William S. Burroughs Shows You How to Make “Shotgun Art”

It’s no secret that William S. Bur­roughs liked guns. He’s shot both Shake­speare and him­self in effi­gy, and in a bizarre and trag­ic acci­dent, he shot and killed his wife. In addi­tion to shoot­ing at peo­ple, he also shot at spray paint cans to cre­ate abstract paint­ings, known as “shot­gun art.” His paint­ings have appeared in gal­leries and one of them, once owned by Tim­o­thy Leary, was auc­tioned off a few years ago on Ebay. In the film above (date unknown), watch Bur­roughs in action with a rifle. He described the process in an inter­view with Gre­go­ry Ego:

There is no exact process. If you want to do shot­gun art, you take a piece of ply­wood, put a can of spray paint in front of it, and shoot it with a shot­gun or high pow­ered rifle. The paint’s under high pres­sure so it explodes! Throws the can 300 feet. The paint sprays in explod­ing col­or across your sur­face. You can have as many col­ors as you want. Turn it around, do it side­ways, and have one col­or com­ing in from this side and this side. Of course, they hit. Mix in all kinds of unpre­dictable pat­terns. This is relat­ed to Pol­lack­’s drip can­vas­es, although this is a rather more basi­cal­ly ran­dom process, there’s no pos­si­bil­i­ty of pre­dict­ing what pat­terns you’re going to get.

This is, admit­ted­ly, a very lo-fi film. It appears to have been shot on super‑8, and about two thirds of the way through, the cam­era flips upside down, then seems to have been tossed into a car. The sound goes out, and the last minute cap­tures a cloud-strewn Kansans sky speed­ing by in silence. It’s a strange and cap­ti­vat­ing piece of found art that, like Bur­roughs’ work, con­tains casu­al vio­lence, odd per­spec­tives, herky-jerky edit­ing, sud­den con­fu­sion and upheaval, and rare moments of beau­ty.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

When William S. Bur­roughs Appeared on Sat­ur­day Night Live: His First TV Appear­ance (1981)

William S. Bur­roughs Teach­es a Free Course on Cre­ative Read­ing and Writ­ing (1979)

William S. Bur­roughs Sends Anti-Fan Let­ter to In Cold Blood Author Tru­man Capote: “You Have Sold Out Your Tal­ent”

William S. Bur­roughs Explains What Artists & Cre­ative Thinkers Do for Human­i­ty: From Galileo to Cézanne and James Joyce

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

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Comments (8)
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  • franz douskey says:

    Many many years ago I ran into William Bur­roughs at Allen Gins­berg apart­ment. At some point dur­ing the tedious evening, I asked Bur­roughs if he would stand still while I placed a bot­tle on his head so I could walk across the room and shoot the bot­tle off his head. The gun-lov­ing Mr. Bur­rough’s turned even more ashen than he usu­al­ly was, then the gan­gling, gray-suit­ed William Bur­roughs turned tail and fled the apart­ment On the way out he told Allan that I was crazy and he should watch out because I was dan­ger­ous.

    I did­n’t own a gun. It was just a ruse to break up a tedious Gins­berg par­ty.
    Me? Dan­ger­ous? Iron­ic words from a man who had shot and killed his wife.

  • mushmouse says:

    I have one of the shot­gun art on ply­wood pieces from his first show hang­ing in my liv­ing room. Absolute­ly fan­tas­tic. A bit odd at first but it grows on you . it is called the red barn . As ref­er­enced in the ori­gion­al cat­a­log. .nnot for sale

  • mushmouse says:

    I have one of the shot­gun art on ply­wood pieces from his first show hang­ing in my liv­ing room. Absolute­ly fan­tas­tic. A bit odd at first but it grows on you . it is called the red barn . As ref­er­enced in the ori­gion­al cat­a­log. .
    not for sale

  • Greg says:

    That’s a rather cru­el joke to play on some­one who suf­fered from an enor­mous amount of guilt his entire life for the acci­den­tal death of his wife.

  • franz douskey says:

    Greg says Bur­roughs suf­fered enor­mous guilt for killing his wife. It was­n’t a joke. I knew Bur­roughs would turn tail and run away. No guts. If I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to shoot abbot off his head, I would have done it glad­ly. Bur­roughs weaved his way in because he was the only one of us with mon­ey, and plen­ty of it. The only time Bur­roughs suf­fered is con­tained in some­thing he said: “Hero­in is no prob­lem unless you run out of it.” He was a pret­ty good writer, like say the open­ing of Dead Fin­gers Tell. Late in life Bur­roughs became the lit­er­ary light among peo­ple who could­n’t read.

  • jim mccrary says:

    That is not Kansas it is New Mex­i­co. The two peo­ple oth­er than WSB in the film are Steven Lowe and his part­ner. Lowe was a friend of WSB and owned a gallery in San­ta Fe, NM where this was filmed. Lat­er he moved to Lawrence, Ks. I knew and worked with Bur­roughs ten years in Lawrence. Miss him today. Mr. Douskey is full of crap. Bur­roughs nev­er had a lot of mon­ey until late in life when he sold some art in Japan and his social secu­ri­ty kicked in. Peri­od.

  • Denes horvat says:

    Franz, that was a ter­ri­ble joke and poor­ly timed, I’ve read almost all of bur­rough­s’s work and most of the books writ­ten about him. If you read even a few of those you would real­ize that Jim McCrary is absolute­ly cor­rect about his mon­ey sit­u­a­tion! The mans think­ing and writ­ing was soo on point with the kind of con­trolled real­i­ty we are all liv­ing in. He was way beyond his time. You could say he was a man out of time.

  • Denes horvat says:

    Also to say a man like William Bur­roughs had no GUTS, is pret­ty much admit­ting how lit­tle you real­ly know.

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