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23 June 2017
Morning Sedition

And Burroughs Said, Snick, Snick…Bang!
And there was art.

After a shooting spree, they always want to take the guns away from the people who didn't do it.

— William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs with shotgun

William S. Burroughs with Shotgun

10 Gauge City by William S. Burroughs

"10 Gauge City" by William S. Burroughs

In addition to being an avante garde writer, William S. Burroughs was also an avante garde artist:

Using a variety of tools like spatulas, Ouija board pieces, and even a .45 Smith and Wesson handgun, William S. Burroughs was always creating art.

...

Nelson said her favorite pieces in the exhibition are "Something New Has Been Added," the Steadman and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" artist, lithograph. Burroughs shot the lithograph six times with a .45 long colt Smith and Wesson handgun and then signed it.

Words, Guns and Art, by Tony Herrman, Kansas State Collegian, 18 September 2003

The discovery of the shotgun's potential as a paintbrush was purely accidental. But, then again, knowing how Burroughs lived, one could say his whole life was one creative accident, and that any day nobody died in the name of art was a good one. Anyway, Burroughs says he was shooting his shotgun — he loved guns, despite having killed his wife in a William-Tell style "accident" — at plywood. Finding the damage to be an intricate and attractive type of abstract art, he began loading shooting paint into shotgun shells and firing them into plywood and agumenting the splatters. Here's the actual process from someone who heard Burroughs describe it:

The gallery directors said something in French and then in English, and then Burroughs answered questions:

With a shotgun, yes.

Twelve-gauge.

No, you take the buckshot out, for god’s sake. You put the paint in the shells.

No, I only keep the good ones. I throw the others out.

Yes, you select the right part. You choose.

No, it’s not random.

Yes, the process is random. You can’t tell what you’ll see until you pull the trigger.

Well, no, you choose the right one. It’s not random. I choose the pictures I like. You have to do a lot before you get to the good ones.

Yes, it’s art.

Because I choose among them. Aren’t you listening? Every artist chooses. You choose all the time. That’s what art is.

Yes, I sign them. Jesus. No more questions.

"One Blow Job Away" by Michel Basilières, Maisonneuve Magazine, Issue 10, July 2004

William S. Burroughs and David Goodrich

William S. Burroughs and David Goodrich

The artist David Goodrich has an amusing anecdote about making shotgun art with Burroughs.

A bit later Burroughs gave me a call. He said that he’d done some experiments with shooting through magazine pages mounted to panels, and he liked the results. Therefore, he had decided, he would like to shoot my painting after all. I was elated. And so it was on Easter Sunday of ‘87 that he phoned and said he was in the mood to go shooting, and invited me along.

At his place we had to wait for Bill Rich to arrive. They had a shortage of shotgun shells, and, being Easter, there would be no place open to buy any. Therefore we stopped by the house of James Grauerholz on our way out of town, where I showed my painting to James, Michael, and some young girl that was there. We got our shells and went on to the Outhouse, a place outside of town, a small brick building, which, at the time, was a punk rock venue run by Bill Rich, I believe. They kept bails of hay there, which were used by Burroughs to lean panels against to accept the shot. He had a piece of his own to shoot, one of those 3-d postcards that he had attached to a panel. He shot this several times, once or twice with a splatter of paint. He had forgotten his staple gun, and so we had to beat nails into the panel with a rock we found to hold these baggies in place. Once he was happy with his project he offered to shoot mine, and so I pulled it from the trunk of my car. We beat a baggie of yellow paint onto the spot that I wanted shot, leaned it against the hay, and I stood back while the old guy put a hole right through it. He walked up to it, took a close look at the splatter he’d made, and said “It looks like an owl.”

We shot a few more things and I took a few photos, then we cleaned up our mess and I dropped him back at his place. Now I was happy. It had worked out just as I’d wanted.

David Goodrich's anecdote about making shotgun paintings with William S. Burroughs

Painting 'Something New Has Been Added' by Ralph Steadman

"Something New Has Been Added" by Ralph Steadman, 1995
Serigraph on paper with shotgun holes by WSB

Burrough's collaboration with the famed gonzo artist Ralph Steadman seems, at the same time, both obvious and peculiar.

In the late 1980s this life-long interest in visual art flared up in a series of surprisingly colourful, accessible and only-slightly-evening-classy paintings by Burroughs himself. Some consisted of painted plywood doors with jagged gunshot holes in them ... "The shotgun blast releases the little spirits compacted into the layers of wood, releases the colours of the paints to splash them out in unforseen images and patterns," he wrote. It is also, perhaps not irrelevantly, just about the most violent thing you can do to a painted surface without incinerating it completely.

...

The collaboration with Burroughs is a new way of nourishing his American roots. It was Steadman's idea. "I wanted to do a print with his express pleasure in mind," he says. He had met Burroughs only twice before, very briefly each time, but had long been a fan of his writing and also admired the shot-through doors which Burroughs exhibited in London in the 1980s. "My idea was that I make the print and he shoots the hell out of it and we sign it together."

Burroughs okayed the project, and the key meeting took place last May [1995] in Burroughs' clapboard house in the nondescript college town of Lawrence, Kansas, where he has lived for some 15 years. Meetings between celebrated artists must often be like this: swarms of assistants, acolytes, relatives, parasites, somebody taping the whole thing on video, another person with a Leica, flunkies, tripping over each other. Burroughs, bent double as he is, retains a jerky, relentless vigour, riffling through the prints Steadman has brought along, pulling revolvers out of his pocket and demonstrating the workings of the safety mechanisms, steadily chugging on a long beaker of vodka and Coke that is regularly replenished.

Bill and Ralph's Excellent Adventure by Peter Popham, The Sunday Review, 3 March 1996

Traveler on the Yellow Wave by William S. Burroughs

"Traveler on the Yellow Wave" by William S. Burroughs, 1982
Paint on Plywood with Shotgun holes.

But is it art? Is it acceptible to use tools to generate art? Of course it is; why wouldn't it be? There's a long tradition in using random processes to make art:

The first use of randomization in the arts that I am aware of is an invention by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart provides 176 measures of prepared music and a grid that maps the throw of a pair of dice, and a sequence number (first throw, second throw, etc) into the numbers 1 through 176. The player creates a composition by making a sequence of random dice throws, and assembling the corresponding measures in a sequential score. Perhaps Mozart knew intuitively that purely random music isn’t terribly interesting because he found a primitive way to mix order and disorder. The short pre-composed measures provide order, and the throw of the dice provide disorder.

Randomization in the arts came into its own primarily in the 20th century. As a young artist Elsworth Kelly used inexpensive materials such as children’s construction paper along with chance methods to create colorful collages. He was inspired to do this after observing the random patchworks that would develop in the repair of cabana tents on the French Rivera.

The writer William Burroughs famously used his Dada inspired “cut-up” technique to randomize creative writing. Less well known are Burroughs experiments in visual art using shotgun blasts to randomly scatter paint on, and partially destroy, plywood supports.

Occasionally Carl Andre would use a random spill technique rather than his more typical highly ordered assembly system.

Certainly one of the most famous advocates for the random selection of sounds in music was John Cage.

In the era of computer-generated art the use of pseudo-random number generators becomes perhaps the most popular digital generative technique.

"What is Generative Art? Complexity Theory as a Context for Art Theory" by Philip Galanter

Generative art can be used to attack these fundamental points head on. First, generative artists can explore form as something other than arbitrary social convention. Using complex systems artists can create form that emerges as the result of naturally occurring processes beyond the influence of culture and man.

Second, having done this, generative artists can demonstrate by compelling example reasons to maintain faith in our ability to understand our world. The generative artist can remind us that the universe itself is a generative system. And through generative art we can regain our sense of place and participation in that universe.

"What is Generative Art? Complexity Theory as a Context for Art Theory" by Philip Galanter

Cover for Seven Deadly Sins book

TitleThe Seven Deadly Sins
AuthorWilliam S. Burroughs
ISBN0934953368
PublisherWater Row Books

Color plates, each illustrating one of the seven deadly sins, with accompanying text. Art was produced using a twelve-gauge shotgun technique on mylar and wood blocks.

TitleConcrete & Buckshot: William S. Burroughs Paintings 1987-1996
AuthorTimothy Leary and Benjamin Weissman
ISBN1889195014
PublisherSmart Art Press

This catalogue focuses on Burroughs’s achievement as a painter and includes concrete poetry written by legendary twentieth-century philosopher cum pop-culture guru Timothy Leary shortly before his death. Adding meat to this Burroughs/Leary sandwich is artist and writer Benjamin Weissman’s "Sad but Happy," a Burroughs-esque literary adventure into the dark side.

Smart Art Press caption for Concrete and Buckshot

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Bill and Ralph's Excellent Adventure by Peter Popham, The Sunday Review, 3 March 1996
  2. What is Generative Art? Complexity Theory as a Context for Art Theory by Philip Galanter
  3. Words, Guns and Art, by Tony Herrman, Kansas State Collegian, 18 September 2003
  4. Smart Art Press caption for Concrete and Buckshot
  5. Concrete & Buckshot: William S. Burroughs Paintings 1987-1996 by Timothy Leary and Benjamin Weissman
  6. The Seven Deadly Sins by William S. Burroughs

Yes, it’s art. Because I choose among them. Aren’t you listening? Every artist chooses. You choose all the time. That’s what art is.

William S. Burroughs, "One Blow Job Away" by Michel Basilières, Maisonneuve Magazine, Issue 10, July 2004

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