Brion Gysin, artist, traveller, writer and alchemist; one of the unsung English painters of the 20th Century, expelled by Breton from the Surrealists, and the seminal influence who introduced William Burroughs to the use of permutations and cut-ups in writing. He remains today one of the unsung prophets of this century, a master magician whose methods can be applied by anyone, in any time and in any place.
John Clifford Brian Gysin was born at Taplow House, England, a Canadian military hospital. His mother, Stella Margaret Martin, was a Canadian from Deseronto, Ontario. His father, Leonard Gysin, a captain with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, was killed in action eight months after his son's birth. Stella returned to Canada and settled in Edmonton, Alberta where her son became "the only Catholic day-boy at an Anglican boarding school". Graduating at fifteen, Gysin was sent to Downside School in Stratton-on-the-Fosse, nearBath, Somerset in England, a prestigious college known as "the Eton of Catholic public schools" run by the Benedictines.
In 1934, he moved to Paris to study La Civilisation Française, an open course given at the Sorbonne where he made literary and artistic contacts through Marie Berthe Aurenche, Max Ernst's second wife. He joined the Surrealist Group and began frequenting Valentine Hugo, Leonor Fini,Salvador Dalí, Picasso and Dora Maar. A year later, he had his first exhibition at the Galerie Quatre Chemins in Paris with Ernst, Picasso, Hans Arp,Hans Bellmer, Victor Brauner, Giorgio de Chirico, Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, Man Ray and Yves Tanguy. On the day of the preview, however, he was expelled from the Surrealist Group by André Breton who ordered the poet Paul Éluard to take down his pictures. Gysin was 19 years old. His biographer, John Geiger, suggests the arbitrary expulsion "had the effect of a curse. Years later, he blamed other failures on the Breton incident. It gave rise to conspiracy theories about the powerful interests who seek control of the art world. He gave various explanations for the expulsion, the more elaborate involving 'insubordination' or lèse majesté towards Breton".
After World War II
After serving in the U.S. army during World War II, Gysin published a biography of Josiah "Uncle Tom" Henson titled, To Master, a Long Goodnight: The History of Slavery in Canada (1946). A gifted draughtsman, he took an 18-month course learning the Japanese language (including calligraphy) that would greatly influence his artwork. In 1949, he was among the first Fulbright Fellows. His goal: to research the history of slavery at the University of Bordeaux and in the Archivo de Indias in Seville, Spain, a project that he later abandoned. He moved to Tangier, Morocco after visiting the city with novelist and composer Paul Bowles in 1950.
Morocco and the Beat Hotel
In 1954 in Tangier, Gysin opened a restaurant called "The 1001 Nights", with his friend Mohamed Hamri, who was the cook. Gysin hired the Master Musicians of Jajouka from the village of Jajouka to perform alongside entertainment that included acrobats, a dancing boy and fire eaters. The musicians performed there for an international clientele that included William S. Burroughs. Gysin lost the business in 1958, and the restaurant closed permanently. That same year, Gysin returned to live in Paris, taking lodgings in a flophouse located at 9 rue Gît-le-Coeur that would become famous as the Beat Hotel. Working on a drawing, he discovered a Dada technique by accident:
William Burroughs and I first went into techniques of writing, together, back in room No. 15 of the Beat Hotel during the cold Paris spring of 1958... Burroughs was more intent on Scotch-taping his photos together into one great continuum on the wall, where scenes faded and slipped into one another, than occupied with editing the monster manuscript... Naked Lunch appeared and Burroughs disappeared. He kicked his habit with apomorphine and flew off to London to see Dr Dent, who had first turned him on to the cure. While cutting a mount for a drawing in room No. 15, I sliced through a pile of newspapers with my Stanley blade and thought of what I had said to Burroughs some six months earlier about the necessity for turning painters' techniques directly into writing. I picked up the raw words and began to piece together texts that later appeared as "First Cut-Ups" in Minutes to Go (Two Cities, Paris 1960).
When Burroughs returned from London in September 1959, Gysin not only shared his discovery with his friend but the new techniques he had developed for it. Burroughs then put the techniques to use while completing Naked Lunch and the experiment dramatically changed the landscape ofAmerican literature. Gysin helped Burroughs with the editing of several of his novels including Interzone, and wrote a script for a film version of Naked Lunch which was never produced. The pair collaborated on a large manuscript for Grove Press titled The Third Mind but it was determined that it would be impractical to publish it as originally envisioned. The book later published under that title incorporates little of this material. Interviewed forThe Guardian in 1997, Burroughs explained that Gysin was "the only man that I've ever respected in my life. I've admired people, I've liked them, but he's the only man I've ever respected."  In 1969, Gysin completed his finest novel, The Process, a work judged by critic Robert Palmer as "a classic of 20th century modernism".
A consummate innovator, Gysin altered the cut-up technique to produce what he called permutation poems in which a single phrase was repeated several times with the words rearranged in a different order with each reiteration. An example of this is "I don't dig work, man/Man, work I don't dig." Many of these permutations were derived using a random sequence generator in an early computer program written by Ian Sommerville. Commissioned by the BBC in 1960 to produce material for broadcast, Gysin's results included "Pistol Poem", which was created by recording a gun firing at different distances and then splicing the sounds. That year, the piece was subsequently used as a theme for the Paris performance of Le Domaine Poetique, a showcase for experimental works by people like Gysin, François Dufrêne, Bernard Heidsieck, and Henri Chopin.
With Sommerville, he built the Dreamachine in 1961. Described as "the first art object to be seen with the eyes closed", the flicker device usesalpha waves in the 8-16 Hz range to produce a change of consciousness in receptive viewers.
He recorded an album in 1986 with French musician Ramuntcho Matta, featuring himself singing/rapping his own texts, with performances by Don Cherry, Elli Medeiros, Steve Lacy, Lizzy Mercier Descloux and more. The album was reissued on CD in 1993 by Crammed Discs, under the titleSelf-Portrait Jumping.
As a joke, Gysin contributed a recipe for marijuana fudge to a cookbook by Alice B. Toklas; it was unintentionally included for publication, becoming famous under the name Alice B. Toklas brownies.
Made an American Commander of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1985, Gysin died a year later of lung cancer on July 13, 1986. An obituary by Robert Palmer published in The New York Times fittingly described him as a man who "threw off the sort of ideas that ordinary artists would parlay into a lifetime career, great clumps of ideas, as casually as a locomotive throws off sparks".
Interviews & Excerpts
- Interview with Terry Wilson, from Here to Go: Planet R-101
- Brion Gysin Interview with John Savage, Paris
- Brion Gysin Interviewed by Genesis P-Orridge and Peter (Sleazy) Christopherson
- Across the space
- The Magic
- The sands of Present Time
- Drowning … Awakening
Essays & Stories
- Major article on Brion Gysin by Ian MacFadyen on Realitystudio.org
- Brion Gysin: Bigger Than Life (ArtsJournal, NPR)
- What Does Brion Gysin’s Art Mean?
- Composer Richard Horowitz (Score for ‘Sheltering Sky’, ‘Any Given Sunday’), on Brion Gysin, 2008.
- Machine Tool (artnet)
- The Unkown Loved by the Known (New York Times)
- “With Failure as an Ingredient, He Made His Own Magic” (New York Times)