Ideas, as in this poem?
But we go back to them, as
To a wife, leaving the mistress we desire
-- John Ashbery
The retrospective of Joe Brainard’s oeuvre at PS1, and seventy-five works at Tibor de Nagy share threads of a vision where intimacy and fear, hilarious fun and ruminative moments mix intangibly with a freshness of execution. In books, drawings, collages, flower paintings and cut-outs, this inclusive artist often assembled or serially ordered his smallish works. But in spite of being affected by the towering rise of early Pop figures, his works suggest not the stylish critique of culture like the mystic Warhol. Pursuing an alternate direction, Brainard, who drew from a broad range of motifs and through a freely associated order of things, left behind systematic preoccupations to foreground his art with sensuality and the inclusive randomness of experience. Thus Brainard’s works are a part of his time, but remain less touched by the reductive drive of Pop. In choosing the minor mode of diaristic entry, Brainard’s serialism leads instead to a sense of accelerated moments. For Brainard, whose friends and lovers were often poets, irony had a place, a taste, and a smell. His work was reflective of the poetic urge to translate a multi-textured environment, and now provides a window for us to see into the New York of the sixties and seventies.
In 1961, when he was eighteen, Joe Brainard moved to New York from Tulsa, Oklahoma with his friends, poets Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan, and Dick Gallop. Living on the Lower East Side, he sometimes donated blood for rent money, as the group sought and found a place for itself within the art scene. They found a charismatic and energetic adventurer in Frank O’Hara who was popular even at the Cedar Bar, where painters and poets socialized as a reciprocating audience. As a ‘comedian of the spirit’, O’Hara was a perfect liaison for these newcomers, whom John Ashbery dubbed as the ‘Tulsa School of Poets’.
Brainard became a player in the ‘second generation’ of artists who assimilated the ethos of Abstract Expressionism, and his admiration for De Kooning occasionally shifts to the upward layers of Brainard’s art, as in his collaborative book with Bill Berkson entitled I Love You De Kooning. De Kooning’s coupling of an endless transformation with his wry humor on the daily trials of making art translated to the enthusiasm of Brainard’s peers alike. Any idea was, “I’m not saying that I don’t have practically the most lofty ideas of anyone writing today, but what difference does that make? They’re just ideas. The only good thing is that when I get lofty enough I’ve stopped thinking, and that’s when the refreshment arrives.” (Larry Rivers)
Virgil Thompson said, “Every artist should have his poet,” and Brainard mixed and was nourished by a maturing group of younger poets who became known as the New York School. Kenward Elmslie, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler, experimented with Breton’s Surrealist methods, bending Breton’s use of the unconscious toward an awareness of surface effects as generated by Abstraction. Theirs was a more frank and freewheeling poetry than Breton’s, drawing inspiration from a mixture of traditions as well as from the discrepant qualities of the city streets. They translated Breton’s sense of ‘le merveilleux’ and nobility by saturating themselves in snatches of prose, in an attitude of good-natured irreverence, as in Ashbery’s phrase “a holiday of poetry”.
Brainard could take just about any style and pare it down to scale and refresh it, celebrating his look as he acknowledged its intrinsic capacity for emotion. The informality of his art is generated by generous acts of looking that connect us anew to a spread of traditions from Kurt Schwitters to Painterly Realism to Puerto Rican storefront art. An able draughtsman, his color was unself-conscious, breathing a natural point of view into each motif. Like a poet building rhyme and metaphor, Brainard sought forms that were analogues of experience while his themes centered on a discourse of love and friendship. He generated lists and lists of reoccurring visual motifs, from night skies to butterflies and moons, from seductive and transparent eyes of all kinds to memory clips of artworks, Madonnas and flowers. Envelopes, folded shirts, buttons, oranges, pretzels, tattoos, fish, and fried eggs. Collectively, below a minimal narrative, these images become linking threads that touch on synaptic moments of recognition.
Tibor De Nagy Press, which published numerous poet/painter collaborations, includes Brainard’s ink drawing from Vermont Notebook, a collaboration with John Ashbery, Nancy as an Interior Designer, drawings that play paper against absence, and “Fear”, in which a Cubist Nancy runs through architectural structures and television cut-outs formally affirm friendship’s languid boredom and trembling warmth. In the meantime, Brainard also made pencil portrait sketches capturing the intensity of friends, from Alex Katz to Bill Berkson.
In Joe Brainard’s book, titled I Remember, the theme of dailyness in its moments of surprise comprises a range of experiences, from the most poignant of obscure incongruities to early sexual encounters. These moments of self-recognition may be what drew Brainard to the Nancy comics. He was a young man born in Arkansas in 1942, whose inadvertent forays into the pitfall of convention were combined with a love for the ordinary. His Nancy is both a time-traveler and a transformative alter-ego. She experiences the anxieties and thrills of sex in the book Nancy Lore with Ron Padgett. She fills in for presidents, meets baby Breton, gets an afro and a sex change, parades as a sexy blonde, and falls into depressive lows of Kleenex in darkly benign situations.
The mood of Brainard’s portraits of Whippoorwill, an elegant white dog in his Vermont home, shared with Ken Elmslie, are reverberated by lines written by James Schuyler, a frequent guest: “ A day, subtle and suppressed/in mounds of juniper enfolding/scratchy pockets of shadow/while bigness-rocks, trees, a stump--/stand shadowless in an overcast/of ripe grass.”
One doesn’t know Brainard without experiencing his cut-outs and watercolors of flowers, where each flower stands alone in a large crowd, staring out inexplicitly yet matter of factly; or his dense assemblages of Madonnas plunged into a drama of tender playfulness amidst the labor of love. These series achieve an equilibrium of immense variety. They reflect on the bounty and permutations of nature where ‘each moment of utterance is a true one’. (Ashbery)
Brainard was not interested in achieving stardom; in other words he was aesthetically modest. An example of public recognition outside his circle of artists was an article titled, “Think Tiny”, in People magazine, 1975. Among his peers, “Joe often gave his work to friends but before you could feel obliged to him he was already there, having anticipated the problem several moments or paragraphs earlier, and remedying it while somehow managing to deflect your attention from it.” (Ashbery). His last artistic statement was to stop making art during the eighties when he contracted AIDS, choosing instead to find thought and inspiration in Victorian novels.
*Photo caption: Joe Brainard, If Nancy Was the Santa Nino de Praga, 1972, mixed media collage.
Rachel Youens is a painter, writer, and teacher who lives in Brooklyn.