THE COLLAGE SNIPPETS
In the summer of 2011 Pat Padgett discovered, in an outbuilding on Kenward Elmslie’s property in Calais, Vermont, a large number of paper snippets. Selected and grouped by Joe Brainard, the snippets, grouped in business envelopes, large manila envelopes, and plastic sleeves, are in the form of unfinished collages and loose bits for future collages. The groupings are tonal or thematic; some of the containers bear a descriptive note, such as “Mail” or “Blue,” in Joe’s hand. Although he had gathered the fragments methodically, in a few cases the notes and groupings don’t match up. For example, one plastic sleeve bears the words 8 X 12” landscapes, but the pieces inside it have no relation to landscapes at all. In most cases, though, Joe’s filing system is consistent.
(The images below are clickable)
Dating the snippets is problematical. Some of them might be as old as those among the paper piles visible in a 1976 photograph of Joe’s studio, as seen in an article about him in People magzine. Not wanting to be encumbered on his bus rides from New York City to Calais, Joe mailed the fragments to himself, probably in several parcels over several years. One such packet is postmarked May 8, 1981; another contains material dated 1984.
It’s likely that Joe intended to work on these unfinished collages during his extended summer stays in Calais, but there is no evidence that he ever did so. Thus we are left with the makings of perhaps 60-70 collages (a very rough estimate). The snippets, aside from being fascinating little items in themselves, reveal something about Joe’s working method: how certain images and graphic patterns caught his eye, how he cut them out with surgical accuracy, how he altered some of them with paint or pencil, how he grouped them, and how he let his collages develop bit by bit, as if building themselves.
That Joe sent these fragments to himself in the early to mid-1980s disproves the persistent notion that in the late 1970s he suddenly lost all interest in making art. In 1981 he made ten collages dedicated to Keith McDermott, as well as some for Elmslie. In 1987 he did a series of drawings for Elmslie’s book Sung Sex. In September of that year he wrote to Anne Waldman: “No major breakthroughs work-wise, though I am doing a bit better than last year. Which was a bit better than the year before.” It’s possible that during this period he also did a number of nude figure studies (as he had done in 1979). Perhaps his final work, a few weeks before his death in 1994, was a quick little drawing of a flower, which he gave to Alice Notley.
In his final months Joe also gave a box of snippets to his brother John, who described it to me as “a treasure trove.” An artist himself, John used some of the pieces in some of his own collages, which were shown at the Nicholas Davies Gallery in New York in late 1996. Over the years Joe had sent John Ashbery snippets to use in his collages, which have been exhibited at Tibor de Nagy Gallery and elsewhere. It’s safe to say that Joe would have been pleased to know that now anyone in the world wishing to use his snippets can now pick up where he left off.
– Ron Padgett
3 July 2019
JOE BRAINARD AND THE NEW YORK SCHOOL: MATERIAL TEXTS AND DIGITAL CULTURES
In April 2017, over lunch on East 13th Street, Ron Padgett mentioned the cut-out images that his wife Pat had found and we pondered what might happen to them. At once fascinating and generative evidence of Joe Brainard’s working processes as an artist, they also posed an intriguing quandary in terms of their value and legacy. They are not finished artworks – the vast majority are not-even-started artworks – and as such they seemingly held little appeal for collectors, curators, or archivists. And yet they represent art that might have been, and, as we began to realise (thinking about the collages that John Ashbery and Joe’s brother John had made using snippets like these), art that might still be. Thus the ‘make your own Brainard’ project was born.
Funded by a British Academy Small Grant, the primary aim of the project is to digitise and make freely and interactively accessible the collage fragments that Pat Padgett found in Vermont, and the remaining snippets that Brainard sent to John Ashbery but which John never used. Thanks to Jim Clifford, at Harborne Web Design, the collage snippets have been integrated into a bespoke interactive collage composer, enabling all visitors to the website the opportunity to make their own collages using the Brainard fragments, effectively, as Ron has written above, picking up where Joe left off. In Spatial Poetics: Second Generation New York School Poetry, Yasmine Shamma observes that ‘Brainard encourages his peers, in practice, presence, and publication to collage with and without him, inventing a new form of collage: collaborative collage’ (Oxford University Press, 2018, p. 83). Arguably, collage itself is always a form of collaboration, and certainly collaborative collage is at the heart of this project – in putting Brainard’s tactile, material texts into dialogue with digital media and digital media users, it facilitates the creation of original collages that are also, inevitably, collaborations with Joe himself.
Beyond the joyful, collaborative, and informal act of collage-making in this context, the intellectual aims of the project focus on the intersection between New York School aesthetics and digital culture. In recent years, intellectual interests in the intersections between material, visual, literary, and digital cultures have grown significantly. Concurrently, critical debates around the New York School(s) of poetry have flourished, drawing attention to this multi-generational collective’s distinctive creative strategies and social processes, particularly their emphasis on collaborative practice and their interest in error and formal experimentation – and the possibility of mapping their aesthetics onto digital culture. Such critical conversations have pointed firstly to the need to reconsider the place of material texts in digital culture and secondly to the potentialities of privileging collaborative production (moving away from a market-driven cultural system of top-down institutional control). By digitising and making accessible a selection of previously-unseen materials belonging to Joe Brainard – a key New York School artist and writer, whose work is particularly suited to exploring these important issues – this project examines these lines of enquiry. There are telling parallels between the aesthetics of the New York School and the aesthetics of digital culture, particularly between the collaborative modes of production found in both, which the research outputs of this project aim to delineate, demonstrating new ways in which material texts and digital culture can be brought into meaningful discussion with one another.
With this in mind, the wider project also aims:
- to demonstrate the significance of Brainard’s work to and beyond New York School poetics and aesthetics;
- to illuminate the relationship between material texts and digital culture, with a particular emphasis on collaborative practice between the two.
The work of the New York School intersects with debates about textuality, materiality, and the digital in three key ways, with Joe Brainard’s work crucially emblematic of each. The first is an emphasis on collaboration: collaborative processes of artistic and literary production defined New York School work, with creative partnerships, anonymised production, and mass writing events informing their aesthetics. The second is an interest in error and formal experimentation: many New York School figures worked to demonstrate that mistakes or inconsistencies were best understood as evidence of creative progress – and, indeed, evidence of the artists’ presence or partnership in (rather than behind) the work. The third is a fascination with the practice of collage, a creative mode that revolutionised twentieth-century art and literature by facilitating the experimentation with and linking of disparate phenomena: democratically, arbitrarily, and even unintentionally.
Brainard’s work, aesthetics, and legacy, in addition to the collages produced by the website’s visitors, will be used as a lens through which to assess and explore the dynamics and impact of collage and collaborative practice on the international community of amateur digital collagists it hopes to attract. In focussing on the practical, emotional, and inspirational aspects of making, sharing, and talking about art via a freely accessible creative activity inspired by the modus operandi of Joe Brainard and the New York School, the project will consider the aesthetic and social implications of user-driven, non-hierarchical artistic activities which reflect the plurality of communities. In addition to highlighting Joe Brainard’s important legacy in an interactive and freely accessible way, the project will also facilitate productive interdisciplinary interchange between academics, art institutions, poets, curators, IT technicians, artists, members of the public including students of all ages, and others.
ABOUT THE PROJECT INVESTIGATOR
Rona Cran is Lecturer in Twentieth-Century American Literature at the University of Birmingham, where she is also co-director of the Centre for American and Canadian Studies. She is the author of Collage in Twentieth-Century Art, Literature, and Culture: Joseph Cornell, William Burroughs, Frank O’Hara, and Bob Dylan, which explored the influence of Europe’s artist-émigrés on New York City culture from 1912 onwards, and argued that collage was both a transformative practice and a provocative theoretical model that was central to modernism and its aftermaths, revolutionizing the ways in which literature was written and art and music was made during the twentieth century. She is currently working on her second book, Multiple Voices – a study of New York City from the counterculture of the 1960s to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, examining the relationship between poetry and the urban, political, and social changes that the city underwent during this time. She is also assembling a poetry anthology – New York City: A History in Verse – to complement Multiple Voices.