one of the nicest artists I have ever known. Nice as a person and
nice as an artist.
may present a problem. Think of how many artists, especially those
whose work you admire, weren't all that nice. Caravaggio. Degas.
Gauguin. De Chirico. Picasso. Pollock. Their art isn't exactly nice
either, but the issue seldom arises. In Joe's case, it does. He
began around the same time that Pop Art did. With Lichtenstein or
Warhol there is a subtext of provocation, though the Pop Artists
generally were too cool, too "down" as we used to say,
to let this possibility become anything more than unspoken. In Joe's
work, one of his pictures of pansies, for instance, there is confrontation
without provocation. A pansy is a loaded subject. So is the effortless,
seed-packet look of the painting. But there's no apparent effort
on the artist's part to cause stress or wonderment in the viewer.
With Joe, a certain gratitude mingles in the pleasure he offers
us. One can sincerely admire the chic and the implicit nastiness
of a Warhol Soup can without ever wanting to cozy up to it, and
perhaps that is as it should be, art being art, a rather distant
thing. In the case of Joe one wants to embrace the pansy, so to
speak. Make it feel better about being itself, all alone, a silly
kind of expression on its face, forced to bear the brunt of its
name eternally. Then we suddenly realize that it's "doing"
for us, that everything will be okay if we just look at it, accept
it and let it be itself. And something deeper and more serious than
the result of provocation emerges. Joy. Sobriety. Nutty poetry.
are however no histoires à l'eau de rose here. Nor is Joe's
book of "remembers" for family viewing. Some indeed seem
to require a new rating for "humane smut" though they
are so cleverly interleaved among others like "I remember wondering
if I looked queer" and "I remember the rather severe angles
of 'Oriental' lampshades" that one can't say for sure. One
is "taken aback." The writing and the art are relaxednot
ragingin their newness, careful of our feelings, careful not
to hurt them by so much as taking them into account. They go about
their business of being, which in the end makes us better for having
seen and lived with them; and better for not feeling indebted to
them, thanks to the artist's having gone to unusual lengths for
us not to feel that.
was a creature of incredible tact and generosity. He often gave
his work to his friends, but before you could feel obliged to him
he was already there, having anticipated the problem several moments
or paragraphs earlier, and remedying it while somehow managing to
deflect your attention from it. Into something else: a compassionate
atmosphere, where looking at his pictures and recognizing their
references and modest autobiographical aspirations would somehow
make you a nicer person without realizing it and having to be grateful.
It's for this, I think, that his work is so radical, that we keep
returning to it, again and again finding something that is new,
bathing in its curative newness.
seems to have taken extraordinary pains for us not to know about
his work. Either he would create 3,000 tiny works for a show, far
too many to take in, or he would abandon art altogether, as he did
for the last decade of his life, consecrating his time to his two
favorite hobbies, smoking and reading Victorian novels. It's as
though in an ultimate gesture of niceness he didn't want us to have
the bother of bothering with him. Maybe that's why the work today
hits us so hard, sweeping all before it, our hesitations and his,
putting us back in the place where we always wanted to be, the delicious
chromatic center of the Parcheesi board.
This essay was first
published in the catalogue for Joe Brainard: Retrospective,
Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York, 1997, and is reprinted here with
the permission of the author and the Tibor de Nagy Gallery.
[more about Joe Brainard...]