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A wake for Gordon Burn

January 29, 2010

From Pop Artists to YBAs, Burn’s posthumous collection of essays about art is a beautiful account of an ugly business

“There’s just so much shit isn’t there? With art writing. So much bollocks. People who’ve swallowed dictionaries. All that crap.” Damien Hirst dismisses the practice of criticism in his introduction to these essays by Gordon Burn, although he may be thinking of his recent detractors rather than Vasari and Ruskin. Conversely, he acknowledges his friend Burn as “an artist in his own right . . . . [He wrote] almost like fucking carving it out of marble”. Others agree: Burn, who died last year, won a Whitbread Award for Alma Cogan, a novel based unapologetically on post–war cultural icons.


The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst 1991

Sex & Violence, Death & Silence collects Burn’s “encounters” with the Pop Artists who rose to stardom in the 1960s, and the Young British Artists of the 90s. “Encounters” is Faber’s cool coinage for occasional pieces. It seems to imply that all these writings were composed on cigarette paper as the author abandoned parties at dawn. Yet Burn is always erudite, and his prose has a beauty that many of the YBAs deliberately eschew in their work.

Burn intended his writing to occupy “the gap between art and life”. Because he believed the media presentation of public figures to be a kind of fiction, he had no qualms about using fiction himself. An essay on David Hockney begins as a story set in the artist’s living room. Burn imagines the curator Henry Geldzahler “sleeping, slumped into the coffee-cream leather settee, his mouth open and his belly rising and falling inside a tasseled and faded extra-large size, grey and green old-time cowboy shirt”. Hockney is introduced like a flustered Mrs Dalloway, “pushing a way through the press of people in the market, two awkward brown boxes strung together under his arm, weaving and dodging” a path to his flat, at which point he meets Burn and the fiction becomes an interview.

Read more at: A wake for Gordon Burn

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