The John Giorno Foundation Brings Life Back to ‘The Bunker’

A new public program of talks, screenings and Buddhist meditation launches in the art landmark on the Bowery

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BY Matthew McLean in Features , Frieze New York , Frieze Week Magazine | 13 MAY 22

In Dan Fox’s 2019 book Limbo, the author leaves a dinner hosted by the late John Giorno at 222 Bowery and finds himself caught between the door and a gate to the street. This liminal space, he writes, serves as ‘a time machine for shuttling back and forth in New York history.’

This spring, that same building connects old and new New York once again, with an inaugural season of live programming by the John Giorno Foundation. Originally built as a YMCA, over time 222 Bowery would welcome generations of artists: Fernand Léger lived here after fleeing the Nazis; in the 1950s, Mark Rothko worked on the Seagram murals in the building’s former gymnasium; Lynda Benglis holds a space there to this day. Giorno himself arrived in 1966, looking for a room to rent for a month. ‘And that month became my life,’ he joked shortly before his death in 2019, in an interview for Architectural Digest.

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The Dail-A-Poem Poets, Totally Corrupt, 1976, front cover

And what a life! An innovative poet, an acclaimed artist, the creator of the 1968 ‘Dial-A-Poem’ project – which allowed anyone to call a number and hear readings by the likes of Amiri Baraka and Patti Smith – and founder of the Aids Treatment Project, which diverted poets’ royalties to provide hard cash for people with AIDs, Giorno was the lover, collaborator and/or associate of everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Jasper Johns, Diane Arbus to Andy Warhol. (Giorno posed in Warhol’s 1964 film Sleep.) ‘There’s so much content and material and associations in his life,’ says Bill Cournoyer, the  independent collector and advisor who is curating the first season of  programming for the foundation. ‘As an artist, as a gay man, as someone engaged with the art community in New York for many decades, Giorno is a very interesting figure,’ he continues. ‘It’s really a dream project.’

Entitled ‘Just a Mirror,’ the events program – a wide-ranging exploration of art, language, sexuality and community – finds grounding in Giorno’s life. ‘Part of our mission is to work with the art community here and the queer community — sowing the seed of a new generation of the avant-garde,’ says Cournoyer. Opening events have included a discussion on art and the written word featuring Raque Ford, virgil b/g taylor and Nora Turato, chaired by David Zwirner’s Ebony L. Hayes, and a talk by the Brooklyn Museum’s Drew Sawyer on the work of the late artist Jimmy DeSana (who incidentally took pictures for the cover of You’re the Guy I Want to Share My Money With, a 1981 LP by Giorno, Laurie Anderson and William S. Burroughs.) It was Burroughs who nicknamed the Bowery building ‘The Bunker’ after taking up residence in its former locker room. One-time lover and frequent collaborator of Burroughs, Giorno kept the writer’s room exactly as it was when he died in 1997: including, Cournoyer notes, his Orgone box.

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New Year’s Eve 1979–80 at 222 Bowery, New York; left to right: William Burroughs, Lucien Carr, Allen Ginsberg reding the I Ching, John Giorno, Fernanda Pivano, Stewart Meyer, Rober Palmer and Herbert Huncke. Photograph: Louis Cartwright

There are plans over the long term to bring contemporary film, poetry,  performance and visual art to The Bunker; an online shop has also been launched, selling rare LPs and books from Giorno’s own archive. During the rest of the inaugural season, The Bunker will host talks, readings and  performances featuring artists Rochelle Feinstein and Justin Hicks and writer Negar Azimi, among others, as well as film screenings, including, on May 23, Jack Smith’s legendary Flaming Creatures (1963): which Giorno and Warhol saw together at the premiere. Allegedly, they returned to see the film every night for two weeks. Don’t miss the screening: it’s something, like The Bunker itself, that you’ve got to see at least once.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, May 2022 under the headline ‘Bunker Buster’.

To find out more about ‘Just a Mirror’ at the Bunker and the John Giorno Foundation, visit www.giornofoundation.org

Main Image: William Burroughs’s bedroom in The Bunker, New York, 2003. Photograph: Giuseppe Zevola. All images courtesy: The John Giorno Foundation, New York

Matthew McLean is creative lead at Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.

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