I never met Brion Gysin unfortunately. I got to know about him from Terry Wilson’s book “Here to Go”. David Medalla spoke to me about Brion Gysin quite often. It was a request from José Férez, who was producing his book on Gysin published by T&H, to write something on Gysin’s calligraphic paintings which introduced me to his visual work.
Gysin himself realised that, by choice or circumstance, he lacked some of the attributes of what would normally be considered the professional artist: “How can one truly be considered a painter if one doesn’t even have one’s own studio?”, he asked. It is true that his body of visual work is slender and belongs to one or two periods of intense production. But it is also true that these productions, especially the paintings and drawings of the late 1950s and early 60s do not look like the spin-offs or traces of some species of ‘live work’. Nor do they look like the side-activities of someone who was basically a writer. They have autonomy. They have method. They evolved in a sustained period of powerful concentration, experiment and thought.
Gysin was obviously a very experimental man, in life and in art: Yet he also seems to have been a man with a large component of self-deprecating humour. He even remonstrated with his friend William Burroughs’s extravagant and absolutist description of him as a character whose thought “leaves no room for compromise”. He came back with an elegant rejoinder, Points of Order, in which he said his very existence was a compromise. “I AM … a compromise between the sexes in a dualistic universe”:
Wrong address! Wrong address! There’s been a mistake in the mail. Send me back. Wherever you got me, return me. Wrong time, wrong place, wrong colour!
Against Burroughs’s apocalyptic version, one might set Hamri’s more modest appraisal: “He had a multifaceted philosophy and he was always ready to explore, appreciate and honour life. That was his great secret.
I believe Brion Gysin’s calligraphic paintings and drawings can be related to a large body of work which emerged in the late 1950s and early 60s, independently in different parts of the world, which was concerned simultaneously with ‘cosmic speculation’ and the interconnection between writing and painting in the creation of the sign.
This combination of writing and painting took many forms. Gysin stressed that he “never learned [calligraphy] properly”, either Japanese or Arabic. “Really the only thing that I got out of it was the way of holding a brush, and the use of a brush, and the language of a brush, and … the whole business of running ink onto the paper.” If he had learned Arabic properly, he thought, “I would have been writing sacred texts … and I didn’t want to be doing that. [...] I just insisted to myself that I had to be inventive.” The combined sources of Japanese calligraphy, Arabic script and gestural abstraction, joined with the traces of Gysin’s brief sojourn with Surrealism in the 1930s, especially his experiments with Oscar Dominguez’s Decalcamonie, a form of automatism connected less with writing or with image association, than with ‘anti-form’, mess, letting go, the attempt to obtain traces of the universal flux.
As well as signs which have meaning within language systems, Gysin was interested early on in pure fluctuations of density and energy in the visual field. He was deeply impressed by the desert on his first visits to Morocco. A number of his pre-calligraphic paintings obliterate the horizon line between sky and earth to produce a single field, an ‘all-over’ of shimmering densities.
He combined this nebulosity with the Japanese vertical direction and the Arabic horizontal direction of writing to form a grid.
These elements come together in continuously changing relationships in the outpouring of paintings and drawings Gysin made between about 1959 and 1961 in Paris. In these paintings, in an intricate weave, the linear grid is sometimes prominent, sometimes obscure, as it advances and recedes in relation to the calligraphic marks, and vague painterly marks of nebulosity. The advance-recede dynamic is an important principle since it allows something resembling a coherent sign, or sense, continually to emerge from and fall back into an undifferentiated flux.
Kathelin has talked in detail about Calligraffiti of Fire (1985), a great work in every sense which we are fortunate to see for the first time here in England. In the statement he made about this painting Gysin remarked that he was still looking for his sign, “a sign of my own derived from the cursive Japanese so-sho, called ‘grass writing’. I looked deep into plant forms and found what I wanted in the soja sprout whose explosive power can overturn monuments”.
This is fascinating and reveals a further layer of Gysin’s visual work. Alois Reigl in his book Problems of Style, in which he deals with the whole question of ornament in the history of art, remarks that, in the realm of ornament, the Greek’s most characteristic, autonomous and influential invention was the tendril. This primordial plant form with its “lovely undulating form” is really the lietmotif of his book. Interestingly, Maori ornamentation has a similar archaic motif which they call the Koru, which is based on the coiled sprouting fern and is used on the tail fins of Air New Zealand jets.
In the Calligraffiti of Fire Gysin plays with both the vivacious sprout and the rational grid.
In his visual work, he joins that large and diverse group of artists who at that time were experimenting with the grid, the multi-directional reading, the all-over composition, the atomisation of form, and random ordering.
It is however hard to escape the ambivalence in Brion Gysin’ work between the liberating aspects of trance – and here we think of the Dream Machine – , letting go, dissolving the self, surrendering to chance, and the controlling structure of the cellular grid. Perhaps he himself faced an inner dilemma in his own practice between inspiration and falling back on a formula. In later works of the 1970s he identifies the grid with the uniform facades of the modern urban environment (high rises, specifically the Centre Pompidou near where he was living, then under construction),
Still, he played with these two poles in some kind of fluid interrelationship, perhaps in order escape from rigid and absolutist thinking. For didn’t he take the ultimate monolithic, monotheistic, Jehovah-like statement of identity – “I am that I am” – and permutate it as a sound poem, discovering within it an infinite series of queries and possibilities: “I am THAT am I?”, “I that am am I”, “Am I that I am?”, and so on?
So Everything is Possible, and thank you Kathelin Gray, Chilli Hawes, Elizabeth Lalouschek and the October Gallery for organising this beautiful exhibition.