John Giorno, poet, visual and performance artist, and longtime practitioner in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, died on Friday at the age of 82. His death was confirmed by the art publications Art Forum and Art News, and in an Instagram post by friend and musician Lee Ranaldo.
He is most famous for his 1986 work “Dial-a-Poem,” and for being the subject of then-lover Andy Warhol’s 1963 film Sleep, a five hour film of footage of a sleeping Giorno. Still accessible for anyone with a telephone, Dial-a-Poem operates as a poetry-on-demand hotline—call a number, and one can hear live recordings of poetry by a number of poets (some of them—Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Diane di Prima—were, like Giorno, central figures in the post-war New York art scene).
In a 1994 profile of Giorno in Tricycle (“Becoming Buddha”), writer Robert Coe calls Giorno a “sixties Renaissance man, seventies media maven, and eighties art-provocateur.” After some seeking through psychedelics, Giorno found solid spiritual ground in the head of the Nyingma school, His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche, in Darjeeling, in 1971, after touring northern India (and passing two weeks as a houseguest at His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s residence) with prominent Tibetologist Robert Thurman. After two months of studying with Dudjom Rinpoche, Giorno took formal refuge vows: “As a practitioner you take refuge in your teacher, since he is an example of that Buddha-nature which is beyond concepts, beyond subject-object relations. You take refuge in him as a lover, in the best sense—or you should, at least—and with great devotion.”
He also exemplified the “late-twentieth-century cultural phenomenon of activist-as-yogi,” Coe writes. Giorno’s contributions to the LGBTQ+ community were, in part, empowered by his Buddhist faith; in 1993 he donated $88,000 to his Poets & Artists with AIDS fund and to the Tibetan medicine AIDS program of Dr. Trogawa Rinpoche, a prominent doctor of Tibetan medicine.
He is survived by his partner, artist Ugo Rondinone.
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