Gay Times December 08 - Issue 363
Grandpa From Hell
Junkie, queer, wife-killer, guerrilla novelist: William S Burroughs was always an outlaw. Yet, as a new exhibition reveals, he was also an icon for gay artists
More from Gay Times December 08 - Issue 363
The elderly man in the photograph holds the .22 rifle firmly against his shoulder, cheek pressed tight against the stock as he takes aim at something out of frame. With his unbuttoned waistcoat and wide-brimmed hat he looks like a Midwest farmer in his Sunday best, picking off a few of the crows in his cornfield before heading off to church in his pick-up truck.
Few who didn't already know would guess that the man is actually William S Burroughs, the uncompromising novelist who shot up heroin, shot his wife and shot into literary history as one of America's most famed and reviled writers after the publication in 1959 of his censor-baiting dirty book Naked Lunch.
Robert Mapplethorpe's striking photograph of Burroughs is just one exhibit in the GSK Contemporary show that's running at the Royal Academy of Art in London from November. The second part of the exhibition, Collision Course (showing from mid-December to January 16th) includes some of Burroughs's collaborations with artists like Mapplethorpe, Brion Gysin, Keith Haring, George Condo and David Hockney.
This maverick author's relationship to the art world has always been fascinating, especially since it offered him a degree of acceptance that his literary peers often denied him. Anyone who's ever read any of Burroughs's work won't be surprised to learn that he was reviled by critics, both gay and straight. His novels, chock full of heroin addiction, outlandish CIA conspiracy theories and lashings of stiff-dicked porno prose, featuring auto-erotic hangings and talking assholes, offended many. Among the haters was eminent poet Dame Edith Sitwell, who haughtily complained after reading Naked Lunch that she didn't like having "my nose nailed to other people's lavatories. I prefer Chanel Number 5."
Burroughs was just too – to use today's parlance – un-PC in his misogyny ("Women have poison juices"), vocal dislike of effeminacy, and predatory fantasies about young boys who were (at best) on the cusp of the age of consent.
For many gay artists, though, his edgy, uncompromisingly personal approach to art and life has exerted a lingering fascination. While better known as a novelist, Burroughs was also himself a keen artist. He collaborated with Surrealist painter Gysin in the 1960s, and spent his twilight years in Kansas making "shotgun art" with the help of his gun collection. Looking back, Burroughs was a multimedia artist before anyone had even coined the term. In the '60s, he claimed that "writing is 50 years behind painting", and tried to "rub out the word" through his infamous "cut up" method and his experiments with film and audio tape recordings.
Graffiti artist Keith Haring, who met Burroughs in New York in 1983, was among those who felt the writer's influence. Best-known for his pop art Aids activism and family-friendly images of radiant babies, Haring went on to paint For William Burroughs with Love and Admiration in 1987. It's a porno holocaust of naked bodies, sperm-like squiggles and penis-nosed gargoyles shoving their over-sized schnozzles into male vaginas (you'll have to trust us on that last bit). Later he collaborated with Burroughs on Apocalypse (1988), a mind-bending combo of chaotic lithographic prints and prose that presented the end of the world as a psychedelic carnival of "flaming colours."
Other artists have been just as fascinated by the man as his work. Burroughs's image has infected other artist's worlds like one of the viruses he loved to talk about. David Hockney's sketch of Burroughs in a flat cap hints at the sartorial enigma of its subject. Despite his reputation as mad, bad and dangerous to know, Burroughs never looked the part. Instead, he cultivated an anonymously respectable appearance with a wardrobe of conservative suits that he dubbed his "banker drag." His desire to pass unnoticed prompted the rent boys of Tangiers to call him El Hombre Invisible (The Invisible Man). Perhaps it was a hangover from growing up in an America where the gay closet was always crammed full. It became part of the Burroughs legend: how could this elderly, well-dressed man be such a terror? Not for nothing did Burroughs call himself "The Grandpa from Hell".
This strange tension is something played on in several of Mapplethorpe's photos. One snapshot shows him dressed in formal black tie, lost in thought, hands clasped like a priest at prayer; another captures him beside an ancient desk and a battered, ribbon typewriter – the tools of his subversive trade. In both we can tease out the gulf between the man in the flesh and the legend that he weaved around himself. The irony isn't lost on us. For all his iconoclasm, William S Burroughs was more than happy to become an icon himself.
Collision Course is at Royal Academy of Arts, 6 Burlington Gdns, London, (08716 204 020), from mid-Dec-Jan 16th, www.royalacademy.org.uk/gskcontemporary
Words: Jamie Russell