ALWAYS AN ARTIST
Joe Brainard was born in Salem, Arkansas, on 11 March, 1942. He grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, before moving to New York City in the very early 1960s. Encouraged by his family, he was always an artist – making drawings in church instead of concentrating on the sermon, decorating school bulletin boards, entering (and winning) numerous art competitions, painting scenery and posters for plays, silk-screening invitations for his first group show, and providing cover art for the White Dove Review (a little magazine of contemporary poetry and art started by his friends the poets Ron Padgett and Dick Gallup, in high school). He enjoyed success from a young age, showing his work in Tulsa, winning a scholarship to the Dayton Art Institute, and gaining several enthusiastic patrons. A 1957 article in Tulsa World highlighted his abundant creativity and unmistakeable talent, two hallmarks of his later career: ‘Joe Brainard has won so many awards in painting and posterwork the last few of his fifteen years that even he loses track of them’. He dreamed of becoming a fashion designer, designing clothes for his mother as a child and teenager, and sending designs in to magazines. His 1975 memoir, I Remember, contains around ninety recollections about clothes: ‘I remember the first drawing I remember doing. It was of a bride with a very long train’; ‘I remember when a fish-tail dress I designed was published in “Katy Keene” comics’; ‘I remember in a musical movie about a fashion designer, a black velvet bat winged suit with a rhinestone cobweb on back’. His interest in clothes – at least, in the tactile and visual and multi-dimensional qualities of fabric (‘Mostly I remember fabric. Satins and taffetas against flesh’) – is a shaping presence throughout a career that was creatively invested in adornment, collaboration, and layered depths.
Joe Brainard in Vermont (photo by Ron Padgett)
NEW YORK CITY
Following a few months at the Dayton Art Institute, Brainard moved to New York City at the age of eighteen, in December 1960, where alongside his friends and fellow Tulsans Ron Padgett, Pat Mitchell, and Ted Berrigan he embraced, for the first time, poverty and tenement-apartment-living and urban life. He also began the joyful and deeply rewarding process of assimilation into New York’s art and poetry scenes, eventually counting among his friends and collaborators numerous writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers including Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Jane Freilicher, Fairfield Porter, James Schuyler, Larry Rivers, Andy Warhol, Virgil Thompson, Rudy Burckhardt, Kenneth Koch, Anne Waldman, Larry Fagin, Lewis Warsh, Bernadette Mayer, and many others. He initially spent two years in New York, making art (both solo pieces, some of which he sold, and collaborations), studying art history, reading, immersing himself in the city’s museums, galleries, and movie houses, and selling his books, clothes, art, and blood in order to eat and pay rent. In a letter to Sue Schempf, a Tulsa-based patron who for a time sent him $5 a month, he described the city as ‘big evil depressing’, but also deeply stimulating: ‘Always something new and great to see and do … I feel at home here; I can really be myself. I’m happy’.[i] He moved briefly to Boston (January-October 1963), where he endured further poverty (sometimes almost to the point of starvation), before returning to New York, which would be his home for the rest of his life, notwithstanding long summers spent at his lifelong partner Kenward Elmslie’s house in Calais, Vermont.
HEIGHTEN THE EVERYDAY
Joe had his first solo show in New York in 1964, at the Alan Gallery, following which his work was exhibited regularly in both New York and further afield, and by such prestigious institutions as the Fischbach gallery, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney. During his life, his last major exhibition was at the Fischbach (he famously exhibited 1500 works at this show). Since his death, he has had retrospectives at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery (most recently, ‘Joe Brainard: 100 Works’ in 2019) and at the Berkeley Museum of Art, in 2001 (a major traveling retrospective curated by Constance Lewallen, consisting of approximately 160 pieces).
Brainard was prolific (sometimes aided by amphetamines), and his work highly varied: as he put it in a letter to Padgett, ‘there are really so many different ways that one can go about being an artist’.[ii] But his Madonnas, Nancys, Pansies, Gardens, paper cut-outs, Whippoorwills, collages, assemblages, cartoons, fliers, paintings, drawings, cover illustrations, postcards, Pop Art-esque pieces, and writings, are all suffused with wit, warmth, beauty, and queerness, and are further unified by the heightened quality of attention that he pays to his theme, subject, and materials – and that he asks of his viewers and readers. In Brian Glavey’s words, Brainard’s work is ‘provocatively easy to enjoy’;[iii] and his vision, as Carter Ratcliff puts it, ‘is egalitarian. To his eye, nothing looks less than splendid’.[iv]
Poverty and urban life were determining forces on Brainard’s art. Partly because he was initially short on money for art supplies, he made collages and assemblages, forms that prize detritus, found (sometimes shared) treasures, snippets of paper, and, in the bringing together of unlike things that are deeply liked, the act of choice. ‘I like to start from nothing and just surprise myself’ (Joe, 57), he said, gathering material from the city streets, friends’ apartments, and the junk shop where he worked and was paid in stock, before making an ‘attempt to let my head be free and see where it would take me’.[v] His collages resist monolithic status through their affective qualities, requiring active engagement from and exchange with the viewer. Looking at them, one’s head is also let free – a kind of ‘let’s see where we go, Joe’. His work asks that viewers give precedence to the processes of looking – to what it feels like to look – over any definitive questions that the work may ask or answers that the work may (or may not) yield. His art connotes solidarity between artist and viewer, and embodies Paul Goodman’s conception of ‘integrated art’, in its ability to
heighten the everyday; to bathe the world in such a light of imagination and criticism that the persons who are living in it without meaning or feeling suddenly find that it is meaningful and exciting to live in it.[vi]
Collaboration and collage-making were sources of joy for Brainard, as well as satisfying his gift-giving impulses: he exemplified an appreciation for the passing on of things, and for the chance accrual of meaning that occurs when old objects find new homes. Kenward Elmslie wrote that Brainard elevated ‘gift-giving to a noble art’.[vii] Ron Padgett, too, remembers his friend as ‘a superb gift-giver—not because his gifts were expensive, but because they were just right for you’.[viii] Nathan Kernan, reviewing the 2001 Brainard retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum, also called attention to his gift-giving capacities: ‘Brainard’s art is profoundly generous’, Kernan wrote, ‘and his concern is often simply to give the viewer more of whatever would offer the most visual pleasure … he seemed to make each work a new beginning, and a visual gift to be enjoyed on its own intrinsic merits’.[ix]
As a successful and respected artist, Brainard distanced himself from the capitalist enterprise and machismo of the New York art scene by making thousands of miniatures in an era that prized monumentality, by giving his work away for free (often in order to support poets), and by frequently changing medium and style (he worked in collage, oils, pencil, pen and ink, pastels, watercolour, fabric, and found materials, among other things – and, of course, he was also a poet). Contemplating his status as an artist, he told Tim Dlugos:
I don’t have a definite commodity, and that’s the only way to make money… it’s all been very different. And the writing too confuses people. … People want to buy a Warhol or a person instead of a work. My work’s never become “a Brainard” (Collected Writings, 498).
JOY. SOBRIETY. NUTTY POETRY.
As Ron Padgett reflected recently, Brainard ‘acknowledged that he never created a signature style, but I think that can be seen as something of a signature style in itself’.[x] In 1966 Brainard made a large construction (roughly eight feet long and seven feet high) called Japanese City, which appeared as part of a group show at the Alan Gallery that year, and was featured in a review by Thomas B. Hess. Reflecting on the review, Joe wrote to Padgett: ‘it doesn’t mean much, but there are four words I like: energies, repeated, multiplied, and radiance’ (Joe, 118). These four words (so telling that Joe singled them out) encapsulate his oeuvre. To them, we might add the qualities his friend and fellow collagist John Ashbery found in his work: ‘Joy. Sobriety. Nutty poetry’.[xi]
Joe Brainard died from AIDS-related pneumonia on 25 May, 1994, aged 52. His ashes were scattered in Vermont. His legacy continues to grow.
For a fuller account of Joe’s life and work, see Joe: A Memoir of Joe Brainard (Coffee House Press, 2004), by Ron Padgett. See also Joe Brainard: A Retrospective, ed. Constance Lewallen, (Granary/University of California, 2001); Pop Poetics (Dalkey Archive, 2012), by Andy Fitch; and Joe Brainard’s Art, ed. Yasmine Shamma (Edinburgh UP, 2019).
[i] Quoted in Ron Padgett, ‘Boom: Joe Brainard 1961-1963’, in Joe Brainard’s Art, ed. Yasmine Shamma, Edinburgh University Press, 2012, p. 73.
[ii] Ron Padgett, Joe: a Memoir of Joe Brainard (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2004), p. 100.
[iii] Brian Glavey, ‘The Friendly Way: Crafting Community in Joe Brainard’s Poetry’, in Joe Brainard’s Art, p. 132.
[iv] Carter Ratcliff, ‘Joe Brainard’s Quiet Dazzle’, in Joe Brainard: A Retrospective, ed. Constance Lewallen (Granary/University of California, 2001), p. 49.
[v] The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard, ed. Ron Padgett (Library of America, 2012), p. 512.
[vi] Paul Goodman, ‘Advance-guard writing, 1900-1950’, The Kenyon Review, 13:3 (Summer 1951), pp. 357-80.
[vii] Kenward Elmslie, Routine Disruptions: Selected Poems and Lyrics, ed. W. C. Bamberger (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1998), p. 221.
[ix] Nathan Kernan, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 143, no. 1178 (May, 2001), pp. 312-23, p. 322.
[x] Padgett, ‘Boom: Joe Brainard’, p. 79.
[xi] John Ashbery, ‘Joe Brainard’, in Lewallen, p. 1.