Would be a surprise to learn that I am alone in struggling with the work of artist-writer Joe Brainard, a man of prolific production during the first 45 years of his short life. Brainard died in 1994 at the age of 52, having stopped exhibiting in the early 1980s. Despite the decision to distance himself from the art world, he enjoyed admirable success as both artist and writer, his first solo exhibition in New York coming at the age of 22. With a few infrequent exceptions, he had stopped producing art by the mid-1980s. Work by Brainard is currently included in collections at the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum and the Whitney Museum. His medium stretched from drawing to collage, assemblage and painting, as well as half a dozen book and magazine covers. It could be argued that some small part of his success came from the advantage of being part of a group that included many talented New York artists, poets and writers, not to mention a few wealthy supporters. Many remember Joe Brainard more for his unusual but wonderful memoir, I Remember, published in 1970.
“Garden XV” 1971; watercolor and cut paper
The struggle with Brainard’s work mentioned above comes with the landslide of images that make up his output. Many of his collages are immediately stunning, several of his paintings hold the eye without letting go, some of the assemblages provoke a study of the almost uncountable and minute parts. Pages of drawings prove that the artist was a skilled draftsman. In spite of all the good, I suspect that some viewers of a Joe Brainard retrospective might wonder what all the hoopla was about, might ask, “What’s so special about this stuff?” Joe Brainard produced a large catalogue of work and in my opinion not all of it is up to par. The first question could easily be, “Where in all of this is the Joe Brainard style?” In fact, there is no distinct quality in his work that gives the viewer a sense of connection or continuance, nothing to identify the art as the work or style of one man. It is a question not unfamiliar to people who know his work, and Brainard himself was quick to admit that the work had no distinct style that could be defined as his alone.
“Skyline” 1974; gouache and collage on paper
Thanks to lifelong friend, poet and editor Ron Padgett, we now have The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard to give us an inside look at the mind of this singular man. It makes a very helpful companion to his art and life while also showing that Brainard could on occasion be carried away by his own words, fall prey to the overly confessional and at times be plain old mundane and trivial. I expect that only close friends of the writer could manage each of the 517 pages in this collection. Honesty is to be admired on the page, but there is a time when it all seems too much like someone shouting out, “Look at me!”
Untitled (Whippoorwill), 1973; oil on canvas
The exception is his marvelous and even extraordinary book, I Remember. The format is simple: The writer recalls in two or three lines a list of things he remembers from growing up in Tulsa in the 40s and 50s, and on into the moments of his life in New York, Boston and Vermont during the 60s and early 70s. Paul Auster called the book, ‘A masterpiece. One of the few totally original books I’ve ever read.’ Since its publication and several re-printings, teachers everywhere have used the book in classrooms to teach the writing of both poetry and prose. A few samples hint at the writer’s gift for poignant recollection…
I remember the small diamond heart necklace that Arlene Francis always wore on What’s My Line.
I remember the “swoosh” of Loretta Young’s skirt as she entered the room each week.
I remember that Rock Hudson “is still waiting for the right girl to come along.”
I remember on newsstands, Jet magazine. But never getting up the courage to thumb through a copy.
I remember reading the big sex scene on the beach in Peyton Place.
I remember having a crush on a boy in my Spanish class who had a pair of olive green suede shoes with brass buckles just like a pair I had. (“Flagg Brothers.”) I never said one word to him the entire year.
I remember the first time I got a letter that said “After Five Days Return To” on the envelope, and I thought that after I had kept the letter for five days I was supposed to return it to the sender.
I remember the kick I used to get going through my parents’ drawers looking for rubbers. (Peacock.)
I remember when polio was the worst thing in the world.
I remember my first erections. I thought I had some terrible disease or something.
Untitled (sardines), 1975; gouache on paper
Untitled (sweets), 1972; mixed media collage