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 William Seward Burroughs, Jr.  (1914 - 1997)



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Lived/Active: Missouri/Kansas/New York / Mexico/England      Known for: mixed-media gun-themed artwork, collage, writing

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following information was published in The Guardian, London, August 24, 2005

Brion Gysin cannot have endeared himself to everyone he met. He probably didn't charm Paul and Jane Bowles the time he visited their hotel room in Paris and fired flame-tipped arrows from their window. But as far as William Burroughs was concerned, he and Gysin were two of a kind. Their paths first crossed in Tangier, and when they renewed their acquaintance in Paris in 1958, Burroughs was enchanted. Enchanted with Gysin's views on the evil nature of women and the magical nature of the universe. And so enchanted with his attempts to revisit earlier lives by staring in a mirror without blinking for up to 24 hours that he tried it himself: Gysin saw 19th-century scientists and Asian chieftains; Burroughs just thought his fingers were dropping off.

Over the years, in fact, Gysin seems to have given Burroughs a great deal. It is well known that it was he who introduced Burroughs to the idea of the cut-up, the technique of randomly collaging sections of text together that played such an important part in the construction of Burroughs's 1959 novel, The Naked Lunch. But he did more than this: he turned Burroughs into a visual artist.

Burroughs himself was never in doubt of the debt he owed to Gysin. He spoke of him as the man he most respected. Indeed, when Burroughs retired to Kansas in 1982, so poor he had to hock his Colt .45, he could have done with selling some of his art, but waited until after Gysin had died in 1986, fearing that fame would make his work overshadow Gysin's own, regardless of its merit. Ultimately it did, and in the few short years that he exhibited, it's likely that he earned more than Gysin had ever done from his art.

Eight years after his death in 1997, Burroughs is still talked of solely as a writer. In his 1988 biography, Ted Morgan called Burroughs's art a "senior citizen hobby". But it was a hobby that took up more and more of his time, and led to collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Robert Rauschenberg. Burroughs had his first solo exhibition in 1987; prominent New York galleries showed his work, and invariably sold out ("They're all pre-sold," he once said, not quite believing his luck. "It's the only way to go"). Those last years have led many to speculate on the extent to which art and writing were ever that separated in Burroughs's mind.

This autumn, there's a rare opportunity to look at both sides of Burroughs's work simultaneously. The Naked Lunch is being republished, in a new edition by his biographer Barry Miles and his friend and manager James Grauerholz (the novel was first edited, with famously haphazard haste, by Kerouac, Ginsberg and Ansen in Tangier). In December, Viking will publish Evil River, a new volume of autobiographical writings by Burroughs. And next month sees the opening at the Riflemaker gallery in London of a three-part exhibition devoted pre-eminently to Burroughs's art. How apt that the gun-loving writer should get a show in what was once an old Georgian gun shop.

The first part of the exhibition, entitled Dead Aim, is centred on unseen later pictures, and puts them alongside photographs by Gerard Malanga and Robert Mapplethorpe. Part two, Pistol Poem, turns the focus on Burroughs's literary work, examining rare editions, letters and manuscripts, but also his collages and illustrations. The final part, Rifle Range, looks at work by 30 other artists, suggesting a web of association and influence spread out across the whole of the last century.

Although many of Burroughs's biographers tend to discuss his art as if he hurried it out in latter days and backdated the whole lot, his interest in art can be traced to the late 1950s, just after he met Gysin. The first published example of it was the composition of thick black calligraphic gestures which decorated the original Olympia Press edition of Naked Lunch. The design has echoes of Paul Klee, whom Burroughs considered "the most influential artist of the 20th century", but above all it was marked by Gysin's style, a blend of eastern calligraphy and surrealism.

It was Gysin, too, who showed Burroughs how the methods of visual art could be employed in literature. Gysin believed that writers were 50 years behind painters, and the idea of the cut-up technique employed in The Naked Lunch was certainly linked in his mind to cubist collage. In the wake of that, Gysin encouraged Burroughs to advance this into his visual art. The result was a series of collages, which Burroughs accumulated in scrapbooks.

These are seductive and enigmatic, reminiscent of pop art in their occasional preoccupation with disasters and pop culture, while their interest in science fiction recalls Eduardo Paolozzi's early collages. One work has a dramatic op art design beside a text about an exploding ship, a picture of William Randolph Hearst, and a picture of a deadpan Burroughs standing beside a sleeping tramp, below which the caption reads: "Burroughs: Quiet down, think." Elsewhere, a blood-red typed text spews out the following: "Mr Anshclinger Hurst Ford Rockefller [sic] and you Board Members, vulgar stupid Americans."

Although Burroughs moved to Lawrence in Kansas to retire, making art had to take its place within a busy schedule. The day started with a dose of methadone, then a nap, then people from his PR agency would come over and make him breakfast, and in between discharging his rifles, knife-throwing and attending meetings of the Lawrence Cat Club (Burroughs was devoted to cats), he would slope off to his garage and paint.

If that makes his art sound like the occupation of a man with hours to fill, in fairness, the work of those days does reflect declining powers. There are vivid spray-painted images stencilled with silhouettes of favourite motifs - guns, skeletal figures, his own fedora-topped shadow - but these seem to have been raced off. The most significant work Burroughs created in those years was the Most Wanted series, in which he used his own sketchy portrait drawings as targets for his shooting, an idea inspired by the gun-culture habit of buying Shot Sheriffs, targets printed with the images of popular enemies.  It was a collision of Burroughs's interest in chance, guns and picture-making, and to that extent they are interesting, but his drawings are dreadfully haphazard - and judging by the bullet holes, his aim was a bit off as well.

Assessing Burroughs's contribution to visual art following those latter days is difficult, but it's worth speculating on where his art stands among 20th-century artists, and the extent to which they were influenced by his literary legacy. The final part of the Riflemaker exhibition, Rifle Range, attempts to do just that. It includes Klee and Gysin alongside Parisian painters of the 1950s, Jean Dubuffet, Sam Francis and Henri Michaux, and scans American painting. It also points to Burroughs's mark on a new generation in the work of Dexter Dalwood, who evokes "The Bunker",

That Burroughs's art came to light only in his latter days is surely the reason his reputation still rests squarely on his writing. His later work was poor, to some degree it simply served to pay his bills, and like many of his activities in that period it's rather difficult to take seriously. As Pauline Kael said of his cameo in the movie Drugstore Cowboy, he had turned into a "guest hipster": one minute he was having his soul cleansed in native American rituals, the next he was appearing in Nike commercials. But for most, he had already done enough to secure his status.

When Burroughs died, JG Ballard lamented his passing by saying that he was the most important and original writer since the second world war. "Now," he mourned, "we are left with the career novelists."

Online Source:

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
William Seward Burroughs II also known by his pen name William Lee, was an American novelist, poet, essayist and spoken word performer. A primary figure of the Beat Generation and a major postmodernist author, he is considered to be "one of the most politically trenchant, culturally influential, and innovative artists of the 20th century."

Lesser known is that he was also an artist of mixed media collage, often gun-themed work. Description of his career as a writer follows:

Burroughs influence is considered to have affected a range of popular culture as well as literature. Burroughs wrote 18 novels and novellas, six collections of short stories and four collections of essays. Five books have been published of his interviews and correspondences. He also collaborated on projects and recordings with numerous performers and musicians, and made many appearances in films.

He was born to a wealthy family in St. Louis, Missouri, grandson of the inventor and founder of the Burroughs Corporation, William Seward Burroughs I, and nephew of public relations manager Ivy Lee. Burroughs began writing essays and journals in early adolescence. He left home in 1932 to attend Harvard University, studying English, and anthropology as a postgraduate, and later attending medical school in Vienna. After being turned down by the Office of Strategic Services and U.S. Navy in 1942 to serve in World War II, he dropped out and became afflicted with the drug addiction that affected him for the rest of his life, while working a variety of jobs.  In 1943 while living in New York City, he befriended Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, the mutually influential foundation of what became the counter-cultural movement of the Beat Generation.

Much of Burroughs's work is semi-autobiographical, primarily drawn from his experiences as a heroin addict, as he lived throughout Mexico City, London, Paris, Berlin, the South American Amazon and Tangier in Morocco.  Finding success with his confessional first novel, Junkie (1953), Burroughs is perhaps best known for his third novel Naked Lunch (1959), a work fraught with controversy that underwent a court case under the U.S. sodomy laws.

With Brion Gysin, he also popularized the literary cut-up technique in works such as The Nova Trilogy (1961-64). In 1983, Burroughs was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1984 was awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by France. Jack Kerouac called Burroughs the "greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift," a reputation he owes to his "lifelong subversion" of the moral, political and economic systems of modern American society, articulated in often darkly humorous sardonicism. J. G. Ballard considered Burroughs to be "the most important writer to emerge since the Second World War," while Norman Mailer declared him "the only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius."

Burroughs had one child, William Seward Burroughs III (1947-1981), with his second wife Joan Vollmer. Vollmer died in 1951 in Mexico City. Burroughs was convicted of manslaughter in Vollmer's death, an event that deeply permeated all of his writings. Burroughs died at his home in Lawrence, Kansas after suffering a heart attack in 1997.


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