John Giorno was a poet, performer, visual artist, practicing Buddhist in the Tibetan Nyingma lineage, and founder of the non-profit and media label Giorno Poetry Systems. By 1963, he had established himself as an active presence in New York’s art scene, lauded for his starring role in Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film Sleep. Other collaborations followed: with Brion Gysin on Subway Sound in 1965, Robert Rauschenberg at 9 Evenings of Theater & Engineering in 1966, and Bob Moog on Giorno’s “electronic sensory poetry environments” of 1967–1969. He published his first monograph, Poems, and his first LP in 1967, collaborating with Rauschenberg and Les Levine on the artwork and designs for both. He originated Dial-A-Poem at The Architectural League of New York in 1968, which was subsequently included in the group exhibition Information at the Museum of Modern Art in 1969-70.
Dial-A-Poem was both celebrated and censored for its selection of readings and speeches by poets and activists including New York poets like Anne Waldman, Diane DiPrima, and Allen Ginsberg and Black Panthers’ Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, and Kathleen Cleaver. Giorno was unwaveringly unapologetic in his use of politically charged and sexually salacious content, using his work as a platform to draw attention to his own status as a gay man, police violence in America, and harrowing statistics associated with the war in Vietnam.
In 1971, Giorno visited India and Nepal with Allen Ginsberg, where gave the Dalai Lama a copy of his book Balling Buddha and met his teacher, His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche. A palpable Buddhist strain began to form in Giorno’s work, as he devoted himself to practice and frequent retreats. In the 1980s, Giorno’s loft at 222 Bowery and the Bunker, formerly William Burroughs’ apartment, became a space for practice in Giorno’s adopted lineage of Nyingma Buddhism, which continues today.
An artist of self-described “promiscuous compassion,” Giorno has always worked just as much to elevate the work of others as he has on his own creations. In the late 1960s he began using his nonprofit Giorno Poetry Systems as both a pseudonym for political organizing and the creation of artworks. In 1972, he began releasing compilation records under his now-incorporated moniker, giving birth to the Giorno Poetry Systems media label which has released over forty LPs, cassettes, videopaks and CDs featuring a wide range of new wave, no wave, punk, and otherwise rebellious and vocal artists, musicians, and poets. The scope of Giorno Poetry Systems’ activities expanded in 1984, when the AIDS Treatment Project was established as an emergency response to the impacts of the epidemic on artists’ lives. The AIDS Treatment Project provided funding for artists living with AIDS through the early 2000s, when it was officially transformed into the Poets and Artists’ Fund.
In recent years, Giorno collaborated on expansions of his work across visual and time-based media with artists, filmmakers and others including Pierre Huyghe, Michael Stipe, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Ugo Rondinone. A major retrospective of Giorno’s work, I ♥ John Giorno, was curated by Rondinone for Palais de Tokyo in 2015, and was re-imagined for 13 spaces in New York City in 2017.
Giorno retired from performing in 2017, and spent the last two years of his life in meditation, artmaking, writing poetry, and working out final edits of his memoir, Great Demon Kings. His iconic poem prints, paintings, prints and drawings continue to show in museums and galleries around the world. His vision for his Foundation includes the continuation of Buddhist practice and teachings at 222 Bowery, the continued provision of funds for poets and artists making new works, and the continued stewardship of his own artwork and archives.