Home Magazine The legacy of Brion Gysin that you need to know about!

Brion Gysin was a painter, performer, poet, writer and mystic. He worked on the fringes of the art world for most of his career and was an inspiration to many, including Keith Haring, George Condo, Sue de Beer, Patti Smith, and others, who have credited him for being an important influence to their work.

He is best known for his discovery of the "Cut-Up" technique, used by his friend and close collaborator, the novelist William S. Burroughs. Using a collage technique of randomly cut and arranged texts, Gysin developed the "Cut-Ups", which Burroughs then adopted for his novels. Despite often crediting Gysin with the concept, the process remains mostly attributed to the Burroughs. In many ways, the technique anticipated the internet's impact on the way we process and break down information and assign meaning to symbols and words.

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Despite establishing a creative practice that went on to influence some of the century's most important artists, Gysin has remained in relative anonymity. His obscurity is in stark contrast to that of Burroughs', whose novels went on to become counterculture bibles and must-reads for teenagers of the era. Discover more about Brion Gysin on Kooness...


“The Third Mind,” by Gysin and Burroughs. Credit Los Angeles County Museum of Art


Gysin was born in England in 1916 and was introduced into Surrealist circles early on in his teens while studying at the Sorbonne. He met Burroughs in Morocco and the two moved to Paris together in 1958 where they began experimenting with the cut-up technique. This involved words and phrases literally cut up into small pieces and re-assembled to dissociate them from their meanings to reveal new ones. They went on to publish "The Third Mind", a book-length collage on the possibilities of the practice, that served as a guide to many. During the war, Gysin settled in New York City where be began writing. In the late 1940s, he went to Morocco, where he was enchanted with Moroccan music, magic rituals, hashish and Arabic calligraphy, which became a central element in his painting. Some of the biggest works he went on to produce are on large and colourful abstract canvases, where linear gestures inspired by Arabic scripture vibrate against shapes in similar tones. This use of language, in the form of abstract lettering, recalls some of his contemporaries at the time like Cy Twombly and Chryssa. His largest and most ambitious work was "Calligraffiti of Fire" (1985): an impressive 16.4-metre work of glowing spectacles in orange and yellow calligraphic strokes covering a wide yellow canvas.


An untitled Gysin collage from 1977. Credit The New Museum


Brion Gysin, right, with William S. Burroughs. Credit Charles Gatewood


During the 1960s, Gysin continued to produce a series of calligraphic paintings and drawings that he started in Morocco. Being fluent in Arabic and Japanese, his script-like canvases attempted to merge writing and painting into a singular system of mark-making. Following a grid formation, he filled canvases with a dense pattern of abstract language making marks from top to bottom and left to right. 

Also in the 1960s, Gysin worked closely with Ian Sommerville, a mathematician and computer scientist at Oxford. They attempted to digitize the shift and change of words and sounds by computerising them, naming their experiments "Permutations". Works like Pistol Poem, which was mainly gunshots recorded at different distances, as well as the poem 'I Am That I Am', made Gysin a pioneer in sound poetry. Fully embracing computer technology during a time when its practice was reserved for scientists, Gysin considered his work on par with that of a machine. He went on to form across Europe, along with music and handcrafted slide projections. 

He continued working with Sommerville and together they developed the Dreamachine: a cylinder with slits cut in the sides and a suspended light bulb in its center, placed on a record turntable rotating at 78 revolutions per minute. The rotation projects light at a constant frequency of eight to thirteen pulses per second, which reflect alpha waves in the human brain during wakeful relaxation. The flickering light induces a trance-like hallucinatory state. This was the culmination of Gysin's practice, and he believed that the Dreamachine would eclipse television. Burroughs agreed, thinking that it could be used to 'storm the citadels of enlightenment. With the Dreamachine, images were free from representation. It was officially unveiled in 1962 at the Museé des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, with some critical acclaim but not the degree that Gysin had anticipated.


Brion Gysin with his Dreamachine. Credit Chapman/The Image Works


In many ways, Dreamachine appears as a somehow prosaic attempt to recreate the effects of drugs rather than act as a useful tool. It was never fully embraced in the art world and was ultimately rejected by MoMA director Alfred J. Barr, who dismissed it as a work of passé kinetic sculpture in 1962. It went on to show that Gysin was indeed a visionary but perhaps with an incomplete vision. Nevertheless, the artist's legacy shows plenty of evidence of his unique accomplishments that influenced many and one can't help but admire the breadth of his unorthodox and multifaceted oeuvre. 

Stay Tuned on Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the art world.

Cover image: Brion Gysin, right, with William S. Burroughs and the Dream Machine.


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