Tibor de Nagy April 10 – May 17, 2008
The artist and writer Joe Brainard (1942 - 1994) has often been celebrated for his good-natured humor, but this seems to me to tell only half the story of a quietly fearless figure. Perhaps this will change, though I wonder how much it can in a world enthralled by immodesty and rampant self-promotion (macho artists working for Louis Vuitton). This small selection of Brainard’s hilarious reworkings of Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip character, Nancy, celebrates the recent publication of The Nancy Book, published by Siglio Press, with an essay by Ann Lauterbach and a memoir by Ron Padgett. Along with twenty-five of Brainard’s “If Nancy Was…” drawings and collages, the book includes his collaborations with Bill Berkson, Ted Berrigan, Robert Creeley, Frank Lima, Frank O’Hara, Ron Padgett, and James Schuyler, in which Bushmiller’s rotund, frizzy haired, unflappable heroine appears.
Forming the centerpiece of the show, the “If Nancy…” drawings are so perfect in their balance of humor and precision that categorizing them as major or minor art seems beside the point. “Nancy” is a derogatory slang for a gay man, which, as Lauterbach astutely points out in her essay, became the source of “repeated visual/verbal puns [that] were not motivated by shame, but by its reverse, candor.” Brainard also declared that his favorite flower was the “pansy,” and made numerous works in which they appear.
Accusations and society’s putdowns didn’t stick to Brainard. Without so much as a blink, he transformed the straight world’s little arrows into art. His brilliance was his ability to be joyful and rude, innocent and devilish, to charm us with one hand and smack us with the other. Recognizing that humor can be as stinging as a dip in the ocean, he made his charm synonymous with ferocious wit. Or, as Peter Schjeldahl smartly wrote back in 1969: “Their real identity comes as something of a shock, like a snowball with a rock inside.”
Go and see his drawing of a smiling Nancy pulling up her skirt to reveal that she has a penis (“If Nancy Was A Boy,” 1972). If Henry Darger’s seven Vivian girls (who also had penises) were in a war with the brutal Glandelinians, Brainard’s intrepid “Nancy” goes blithely through the world, unstoppable and exultant. For Nancy, there is no goal, and every moment, however awful, is experienced with a certain gleeful delight, at least on the part of the artist. “If Nancy Was An Ashtray” shows the heroine with an oversized cigarette butt sticking out of her mouth, while “If Nancy Was A Ball” shows her stuck inside a transparent sphere.
Brainard understood that cartoon figures can undergo endless humiliations and, if they bounce back, we will end up laughing. We want so badly to believe in the indomitable individual. Nancy gets knocked over, but never knocked out, and there is no villain, no Road Runner, haunting her, because she isn’t chasing after anything. Brainard’s work is so funny, graceful and enchanting that it is easy not to notice how incredibly inventive it is (“If Nancy Was Just An Old Kleenex”), how easily and lovingly he could work in different styles (Larry Rivers and Willem de Kooning). He can be raucously crude (“If Nancy Was An Underground Comic Character” gives R. Crumb a run for his money) in one work, and sweetly mock a modernist icon in another (“If Nancy Was André Breton At Eighteen Months”).
Brainard was a unique combination of innocence and insolence, and this unlikely but refreshing combination is also true of some of the poets associated with the New York School: John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and Ron Padgett. Like them, Brainard made everything he did look easy, and this includes his book, the classic I Remember. It is easy to understand why some people still have trouble with their work; they are offended by the possibility that the artist and poet might be having a good time while making art or writing. They don’t need to tell you whether they have suffered or not because, let’s face it, everybody does. That’s the gift Brainard gives us; and it certainly is not the only one.