In which Burroughs tries a “new” medium

William Burroughs’s approach to the visual arts is nearly inextricable from his cut-up. The cut-up technique emerges from the serendipitous visual association of sections or lines of text, and Burroughs had long been creating visual collages using his own manuscripts. While in Tangier in the 1950s, he had begun making photo-collages, which only existed as photographs themselves. He wrote to Brion Gysin of this process: “Make collage of photographs, drawings, newspapers, etc. Now take picture of the collage. Now make collage of the pictures. Take-cut-take-cut, you got it?” Burroughs kept scrapbooks of collages, which combined handwritten notes, accounts of dreams, newspaper clippings, and photographs. One of these, Scrapbook 3, was published in 1979 in a limited edition of 30 copies by Claude Givaudan. Burroughs’s first public piece of art was the-now iconic dust jacket of the 1959 Olympia Press edition of The Naked Lunch. Calligraphic strokes repeat, blurring into one another, demonstrating the obvious influence of Gysin.


The Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. First edition. Paris: Olympia Press, 1959.

In the 1980s, Burroughs began experimenting with shotgun art by shooting pieces of wood and cans of paint and adding additional collage elements, silhouettes, or stencils. His first gallery show was at the Tony Shafrazi Art Gallery, New York, in 1987. The show sold out, despite criticism that Burroughs’s art was the gimmick of a writer who also painted. In response, Burroughs issued a formal statement about his art that emphasized the significance of random events and recalled his meditation on Gysin’s artwork, for which he strove to find a “port of entry.”


“Disintegrating Spacecraft,” August 8, 1993
Inscribed to Paul Bowles from Burroughs. MSS 163s Paul Bowles papers supplement.

Maureen Cech

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