The Visual Art of William S. Burroughs: Book Covers, Portraits, Collage, Shotgun Art & More


As an artist, William S. Bur­roughs was undoubt­ed­ly his own man, behold­en to no par­tic­u­lar aes­thet­ic, move­ment, or school, always inde­pen­dent even as a fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor with many oth­er notable writ­ers and artists. It didn’t hurt that he came from money—Burroughs’ grand­fa­ther invent­ed the adding machine, and the writer’s inher­i­tance, writes the Dai­ly Beast, “left the young scion free to pur­sue edu­ca­tion and drugs at his leisure.” Yet, although he pur­sued the lat­ter with­out reser­va­tion, he also worked hard­er than most of his con­tem­po­raries, con­stant­ly inno­vat­ing and pur­su­ing new paths. Bur­roughs’ “entire cre­ative project,” writes blog­ger Dan She­lalevy, “encom­passed art, graph­ics, cal­lig­ra­phy, type, pho­tog­ra­phy, film, assem­blage, poet­ry, spo­ken word, and music…. Cul­ture itself was his medi­um.”

Burroughs Art 1

He may be asso­ci­at­ed pri­mar­i­ly with the Beats, but Bur­roughs him­self reject­ed the label, say­ing, “We’re not doing at all the same thing, either in writ­ing or in out­look.” As a visu­al artist, London’s Octo­ber Gallery informs us, he “col­lab­o­rat­ed with Kei­th Har­ing, George Con­do, Robert Rauschen­berg, and oth­ers.” As in his writ­ing, Bur­roughs exper­i­ment­ed through­out his art career with col­lage, incor­po­rat­ing pho­tographs and pop cul­ture ephemera like com­ic strips and adver­tis­ing into paint­ings rich­ly textured—as in the thick impas­to sur­round­ing the por­trait of Samuel Beck­ett above—and often vio­lent, as below.


The noto­ri­ous gun enthu­si­ast often blast­ed holes through his can­vass­es and even exper­i­ment­ed with shot­gun paint­ing. (See him with his shot­gun below, on the front page of a Times arti­cle cov­er­ing a 2005 exhib­it of his work.) Bur­roughs also incor­po­rat­ed gun imagery into his paintings—often made on slabs of plywood—and used pop art tech­niques like sten­cils and spray paint, as below.


Bur­roughs even designed his own book cov­ers, as you can see at the top of the post in the rel­a­tive­ly aus­tere paper­back cov­ers for Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine, both fea­tur­ing repeat­ing pat­terns of sym­bols. His visu­al art reflects the same obses­sions we find in all of his work. These recur­ring motifs are what Paul Pieroni, co-orga­niz­er of the 2005 gallery show at The Rifle­mak­er gallery in Lon­don, describes as a “het­ero-ontol­ogy of forces at work,” includ­ing the “cen­tral themes” of “vice, vio­lence and pas­sion.”


The same imagery that recurs in hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry nov­els like Junky, Naked Lunch, and The West­ern Lands appears in the writer’s art­work: “thus, as in his lit­er­a­ture,” says Pieroni, “we find war, cocks, vio­lence, dirt, par­a­sites, guns—junk.” In Bur­roughs’ hands the detri­tus of Amer­i­can culture—the con­tents of adver­tise­ments, for­eign pol­i­cy briefs, and seedy motel rooms—takes on an omi­nous, myth­ic sig­nif­i­cance that shows us as much about our­selves as it does about the artist.


Relat­ed Con­tent:

Gun Nut William S. Bur­roughs & Gonzo Illus­tra­tor Ralph Stead­man Make Polaroid Por­traits Togeth­er

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

William S. Bur­roughs on the Art of Cut-up Writ­ing

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Roy says:

    I got one off him when he vis­it­ed Mon­tre­al. It looks like he put an oven grill on top of a piece of paper, placed some objects on the grill spray paint­ed over it, then signed. I had to laugh. Sor­ry I did­n’t buy one of his doors, they were only $800 at the time.

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