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Mlinko, Ange—Shark
Mlinko, Ange. "Review of Joe Brainard: A Retrospective." Shark 4 (Summer 2002).

"There is an artistic theory of knowledge different from a scientific or philosophical one." - Fairfield Porter

When James Schuyler, a great aficionado of flowers, wrote about them in "Salute," he thought of them species by species, "Like that gathering of one of each I planned, to gather one of each kind of clover, daisy, paintbrush that grew in that field the cabin stood in and study them one afternoon before they wilted. Past is past. I salute that various field." One might say that Joe Brainard takes the study even further in his Garden series, seeking the differentio specifica beyond even species. In these collage works, he individually painted and cut each blossom, pasting them on medium-sized rectangular canvases in a dense "seed-packet look" as John Ashbery notes in the catalog. Schuyler, writing in Art News in 1967, remarked: "the scale is the size of a petal, or its color... Nor is scale realistic. A white Oriental poppy is smaller than a morning glory. Johnny-jump-ups are huge because life-size. Parts of this fiction are nearer than others, although distance has been suppressed, or rather, not called into being." These nonhierarchical flowers—always individual even when identical with their species, each species scaled to its neighbor—are not Linnaean flowers, organized within the usual taxonomy or nomenclature. They are, however, a figure for Brainard's creativity both in its fecundity and in its resistance to categorization.

In the catalog accompanying Brainard's first full retrospective, much is made of his preternatural output in the sixties and seventies. The word "proliferation" pops up throughout Carter Ratcliff's essay, Joe Brainard's "Quiet Dazzle": "Their larger subject is imagery itself, its tireless proliferation over the centuries, its manic proliferation now, and its vulnerability to style... For nothing in their proliferation establishes a principle of containment." Brainard's last solo show, at Fischbach in 1975, contained 1500 small mixed media collages; his mini-assemblages number about 3,000. And there's more: book and magazine covers, comics, flyers, altarpieces, and of course drawings and paintings. Schuyler called Brainard a "painting ecologist"; Ratcliff sees "a kind of charting of evolution of society through its throwaway materials." He might also have invoked the word "hybridization" in addition to "proliferation": the collagist as part naturalist, part demiurge. Some of my favorite works are his paper-cutouts-and-Plexiglas, wherein he painstakingly painted and cut out traceries of grass, layering them between clear plexiglass, creating a simultaneous mouse—and god's-eye view of a summer meadow.

Brainard was a New York artist. The city's impact on his work was as clear as on Frank O'Hara's (with whom he collaborated): the quickness and crowdedness, the variety of materials and styles, the fecund vulgarity. His radical particularity problematizes attempts to categorize him art-historically. "Stylistic diversity did not serve his career," Lewallen observes. He was "anti-theoretical and neo-Hedonistic," as John Perreault put it. Brainard worked for pleasure (and some say he stopped working, in the last decade of his life, when it stopped feeling pleasurable). "People of the World, Relax," his comics recommended. A series of magazine cutouts, each with a surprise substitution of blue sky and fluffy clouds somewhere in the image, becomes an emblem of the optimism, the Oklahoman sky in Brainard's soul, that is also somewhat insouciant. That his painted pansies are truly pensive, or that his altarpieces are truly devotional, rather than balancing this insouciance, reinforces his naïf persona. "I'm not really flying I'm thinking," wrote O'Hara in the thought-bubble of a Brainard butterfly. Yeah, right, goes our thought-bubble. In our more anxious era, Joe Brainard seems not prolific but prolix and profligate—in its dual meanings of licentious and extravagant. Hence also frivolous.

Unlike butterflies and flowers, however, the organ of Brainard's prolificity is the mind, and if there really is a "drive" to create, it doesn't come free of the assumptions and knowledges that comprise a mind. So then one may ask what it is that the artist knows, and since this is art and not something else, how does the artist know what he knows such that he ends up an artist and not a scientist or philosopher?

One answer is that the artist knows his materials, and everything he knows he learned from physical processes pertaining to those materials. Brainard doesn't rely solely on the eye, the measuring, distancing organ; he relies too on haptic knowledge For Aristotle, touch is the lowest of the senses but also the most exact; in De Anima, seeing is classified as a kind of touch. Brainard wrote, "I remember one of the very few times I ever got in trouble at school. I got caught doing drawings all over my hand with a ball point pen in music class" (I Remember). This image, of one hand drawing on the other, stands in for the reciprocality of form and material, lines and nerves. The artist's eye and hand typically work in tandem, but how much more so for a collagist and assemblagist, whose fingers handle the work of cutting, gluing, arranging. Eye and hand become synaesthetic.

Touch is never more than an extension of sentience; sentience is the most basic property of life; therefore Life itself becomes the raison d'être of art: Life over death, Life over abstract categories. Brainard's hedonism, insouciance, and proliferation/profligacy beam a vitalistic force at odds with a systematizer's reductios. Brainard the collagist and assemblagist is grounded in the belief that he can touch it. Brainard the ecologist, his collages accreting on the floor of his apartment like cultures, affirms the basic truth of the (inter)relational. And Brainard the maker of flowers without "principle of containment" is no more clothed in anxiety than the Biblical lilies of the field: he proposes natural abundance as a metaphysical comfort. The basic Eleusinian and Orphic mystery of flowers and their cyclical resurrection—a very old knowledge specific to the poetic tradition—is exactly the knowledge he reproduces.

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