The multi-talented poet and artist John Giorno, who radically experimented with the possibilities of multimedia poetry and collaborated with many of the leading figures in New York’s post-war cultural scene, has died aged 82. The galleries Almine Rech and Sperone Westwater, who represented Giorno, confirmed his death, following a heart attack on Friday 11 October.
Giorno became a key figure in the cultural scene in New York in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Speaking to Andrew Hultkrans in an interview in frieze in 2015, Giorno described this period: ‘In 1963, [Wynn] Chamberlain threw me a birthday party on the top floor [of 222 Bowery Street, New York, where Giorno lived]. There were about 80 guests, and it was everyone in the art world. The seven pop artists, [Robert] Rauschenberg – who came early with Steve Paxton and left before Jasper Johns arrived, because they had broken up – Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Frank O’Hara as well as dancers and musicians, Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown, Steve Reich; every artist you could imagine.’
‘I was going to artists’ lofts, galleries, openings and parties every day in those years, and I saw how the different pop artists were working, and how they allowed new ideas to arise. So, I said to myself: Why don’t poets do that?’
Throughout the 1960s, Giorno developed his poetry, experimenting with the format and creating text-based paintings and staging happenings to bring poetry to a broader audience. In 1968, he developed ‘Dial-a-Poem’, a project in which a selection of short poems by contemporary poets were made available to listeners over the phone: ‘There was an article in the New York Times where they printed the telephone number. Thousands of people called; soon, it was millions. The idea that you could connect content with a phone number and advertise the number ended up creating a new dial-a-something industry,’ he said in 2015.
Giorno was a relentless activist, and at the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s he raised funds for people suffering from the syndrome: ‘I had already spent ten years raising money for political causes, but I realized by 1982 that the only thing people with aids needed was money for their expenses, direct help. We already had Giorno Poetry Systems, a non-profit foundation, so inside of that I started the aids Treatment Project. The Giorno Poetry Systems LPs made a little money, so I and the other poets gave our royalties to the fund.’
Giorno continued making work until the end of his life. An exhibition of his text-based paintings is currently open until 26 October at Sperone Westwater, located just a few blocks from his final home on Bowery Street, New York.