Joe Brainard: The Art of the Personal
Joe Brainard’s unpretentious collages, drawings, and portraits are perfectly suited to be shown in book-scale, in facing pages, in something to be carried. It is a grand undertaking to collate the work of an artist so prolific, so broad in his scope, so loved—especially in the case of a man deeply invested in collage and the gathering together of materials. In Joe Brainard: The Art of the Personal, poet and critic John Yau’s aptly titled new monograph of the beloved artist and writer, Yau has successfully collaged the collagist, the painter, the poet, and the prodigy.
The works in the book are arranged not wholly chronologically but by theme and subject, making the conversations between pages lively and autonomous. Some interlocutors appear to truly be caught mid-chat, like Untitled (Blue Woman) (ca. 1963–64) and Untitled (Duck Tide) (ca. 1962–63): two faces looking directly towards each other, with resonating drips and tears of blue and red. There are also those discussions that reach across pages, like the portraits of friends Sandy Berrigan and Ron Padgett, both blank-faced but for their glasses and slight definition around the nose, each invoking text in their own ways (Sandy surrounded by script, Ron pictured reading/writing).
One key through line in this book, and in all of Joe’s work, is the earnest openness of his self-portraits, represented here over the course of his life. In an overhead view pencil-drawing from 1960, during his first (and only) semester at the Dayton Art Institute, we get a look at one of the many small, dingy apartments he lived in throughout his life. In Untitled (Crucifixion), a mixed-media collage from 1962, a photo of twenty-year-old Joe is cut and pasted just left of Jesus’s right hip, the artist looking sleepily into the camera. In a drawing from 1975, the year of Brainard’s monumental show at Fischbach Gallery, his left eye stares directly at us, strikingly detailed amidst the vague shape of his face, lightly outlined in red colored pencil.
Beginning his essay at Brainard’s birth in 1942, Yau presents a full image of the child-artist Joe, who started drawing in the third grade and never stopped. The young, enthusiastic, “soi-disant Tulsa School” Joe (as John Ashbery referred to Brainard and his friends) who moved to New York and joined the Downtown art scene in 1960. The Joe who in 1975 held a solo show of more than 1,500 works, each priced around just twenty-five dollars. The Joe who receded from the art world without a bang, without ever stopping his craft. Using this timeline as a grounding mechanism, Yau’s essay spans over eighty pages of the book, broken into four chapters that focus on the various geographies of Joe’s life: Tulsa, New York, Boston, and Vermont. Yau’s writing remains analytical as he unfolds a care-filled narrative that emphasizes how monumental Brainard’s miniature-scale work truly is.
The book measures 8 by 10 inches, and most of the works are printed at nearly true-to-life scale, with some works, like the stunningly blue Untitled (Moon Head) (1978), having even been sized up for this reception. Within this cloth-bound book (with Joe’s 1974 Whippoorwill illustrating the cover), Yau leads us through depictions of scallions, toothbrushes and butterflies, pornographic men with butterfly angel wings in Dada-blue constructions, cigarettes, window frames, Marys and Jesuses and cherubs, and overwhelmingly personal portraits, all with notable care and a remarkable depth of knowledge. Joe’s inescapable tangibility is arresting and confounding and endlessly galvanizing.
Joe Brainard did not like to swim in the ocean. He made flyers and book covers for his friends (usually for free). He had trouble with oil paints and speed. He embroidered the names of the people he loved on a pair of jeans, alongside flowers, peace signs, butterflies, a penis, and a Nancy (Joe’s Jeans [ca. 1971]). Joe Brainard was fastidious, meticulous, serious in his humor. In a newspaper clipping from the Tulsa Tribune, pictured in the first chapter of Yau’s essay, Joe said, at the age of seventeen, “I hate to see a beautiful or talented person fail to take advantage of their gifts.”
I can imagine Joe Brainard suntanning in northern Vermont. I can imagine Joe Brainard in Boston, hunting for cigarette butts outside the Museum of Fine Arts. I can imagine Joe Brainard drawing pencil portraits of his friends in the early seventies. I can imagine Joe Brainard, the poet and artist, and often do. The poets I know who love Joe can imagine him too. We talk about him like we know him. This collection—the most in-depth combined biography and assemblage of Brainard’s visual work yet—offers us new still lifes in which to imagine him, and new frameworks through which to understand the familiar ones.