Every person can look back on their life and see a great opera,” said artist, activist and poet John Giorno about his own extraordinary life. Giorno became enveloped in the New York art world after a brief but significant romance with Andy Warhol, during which he appeared as the subject of Warhol’s first film, “Sleep,” in 1963. Giorno created poetry, paintings, film and installations in his studio on the Bowery for over 50 years until his death in October 2019 at the age of 82.
He is best known for melding his poetry with more tactile and interactive mediums. In 1968, “Dial-a-Poem” encouraged people to call in to hear his friends and fellow artists read poetry recorded from live performances. His well-known, ultragraphic text paintings of the last few decades, rendered in the crisp type Mark Michaelson developed for him in 1984, feature succinct and stirring passages excerpted from his poetry.
Giorno was a pioneer among pioneers, an artist’s artist. He was an openly gay, Buddhist, sex-positive artist working in a time when gay artists remained closeted for fear of losing patrons. He remained a constant in a flash-in-the-pan scene. In his memoir, Great Demon Kings: A Memoir of Poetry, Sex, Art, Death, and Enlightenment (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), completed just before his death, the artist recounts his years spent creating with the likes of Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and countless other “It” people in the revolving door of New York artists. His final exhibition, DO THE UNDONE, opened at Sperone Westwater on the Bowery just before his death—a fitting location for the lifelong Lower East Side resident.
Main image: John Giorno, “PREFER CRYING IN A LIMO TO LAUGHING ON A BUS” (2019)