“IF you want to disappear … come around for private lessons,” the artist Brion Gysin once offered in a prose poem. And during a period in Paris in the late 1950s, when he and the novelist William S. Burroughs were experimenting with crystal balls, mirrors and other contraptions of the occult, a mutual friend swore that he saw Gysin exercise the powers of dematerialization, perhaps with help from the various narcotics that always seemed to be lying around for the taking.
“Brion disappeared before my eyes, for periods of 10 or 15 or 20 minutes,” the friend, Roger Knoebber, told an interviewer.
But during a ferociously productive, wildly eclectic career in painting, writing and performance that lasted half a century, it often seemed as if Gysin, who died in poverty in 1986, had too great a facility for disappearance, at least as far as his reputation in the art world was concerned.Despite a longing for recognition, he was generally known less for his own work than for his associations with a prodigious number of more famous artists for whom he was, by turns, a teacher, friend and all-around guru: Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Max Ernst, Alice B. Toklas, Keith Haring, David Bowie and Iggy Pop, among others.
As death approached, Gysin feared that his peripatetic life had been only an adventure, “leading nowhere” except through a procession of illustrious homes like Tangier, the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan and the poet’s bunkhouse in Paris known as the Beat Hotel,where he spent several of his most productive years. “You should hammer one nail all your life, and I didn’t do that,” he wrote in a lament cited by his biographer, John Geiger. “I hammered on a lot of nails like a xylophone.”
But now the New Museum of Contemporary Art has gathered the widely scattered pieces of Gysin’s strange, necromantic career and is working to haul him up from the underground once and for all with “Dream Machine,” the first retrospective of his art in the United States. The show, which opens July 7, will include more than 300 paintings, drawings, photo-collages and films, along with an original version of the Dreamachine, the spinning, light-emitting, trance-inducing kinetic sculpture that Gysin helped design with a computer programmer, Ian Sommerville, in 1960 that has become his most famous work. (The exhibition’s catalog includes a paper foldout and instructions to build your own Dreamachine, provided you can locate your old turntable.)
The show is the first devoted to a dead artist by the New Museum since it moved into its sleek new home on the Bowery in 2007. The institution’s programming there has generally reflected its name, showcasing recent art by those still working, many of them young. But Laura Hoptman, the museum’s senior curator and the organizer of the show, said the departure in Gysin’s case made perfect sense because his work remains largely unknown to the American public and his influence — the kind that eluded him during his lifetime — now seems to be everywhere in the contemporary art world.
“I knew about him, and then six or seven years ago it felt like I started hearing his name from everyone,” Ms. Hoptman said. “I kept trying to figure out all the ways they had arrived at Gysin.”