John Giorno Waxes Truly Poetic

THE DAILY PIC: The author's reading returns contemplation to visual art.


This photo shows a peaceful corner of a group show on view at Pace gallery’s London branch ­– but you have to click on my image to complete the picture. That’s because that corner of Pace was filled with the sound of John Giorno reading his 2001 poem called “There Was a Bad Tree,” and today’s Daily Pic links to a clip from it. (A full reading on video is available on YouTube, but seeing Giorno perform is a very different thing that only getting his voice, as at Pace.)

When I visited during the Frieze art fair, the spareness of the piece – just a voice floating in empty white space – gave wonderful respite from the frenzy of the commercial art world. It confirmed and enforced a dying model that imagines that art can be truly contemplative. Giorno’s work also fought back against one of art criticism’s worst clichés: The use of the word “poetic” as a term of generic praise, almost always applied to pieces that are numinous, ill-focused and nearly content-free. “There Was a Bad Tree”, like most good poetry, is none of the above: It’s a tight little package of thoughts and ideas that invites cogitation, not the vapors. (The whole text is here.) I’m no literary critic, so I’ll just say that the poem is about good and bad, and how both are in the eye of the beholder–which makes it all the more surprising to learn that the poem was begun before 9/11. (I wonder how much the attacks changed the way Giorno finished it.)

One last thing: The Warhol Museum has recently been touring a newly digitized film that Andy shot in 1963 of Giorno, then his boyfriend, doing the dishes in the nude. It is poetic in the true sense of the word. (Photo by Lucy Hogg)

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