The Mixed Media Column from the April 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard
The William S Burroughs’ All Out of Time and into Space exhibition at the October Gallery in London recently showcased his abstract expressionist paintings, drawings and talismanic art objects created in Lawrence, Kansas in the last years of the life of the writer who Mailer hailed as ‘possessed by genius.’
Orpheus Don’t Look Back (1990) can be seen as key to his artistic creativity: Burroughs as artistic outlaw in the lineage of Villon, Rimbaud’s ‘derangement of the senses’ and Baudelaire’s soaring ‘heaven or hell’ who visits the underworld of junkies, pimps and thieves and returns, although tragically Burroughs killed Eurydice, his wife Joan, in 1951.
Self Portrait (1987) is a vague representation and recalls Burroughs’ nickname in Tangier, ‘El hombre invisible,’ when he turned his back on his bourgeois upbringing and Harvard education, advocating Hassan I Sabbah’s dictum: ‘Nothing is true, Everything is permitted,’ and his heroin addiction inspired the writing of his novel Naked Lunch published in 1959.
Death by Lethal Injection (1990) highlights Burroughs’ antipathy towards to all forms of control and authoritarianism be they political, economic, religious or sexual; his rejection of the puritan morality of bourgeois Christian civilisation and his aim to ‘make people aware of the true criminality of our times.’
Radiant Cat (1988) is a red, green and yellow dayglo painting. The Burroughs ‘weltanschauung’ was shaped by the Atomic bomb and the Cold War world of the military industrial complex. Burroughs was influenced by Spengler’s Decline of the West, Vico’s circular theory of history (Marx: ‘a whole mass of really inspired stuff ‘) and Wilhelm Reich’s Cancer Biopathy.
Untitled (1988) is spray paint and gunshots on a ‘No Trespassing’ metal sign. Burroughs opposed rapacious capitalism, detested social class and was an egalitarian with anarchistic and Emersonian individualist traits. He wrote that the Industrial Revolution with its ‘quantity and quantitative criterion’ was a ‘death trap’. He saw that international capitalism ‘always creates as many insoluble conflicts as possible and always aggravates existing conflicts.’
The Prison Scribe (1990) is a paint and photo collage depicting Madagascar Lemurs, highlighting his growing concern for the planet, ecology and the environment.
23 (1992) is marker pen and gunshots on watercolour paper and refers to the ’23 enigma,’ which is a key to understanding the Burroughs universe where ‘synchronicity’ unlocks the dead thermodynamic ‘hostile war universe of winners and losers.’
Burroughs wrote in Nova Express (1964): ‘Listen all you boards, governments, syndicates, nations of the world / And you powers behind what filth deals consummated in what lavatories, / To take what is not yours, / To sell out your sons forever! To sell the ground from unborn feet forever?’