February, 2001
Joe Brainard
A Retrospective
Berkeley Art Museum through May 27

By Garrett Caples


bout a year ago, poet Jeff Clark showed me a work by Joe Brainard, which was subsequently included in the catalogue of the current retrospective of Brainard's work at the Berkeley Art Museum, although it is absent from the exhibition itself. ARTnews Annual 34, 1968, consists of about 17 overlapping reproductions of well-known paintings - mostly avant-garde but including some "classics" like the Mona Lisa - each transformed by the insertion of Ernie Bushmiller's comic strip creation, Nancy, which seemingly wraps around an actual issue of the 1968 ARTnews Annual.

I was familiar with Brainard's penchant for appropriating Bushmiller's Nancy in his works, but I had never seen such a dazzling example. It's one thing to give Nancy the Afro her hair anachronistically begs for, or to imagine her as if de Kooning had drawn her, but to place the visage of Nancy over the head of Woman 1 - a then-recently determined "masterpiece" thus handled by its partisans (still defensive of their judgment) with the most solemn forms of approbation - might seem the act of some sneering charlatan floating a career on negative critiques of success. Yet there's little trace of venom in Brainard's admittedly "comic" deflation of "high art" solemnity. Rather ARTnews Annual successfully embodies the oft-asserted but seldom achieved post-modern notion of leveling cultural hierarchies, approaching all their products as at least potentially of equal interest. Indeed, the collage offers us a variety of a ways in which to think such a proposition through.

For the cover of an annual whose thematic title is The Avant-Garde, Brainard chose both traditional and avant-garde paintings as backgrounds for Nancy's antics. The ARTnews Annual collage suggests a certain continuity between the two concepts, insofar as the techniques of the latter are almost always absorbed by the former. In 1919, Marcel Duchamp produced L.H.O.O.Q., an "assisted readymade," by taking a cheap reproduction of the Mona Lisa and drawing a mustache on her face. Brainard here pays homage to this gesture of irreverence by collaging Nancy's head onto the same painting, replacing La Gioconda's ambiguity with Nancy's unabashedness. 

Nancy Diptych, 1974

Performing a similar operation a few inches away on the successive heads of Nude Descending a Staircase, Brainard effectively acknowledges Duchamp by extending him the same courtesy of deflation. Or inflation, as the case may be, for the effect is less a satire and more an invitation, to experience art as a visceral, sensuous pleasure instead of an exclusively cerebral burden. No doubt more people in this country have experienced such pleasure with comics; Brainard's adoption of Nancy proposes we feel this pleasure with "serious" art too. And Nancy, waving from a Johns target, or drowning in a turbulent Pollock, or popping out and shouting BOO! from a door no one suspected in Mondrian, makes such a proposal difficult to turn down.

Perhaps more importantly, Brainard also sidesteps Clement Greenberg's conception (then influential but now dated) of modern painting as a struggle to determine its essential path of development by mixing figurative and non-figurative avant-gardists. Greenberg's insistence on the necessity of non-figurative abstraction is countered by Brainard's placing it side-by-side with figurative art. For both simply exist in the same artworld, and Brainard shows no impulse to take sides. In a previously unpublished essay, printed for the first time in the catalogue fot Brainard's Retospective, Brainard expresses his admiration for - among others - Pollock, Warhol, de Kooning, Dali, Hans Hoffmann and Johns, with no false innocence or air of willful perversity. Likewise, the astonishing variety of his output doesn't come across as "pointlessly eclectic," a buzz-worry of the current poetic avant-garde at least, indicating Greenberg's lingering influence.

ne of the many eye-opening aspects of Brainard's first museum retrospective - despite the cramped quarters apportioned by Berkeley - is the sort of consistent sensibility emanating from his wide-ranging media. As he once told Anne Waldman, "I don't ever have an idea. The material does it all." This modest submission to the materials - even styles - at hand is quite palpable in a room of his works.  His comic collaborations with New York School poets, for example, are executed in distinct styles reflecting the types of newspaper strips he derives them from. A 1964 collaboration with Barbara Guest, for example, juxtaposes a panel-violating fantasia (Thinking, complete with title framed in the old Batman silhouette) with Joan and Ken, an on-going soap opera in the vein of Mary Worth, whose individual strips remain stridently incomprehensible to all but devoted fans. Later, in a more abstract comic universe co-authored by John Ashbery (The Great Explosion Mystery, 1966), meticulously rendered baseball-team logos (Yankees, Dodgers, etc.) speak alongside numbers and the shapes of various states such as one might find in textbook or atlas. Suddenly we see hints of Brainard's collage-techniques in these free-hand pen and ink drawings, finding a mutual and entertaining context for disparate "images," in their way as oddly engaging as any anthropomorphized animal.

As exhibition curator Constance Lewallen notes, Brainard seemed quite aware "that his stylistic diversity did not serve his career." He lacked, as he put it, "a definite commodity," a signature style available for reference as he himself on the ARTnews cover refers to Warhol via a "characteristic" example, his famous Campbell Soup cans. Yet this difference doesn't imply disagreement, at least on Brainard's end, insofar as Brainard wrote on Warhol with sincere appreciation on more than one occasion.

Brainard's own lack of a particular product to sell to the artworld sits comfortably alongside his own fascination with products, be they mass-produced or one-of-a-kind. Again he proposes no hierarchy and allows that a good piece of commercial design could furnish as much visual luxury as a masterpiece of high art. Much pop art acknowledges this insight, and indeed participates in it, but usually by way of arousing shame at our own vacuity. Brainard's use of the mass-produced is not so repressed, though it does imply discernment. Leveling here does not necessarily mean the equality of all cultural products so much as a lack of automatic bias against a given example simply on the basis of its production or reproduction.

7 Up, 1962

ne of the earliest works included in the retrospective, 7 Up, 1962, is from a series executed before Brainard was aware of Pop Art. The title gives us a sufficient sense of its principle content, the 7 Up label. But soda is not the subject matter, or it would be hard to read this painting as commentary on the nature of the product or our relationship to it, the way John Yau convincingly writes of Warhol's Brillo Box. Brainard rather emphasizes the 7 Up logo in terms of its sensuousness, particularly its curving 7. To estrange us from its customary role as product identification, to get us to view the logo as visual product itself, Brainard paints it large, in a dirty but peculiarly attractive sky blue. Moreover, 7 Up is less literal, more mysterious than simple Pop reproduction. The sky-blue color of the brand name also occupies roughly half of the background; in both cases, the blue leaks, through the boundary (sometimes drawn, sometimes merely indicated) of the 7 Up digits or from the background over other defined boundaries. Behind the digits we see three more letters (STO) painted in red - on a blue background that slightly drips over them - and obscured by the blue 7 Up itself. Similarly other colors show through the black paint that inconsistently transforms the logo into block letters. About half the background is dirty white, and it too penetrates boundaries. Within the red O of STO is a white patch that could seem like an unfinished portion of the clearly outlined letter. However, the possibility that this patch covers the red is also live.

While executing a Pop "subject," Brainard thus investigates abstract expressionism's obsession with eliminating foreground/background distinctions. (Later he will develop his own all-over technique through his garden collages of the late '60s, in which flowers of various sorts crowd each other, becoming both figure and ground.) Blurring this distinction beyond arbitration here are the small bubbles which accompany the digits of brand-name as part of the 7 Up logo. In Brainard's rendering, some are white, some blue, and each is bordered at least in part by both colors. 

7 Up thus provokes more questions than otherwise analogous pop appropriations. The collapse of the foreground/background distinction is itself questioned by other unaccountable fragments which seem to well-up from behind; below the p of 7 Up we glimpse further possible signs, perhaps a red A over the numerals 7 and 3. And we haven't yet taken the STO into account. If it latches on to the "p" in 7 Up, again combining two layers of the painting into one, it says STOP, an impression reinforced by the word GO traced in but not differentiated from the blue of the sensuous 7. Perhaps the letters are a fragment of STORE or even GROCERY STORE, a plausible enough place to encounter the product.

7 Up ultimately keeps the foreground/background question a question rather than denying the distinction altogether. Perhaps this is the best response, for the elimination of background, in the sense of context, is never complete. Few people would lean against a Pollock, mistaking it for part of the wall. In this sense, products retain their objecthood. Brainard's remark in a letter to poet James Schuyler, "Sometimes what I do is purify objects," isn't vapidly idealistic even as it acknowledges the possibility of at least an individual openness to visual experience. The controversy Pop Art initially provoked more or less reaffirmed the context of high art even as Pop forced an expansion of that context. A Campbell's Soup can was not previously considered a work of art, though Warhol's versions now are. 

If this retrospective is an accurate picture of Brainard's development, it would appear that he increasingly incorporates actual objects from popular culture instead of reproducing them. His "purification" of objects becomes more literal, not in the representational sense of Brillo Box, but through the genuine presence of products in his work. The undated White Owl assemblage is a case in point, insofar as the inclusion of an actual cigar box cover underscores the wonderful surreality of the image of said owl perching on a giant, magically-suspended, and definitely lit cigar. The purification of the object here consists not simply in Brainard's recontextualizing it, from functional to visual, but also in his wry attempt to strip the cigar of its customarily masculine signification. The legend WHITE OWL BRAND is slightly cut short by an image of the moon (a feminine principle in alchemy and mythology), reducing the phrase to WHITE OWL BRA.

erhaps the biggest revelation in the exhibition - both figuratively and literally - is Prell, 1965, one of the "madonna assemblages" which command their own alcove off the main room. If I say that these works seem reminiscent of some of Bruce Conner's nylon assemblages, like Son of the Sheik, 1963, it is also by way of acknowledging their differences. Conner's "tone" is much darker than Brainard's; Brainard's works more frankly recall a shrine than Conner's. Both series draw on some of the same junk store materials (yarn, costume jewelry, broken dolls) though Brainard incorporates more specific and recognizable commercial products and uses increasingly vibrant colors. Prell is perhaps the most fully realized of these works. In it, a blue and green pieta-style Madonna (Mary holding the dead Christ in her lap) is surrounded by green beads, brooches, and faux gemstones. Brainard further frames the statue with ten travel-size bottles of Prell shampoo, with an additional two flanking a hand emerging from the top of the piece in a tangle of beads. 

It is difficult to characterize Prell green, save by anecdote. When director Richard Lester needed an "otherworldly" color to represent the power source of Superman's Fortress of Solitude in Superman II, he finally settled on a clear, slender tube filled with Prell. The color both allures and repulses; Superman is playing with fire here. Prell green in Brainard's assemblage likewise conjures paradoxical associations, lending itself equally to emeralds, natural but rare, and to our imaginative pictures of toxic sludge, unnatural and all too common. These rows of tiny bottles also exude an air of preciousness, like brandy-filled chocolates or perfume bottles. After gazing at Prell for some time, I noticed that the last bottle of shampoo in the upper row of five is almost empty. I found this viscerally unnerving, unable to lose the impression that liquid had escaped, that the long beads hanging from the bottom of the piece were strands of Prell or that the edibility of the dull green rubber grapes immediately below the row was somehow compromised. Prell ran through the fingers of the hand atop the work. I'm perhaps a trifle more squeamish than average, but I imagine the idea of loose Prell flowing near a work of art would be disconcerting to most of its appreciators. Again Brainard evinces a complex engagement with the very notion of context; what cleans in one context might soil in another. If we can be disturbed by the Prell happily violating context, we haven't fully accepted the challenge Brainard offers us. We retain a sense of hierarchies - however attenuated - rather than adopting a visual sense unbiased by institutional standards. Brainard presents Prell as an object of beauty (a sort of fantasia on the extremes of green, from leaves to chemicals) but whether or not we can accept the work as such, clean or soiled, remains, again, an open question.

he effect of this retrospective on Brainard's reputation as an artist will be interesting to gauge. As it stands now, Brainard himself occupies a paradoxical position. In the artworld, he is nowhere near the top of the established list of twentieth-century masters. Yet in the poetry world, he is something of a giant, associated with the New York School, who are today acknowledged as one of the most important groups in recent poetry. Too, his seemingly off-hand writings, especially his series of I Remember works (1970-73 and subsequently collected in one volume in 1975), have exerted tremendous influence among the current generation of young avant-garde poets. 

Untitled (Queen for a Day), 1975

A great deal, if not most, of his pre-retrospective following has been composed of poets. Perhaps Brainard found more affinity among the small press avant-garde, whose products very often can't achieve the status of commodities as their consumer audience is mostly composed of fellow practitioners. Poets tend to generate little money from poetry itself, save in comparatively rare cases. Much small press poetry is given away for free, or exchanged for other poetry. And though Brainard appears to have made a "decent living" as an artist, he was also known for giving away work. Moreover, his artwork for numerous poetry books - e.g. John Ashbery's The Vermont Notebook (Black Sparrow, 1975) or Ted Berrigan's Train Ride (Vehicle Editions, 1971) - constitutes something like a gift. A poet might acquire such volumes for pleasure, inspiration, or any of the other reasons poets read poetry. But the book's inclusion of a Joe Brainard cover or drawing is a bonus, like receiving a work of visual art for free. 

The commercial valuelessness of poetry is endowed with value, proof of which are the extraordinary prices such volumes, their scarcity abetted by the passage of time, now demand. There is always a market for visual art. These books can eventually become commodities, but seldom for the artists involved. Even work in the spirit of Brainard can't transcend this situation. But his practice itself indicates a way out of the dilemma, insofar as we may see through Brainard's art the conditions of affordable beauty, and learn to practice it on our own. 

Brainard's genius is ultimately his daring to rescue what's considered the junk of our culture, be it popular comics, product labels, indeed even the practice of traditional oil painting, relegated to the trash-heap since the dawn of modernism.At least one of his small body of oil paintings Untitled, 1973/74 - a depiction of Whippoorwill, the pet of the poet Kenward Elmslie, Brainard's lover and frequent collaborator, folded into itself as though asleep, yet with its one visible eye wide-open and alert - seems to me as wonderful as any of the works executed in the several genres with which the artist is more usually associated.

I began with an unfinished anecdote, of the poet Jeff Clark showing me ARTnews Annual 34 for the first time. He had just acquired the volume, not as a rare or even used book, but as a piece of random junk on sale at San Francisco's Community Thrift, for the princely sum of one dollar. The books that make it to a thrift shop are generally the junkiest items in the shop, volumes the meanest bookstore would sniff at, like an ancient pile of Reader's Digest condensed novels. I thought Brainard, if alive, might have been amused at this turn of events, the rescuer of junk himself rescued from a junk heap. For Clark, a Brainard fan of long-standing, knew that liberating this book for a nominal fee was quite different than purchasing some outdated annual. It was like getting a free work of art.

Berleley Art Museum
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