John Giorno ’58, Poet and Poetry Advocate, and Artists’ Muse

John Giorno ’58, who employed art and mass media to embed poetry more deeply in the fabric of everyday life, died on October 11, 2019, at his home in Lower Manhattan. He was 82.

Photo of John Giorno ’58

“Possessed of Greco-Roman good looks and a gregarious, benevolent spirit,” according to his New York Times obituary, Giorno played an important role early in his life as a muse to and lover of other artists, among them Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol.

Born on December 4, 1936, Giorno grew up in Brooklyn and Roslyn Heights, N.Y. He graduated from James Madison H.S. and to the end of his life spoke of the importance of the English teachers he encountered there. After the College, during a brief stint as a stockbroker, Giorno began to befriend artists and poets like Warhol and Ted Berrigan and filmmaker Jonas Mekas.

Giorno and Warhol were living together off and on when Warhol came up with the idea of filming Giorno asleep, naked. Warhol created his seminal 1963 film Sleep by focusing a mostly static camera on Giorno for more than five hours. Though the couple split in 1964, the movie — among the first footage Warhol shot and now considered an underground classic — linked them indelibly in postwar art history. But Giorno’s lasting contribution to art came through his restless experimentations with the political potential of poetry, which he felt had been unjustly overshadowed by other genres of expression.

In 1965, Giorno founded the nonprofit Giorno Poetry Systems to promote his work and that of his peers. Four years later, inspired by a call with William S. Burroughs, he started Dial-A-Poem, a rudimentary mass-communication system for cutting-edge poets and political oratory. Reachable around the clock for anyone with a few minutes and a desire to be read to, millions of people called in. At a time when the art world and culture at large were still largely conservative, Dial-A-Poem was often unabashedly homoerotic.

Giorno’s own artwork drew heavily from the ideas of the found imagery that fueled the Pop revolution and also from the tradition of the ready made — plain, found objects presented as art. Giorno mined news items and presented them virtually untouched as verse, as in his privately circulated 1964 collection The American Book of the Dead.

By 1962 Giorno had moved into a hulking Queen Anne-style building on the Bowery that had been built as the first YMCA and that then had a second life as a warren of studios for artists. He eventually occupied three spaces there, one of which was nicknamed “the Bunker” by Burroughs. For more than three decades, Giorno, a longtime practicing Buddhist, hosted annual gatherings in the building for hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist adherents.

Over several decades, Giorno Poetry Systems produced dozens of albums, videos and events of the work of Giorno and other writers, musicians and artists. In 1984 the foundation started the AIDS Treatment Project, which disbursed hundreds of thousands of dollars.

At the time of his death Giorno had been finishing a memoir, Great Demon Kings: A Memoir of Poetry, Sex, Art, Death, and Enlightenment, scheduled to be published next June.

Giorno is survived by his husband, Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone, who in summer 2017 produced the NYC exhibition Ugo Rondinone: I John Giorno, a sprawling, multi-part exhibition that presented, at 13 venues, Giorno’s life and work, as well as work that he inspired.