getting high with king of the bowery john giorno

After “making it” with Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg in the 1960s, the iconic poet and visual artist returns with his first show in NYC in 15 years.

by Clarke Rudick
07 April 2015, 2:45pm

photography kathy lo

A day in the life of 78-year-old poet and visual artist John Giorno — at his three-apartment home at 222 Bowery in downtown Manhattan — usually unfolds in much the same way. He wakes up in his third floor loft, meditates, smokes a joint (or two), and writes for a few hours before making his way to his second floor studio to paint. "Marijuana is a writer's drug," Giorno says, acknowledging the smell. "My painter friends like to smoke when they've finished painting, but for a writer it's helpful."

His nights are reserved for watching movies online with his partner of 18 years, the artist Ugo Rondinone, or for champagne-fueled dinner parties in "The Bunker," his third apartment at 222 that once belonged to William S. Burroughs. Apart from adding a washer-dryer and a Tibetan Buddhist shrine, Giorno has left Burroughs' loft virtually untouched, down to the blacked-out windows. "Junkies don't like light," he notes.

Much like iconic spots The Cedar Tavern and The White Horse, 222 Bowery served as a gathering place for the downtown art set in the 1960s. Wynn Chamberlain regularly threw parties in his apartment on the top floor, happenings that attracted the likes of Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, "Bob" Rauschenberg and Giorno — then a recent graduate of Columbia University. Giorno would eventually move into the building himself in 1962, followed by Burroughs in 1966. "The scene was tiny!" Giorno says of his younger days. "In New York, it just unfolded and I was part of it." Giorno went on to become a fixture in the Pop Art and literary circles of the late 60s, starring in films by Andy Warhol and "making it" with just about all of the aforementioned artists in what he calls "The Golden Age of Promiscuity."

After a short time as a stockbroker on Wall Street following graduation (his parents suspended his allowance after getting word of his party-boy exploits), Giorno decided to pursue his passion for poetry full time. Still, he struggles to define exactly what it is that he does. "I'm a poet. I'm not sure what that is," he confesses, "but it's working with words, it comes out of your mind, and you write it down."

Giorno is most famous perhaps for his paintings, pop art made in collaboration with graphic designer Mark Michaelson and featuring bold text that extends his urgent, free-associative poetry beyond the page. "These things work because they're so brief you almost don't read them," Giorno explains, gesturing towards a set of oversized rainbow works hanging on the wall of his studio. "They become iconic."

Similar paintings, drawings and watercolors are included in John Giorno: Space Forgets You, the artist's first show in New York City in 15 years, now on view at Elizabeth Dee Gallery. With lines like "LIFE IS A KILLER" and "I WANT TO CUM IN YOUR HEART" rendered in bold, sans-serif font across the brightly colored canvases, Giorno's work doesn't take itself too seriously. "It's a reflection of culture," Giorno says of his paintings. "The words are a mirror and [the viewer is] recognizing something in themselves. It has nothing to do with me."

Poet, painter, performer — Giorno wears many hats, but perhaps his most important work has transpired in the political arena. At the beginning of his career, Giorno admits that he didn't fancy himself much of an activist. It wasn't until he befriended Burroughs and read Allen Ginsberg's epic poem Howl that he learned to be outspoken. "The art scene wasn't very political at all. And then William Burroughs comes to New York in January of 65 and I get politically radicalized! Burroughs had a metaphor: 'language is like a virus'…That was strong."

Giorno spent much of the 80s selling recordings of his poems and performing in order to raise money for patients dying of HIV/AIDS, in what he remembers as a rather improvised fashion. "The way one had great sex in the Golden Age of Promiscuity was you just 'made it' if you wanted to! You should help people in the same fashion."

These days, the artist prefers to practice his own more understated form of activism. "I've internalized everything," Giorno remarks. "I work every day so it appears in my work however it comes up." The next place Giorno's singular brand of activism-through-art will crop up is in I Love John Giorno by Ugo Rondinone, a retrospective of Giorno's career opening later this year at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. "It's a creation of Ugo's!" Giorno exclaims, his eyes lighting up. "He's taken all of the Palais de Tokyo and divided it into 10 chapters. It's my life!"

There is one thing, however, that Giorno just might be looking forward to more than his show at the Palais. "I like hotel rooms the best. All of your habits are broken and you have room service and a day or two to smoke a couple of joints. For me, that's really great."

"John Giorno: Space Forgets You" is on view through May 9 at Elizabeth Dee Gallery, 545 West 20th Street. Giorno will perform at the gallery on Friday, May 8, at 6:30pm.


Text Clarke Rudick
Photography Kathy Lo

Andy Warhol
William Burroughs
making it
John Giorno