while actually the thoughts flow stop change and flow again.” (Burroughs regarded Gysin’s paintings, similarly, as replicating the flickering, back-and-forth patterns of the brain’s neural firing.) Lost in the mediocre digital transfers were not only the visual impact of photographic superimposition, the flicker effect of quick editing, and the types of cross-media connections just mentioned, but also the opposition of film and television that materially and thematically underpins Towers Open Fire.

Criticizing the all-too-familiar curatorial neglect of the specificity of projected media (an oversight extendable to the projections supposedly replicating the atmosphere of Gysin’s performances) may seem trivial. Yet it is a shame, for the careless video transfers needlessly occluded the relations and resonances among the many different media in which Gysin worked and that the exhibition otherwise so clearly revealed. Part of what allowed the Dreamachine to counter the uniform neurophysiological and informational control that Gysin and his associates attributed to television was its material inconsistency. A turntable-mounted cylindrical “painting,” the apertures of which modulate lightbulb flicker to accompany Joujouka music or Throbbing Gristle: The experience of the Dreamachine was not synchronized for its viewers but rather by them. A similar task awaited the viewer of the exhibition, a show that at its best deftly demonstrated, rather than synthesized, the irreducible heterogeneity of Gysin’s oeuvre.

Branden W. Joseph is the Frank Gallipoli professor of Modern and Contemporary art at Columbia University.