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Martin, ChristopheróRain Taxi
Martin, Christopher. "Review of Joe Brainard: A Retrospective." Rain Taxi 6.2 (Summer 2001): 12.

Joe Brainard writes that art is "a way of pleasing other people." With the opening of a retrospective exhibit of his work, and the release of its accompanying catalog, the occasions for pleasure have improved enormously. In the catalog, essays by John Ashbery, Carter Ratcliff, and Constance Lewallen, the exhibit's curator, are bolstered by select interviews, published and unpublished writing, and a series of letters, all of which seldom fail to simultaneously enlighten and delight. For what could be more pleasing than to revisit an artist and writer of such irreplaceable talent, humor, and humility.

Brainard, who died in 1993 of AIDS-related causes, was a champion of generosity. To view his work is tantamount to receiving a gift. It is, in his own words, ''a present of which I need very much to give." This seems to leave both friends and fans unable to separate the art from the artist. Nowhere is this more evident than in Ashbery's elegiac essay, which begins: "Joe Brainard was one of the nicest artists I have ever known. Nice as a person and nice as an artist." Not a very sound critical approach, but that, perhaps, is the point; Brainard eluded the kind of hard-edged Greenbergian theory so prevalent around the time he began work in New York in 1962, and his style was—like many of the poets (including Ashbery) who were his friends—anti-serious, non-hierarchical, and deliciously ironic. His technique was mainly self-taught. His real schooling began and ended with an appreciation for, and a fraternity with, other artists and writers, starting in Tulsa in 1958 when he became art editor for the White Dove Review conceived and edited by then fledgling poets Ron Padgett and Dick Gallup. Through White Dove, Brainard came to know the work and person of poet Ted Berrigan. In an interview with Ron and Pat Padgett found in the catalog, Brainard cites Berrigan as "the single biggest influence" during his first years of creative effort. In other interviews, writing and letters collected here, the influence of various additional figures—Fairfield Porter, de Kooning, Warhol, Hans Hoffman, Goya, Alex Katz, etc.—announces itself through his very personal consideration of their work.

Constance Lewallen at once seems to understand this relationship and to confuse it with a more sinister, Bloomian idea of influence, going to some critical length to decode the many art historical references to be found in Brainard's work. In "Acts of Generosity," Lewallen thus misses some of the more delicate aspects of Brainard's association with and appreciation for other artists, though readers may glean this subtlety for themselves through the later, more direct material. The essay, in full, is nonetheless concise and articulate, providing a well-wrought frame through which to view Brainard's total output. Its clear and comprehensive nature allows the reader to approach the remainder of the catalog with no small degree of excitement and understanding; also serving as apt preparation for Ratcliff's more pointed and lyrical investigation of what he terms "Joe Brainard's Quiet Dazzle."

Speaking with especial verve on Brainard's collages and assemblages, Ratcliff notes: "To his eye, nothing looks less than splendid." This attention to visual prospect, which Ratclifff terms "egalitarian," is another way to understand Brainard's sense of appreciation: his generosity was not limited to acts of friendship, but extended itself just as brilliantly to junk store Madonnas, wayward postcards, pansies, Prell, and anything else that happened to catch his inclusive yet distinguishing eye. It is Brainard's way to celebrate, congratulate, and integrate. The luscious density of his work, most pointedly his assemblages and gardens, always invites the viewer, as if somehow he has turned the sparkle of his material inward and created a vacuum of color that sucks one in. In fact, when asked whether the homosexual "sensibility" played a role in Brainard's art, he answered: "Most artists are very straight, I mean straight in their seriousness and in what they're trying to do. I think I'm a lot more sensual." It is this sensual quality that proliferates in his best work.

My only complaint is that of the many spectacular reproductions included here, only a few highlight Brainard's substantial collaboration with some of the best poets of the latter half of last century. Even Lewallen seems to admit, though it smacks more of concession than commemoration, that "as accomplished as Brainard became as a realist painter, his real genius and originality lay in illustration and collage." I could not agree more. Brainard's singular ability to create illustrations that consistently astound with their inventive juxtaposition has rarely, if ever, been mastered so thoroughly. The most disappointing absences are Life with Chris with Ted Berrigan and Sufferin' Succotash with Ron Padgett. And I'd be remiss if I failed to observe that, after seeing any of Brainard's matchless "Nancy" pieces, one is immediately overcome with a compulsion to see them all. Nevertheless, if you cannot see the actual exhibition, this uniquely enjoyable catalog is an excellent stand-in. Joe Brainard has a gift for you; please take this opportunity to receive it.





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