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White, Edmund. "Saint Joe (Artist Joe Brainard)." Art in America 85.7 (July 1997): 78-81.
When Joe Brainard died in New York City on May 25, 1994, he had been nearly forgotten, except by his legion of friends. Tibor de Nagy Gallery [in New York] recently presented his first major one-man show in nearly two decades, a large exhibition containing samples of a huge body of work, including paintings, drawings, collages, and assemblages. The show established that, early on, Brainard shared Warhol's love of product labels and that he enjoyed doing parodies of all sorts of artistic styles and movements long before visual appropriation became fashionable. As Robert Rosenblum puts it in the exhibition catalogue, Brainard gives us "a preview of the nostalgic regressions of so many recent artists, from Duncan Hannah to Mike Kelley." Rosenblum also suggests that "on a totally different wave-length, Damien Hirst's artistic recycling of crushed cigarette butts might look deja vu after we've seen what Joe Brainard quietly did at home with the same theme back in the 1970s."
In his short life (he was just 52 when he died of AIDS), Brainard worked with remarkable intensity and enviable fluency —and then abruptly stopped and devoted the last 20 years of his life to reading. Before the reading set in (it was something like a disease, the equivalent to Marcel Duchamp's chess-playing), Brainard had managed to do thousands of collages, as well as sets and costumes for the Joffrey Ballet Company and art-and-text collaborations with many New York School poets, including Frank O'Hara, Kenward Elmslie, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Edwin Denby, and John Ashbery. He also designed the covers for numerous magazines and books of poetry.
Most important, he wrote a completely original book called I Remember, which was reprinted by Penguin in 1995 but which was first launched 25 years earlier in a shorter small-press version. Brainard had discovered a simple but irresistible form. In a text that eventually ran to more that 130 pages, he started each short paragraph with the words, "I Remember," and then recalled an isolated, highly personal memory or an interlocking set of recollections or just the existence of a product or a fad from his youth.
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 sweaters thrown over shoulders and sunglasses propped up on heads.
I remember fishnet.
I remember board and brick book shelves.
I remember driving in cars and doing landscape paintings in my head. (I still do that)
. The form of I Remember was so delightful and infectious that soon everyone started imitating it. As Brainard's childhood friend, the poet Ron Padgett, writes in his afterword for the 1995 edition: "It is one of the few literary forms that even non-literary people can use." In the early 1970s Kenneth Koch was teaching poetry to children and he found that the "I Remember" format was a natural for kids. Classroom creative-writing textbooks soon took up the idea and by now thousands of teachers have used the device across the country, but few people are even aware of its inventor.
Padgett recalls that Brainard was reading Gertrude Stein in the summer of 1969 when he first started writing I Remember, and there is something of her shrewd naïveté in Brainard's wry declarations. Most of the entries he came up with he rejected; the full manuscript runs to over 600 pages. With his usual directness he wrote to a friend at the time he was composing the book that I Remember is "very honest. And accurate. Honesty (for me) is very hard because I suppose I don't really believe there is such a thing, but somehow I think I have managed to do it." He went on to say that he had "practically no memory and so remembering is like pulling teeth. Every now and then, though, when I really get into it, floods of stuff just pour out and shock the you-know-what out of me. But it pours out very crystal clear and orderly."
Paul Auster, the author of The New York Trilogy, seemed to agree when he blurbed the Penguin edition years later: "One by one, the so-called important books of our time will be forgotten, but Joe Brainard's modest little gem will endure." Harry Mathews, the American novelist and poet who has lived in France since the 1950s, told the Paris-based avant-garde writer Georges Perec (Life: A User's Manual) about Joe's book, and soon Perec had produced his own Je me souviens. When Perec died, Mathews wrote an obituary for Le Monde titled "Je me souviens Georges Perec" and now Mathews's wife, the French novelist Marie Chaix, is translating Joe's I Remember into French. The form is so reassuring —with its openness, the mixing of big things with little, the option of linking memories or leaving them discrete—that I found myself turning to it quite naturally when my French lover, the illustrator Hubert Sorin, died of AIDS three years ago. I was so terrified of forgetting something about him (his quirks, his tastes, his mannerisms, his opinions) that I started an "I Remember" list of my own.
Joe Brainard had been a panhandler for a few years after he arrived in New York in 1960 at the age of 18, fresh from Tulsa, but by the time I met him in the mid-'70s he seemed to be swimming in cash (he was rumored to have a very rich lover from a famous family). This combination of early poverty and more recent wealth meant that he was weirdly naive about money. I remember that he had a big drawer in his nearly empty SoHo loft that was stuffed with thousands of dollars. He loved to invite everyone to dinner in a restaurant, and when he'd set out for the evening he'd fish out of the drawer enough money for ten dinners. "Do you think this is enough?" he'd ask, anxiously. He'd tip the waiter 50 percent, usually, and if one objected that it was too much he'd stutter, "Oh-oh-oh, but he was so nice."
Joe Brainard was both a collector and an antimaterialist. He loved beautiful objects and bought them, but he loved emptiness more and was always giving away his collections and restoring his loft to its primordial spareness. As one of his closest friends told me, "He was like a teenager. It was difficult for him to live in the real world. He'd get rid of everything. His loft was spartan—too much so. I remember at the end, when he was so ill, the nurse would have to kneel next to his mattress on the floor—it broke my heart."
He loved to give away his work; he must have been the despair of his gallery. He gave me a wonderful collage of a young man in sexy white underpants floating against a blue sky. The man's mouth and the tip of his nose are just visible but his eyes are obscured; he is inscribed inside a bold oval. There is something of Saint Sebastian (that classic gay icon) about him, something of a Bellini madonna (the ethereal figure floating against a cerulean blue), and something of a Leonardo da Vinci anatomical study (the geometry imposed on the body). I used the picture as the cover of the English edition of my novel The Beautiful Room is Empty.
When I met Joe he had already begun his great reading binge. He had a single bed, that mattress on the floor, and a radio tuned to a country-and-western station 24 hours a day. He'd he on his bed all night and read; he'd finish Great Expectations at 3 A.M. and pick up Middlemarch. When he went out he would dress up in his beautiful Armani suits. He'd leave his impeccable, starched white shirts open to his waist and he almost never wore an overcoat, not even in the coldest weather, since someone had once told him he had a great chest. In fact, he was self-conscious about how skinny he was and was always beginning bulking-up schemes that he would quickly abandon.
Joe Brainard was born in Arkansas but was brought up in Tulsa. "I remember," he wrote, "that for my fifth birthday all I wanted was an off-one-shoulder black satin evening gown. I got it. And I wore it to my birthday party." "I remember when I got a five-year pin for not missing a single morning of Sunday School for five years. (Methodist)."
As a teenager in the 1950s he was already friendly with the poets Ron Padgett, Dick Gallup and Ted Berrigan, who were about his age, and with Pat Mitchell, who later became Ron's wife. "I remember giant discussions with Pat and Ron Padgett, and Ted Berrigan, after seeing La Dolce Vita about what all the symbolism meant." Even in high school Ron was publishing a little magazine, The White Dove Review, for which Joe was the art editor (LeRoi Jones and Allen Ginsberg sent them poems). Joe was considered the best artist in school. "I remember when I worked for a department store doing fashion drawings for newspaper ads." Joe's father, who worked on an oil rig, enjoyed drawing as a hobby, and both of Joe's brothers became artists, and his sister now works in a Denver art gallery.
Pat Padgett recalls that when Joe moved to New York he lived in a storefront on the Lower East Side that he later shared with Ted Berrigan. He had friends and patrons back in Tulsa who occasionally sent him 20 or 30 dollars. He sold blood from time to time and worked in a junk-antique store. One day he received a notice for his army physical. "I remember when I got drafted and had to go way downtown to take my physical," Brainard writes. "It was early in the morning. I had an egg for breakfast and I could feel it sitting there in my stomach. After roll call a man looked at me and ordered me to a different line than most of the boys were lined up at. (I had very long hair which was more unusual then than it is now.) The line I was sent to turned out to be the line to see the head doctor. (I was going to ask to see him anyway.) The doctor asked me if I was queer and I said yes. Then he asked me what homosexual experiences I had had and I said none. (It was the truth.) And he believed me. I didn't even have to take my clothes off."
As Pat Padgett recalls, "In high school he had had crushes on boys and girls. But in his family no one ever spoke about personal things. And I certainly didn't think about things like homosexuality. I guess he told Ron and me as soon as it became apparent to him. After he became close with Joe LeSueur, Frank O'Hara and Kenward Elmslie."
Although everyone agrees that Joe felt bad about his scanty education, they all speak of his intelligence and superb instincts. John Ashbery had just come back from years of living in Paris, where he'd been the art critic for the Herald-Tribune, and he was very impressed by Joe's artistic judgment, by "an intelligence disguised by a surface naïveté." Kenward Elmslie, who became Joe's best friend and with whom he spent summers in Calais, Vermont, once said that Joe had the finest intuition of anyone he'd ever known. Joe LeSueur agrees that Brainard had a perfect eye and ear. As LeSueur puts it, "I met him when he was nineteen and he already knew everything. He was a true master of collage. He'd do five a day—and he couldn't wait to get on to the next one. He wasn't influenced by anyone. I bought his painting 7-Up for fourteen dollars—but Joe gave up Pop art of that sort as soon as he saw Warhol's work later."
In his first show at the Alan Gallery in 1965 Brainard did big Puerto-Rican-style altarpieces. Soon afterwards he wrote to James Schuyler that he had had no specific religious intention in mind when he constructed his shrines: "On the other hand, a lot of people said I was making fun of religion which would be even worse. In reviews. I'd almost rather be religious."
Except for the annual summer pilgrimages to Vermont, Joe was faithful to New York, although he once lived briefly in Boston ("I remember when I lived in Boston reading all of Dostoevsky's novels one right after the other") and in Dayton ("I remember when I won a scholarship to the Dayton, Ohio, Art Institute and I didn't like it but I didn't want to hurt their feelings by just quitting so I told them that my father was dying of cancer").
Whereas Pop artists took an adversarial position against everyday images, Joe liked everything, and was himself immensely likeable as a man and as a painter. In a catalogue essay for the recent show, John Ashbery writes: "Joe Brainard was one of the nicest artists I have ever known. Nice as a person, and nice as an artist. This may present a problem... 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."
Joe drew a coffee cup with a 1930s illustrator's abstract smartness, or turned out an Ingres-like pencil portrait of Pat as a young woman, or composed a breakfast still life in the comfortable, life-enhancing, pleasurable mode of Fairfield Porter (one of his idols). He did a huge gouache-collage of hundreds of flowers arranged in a "Garden," or he painted a sumptuous, 4-foot-tall gouache of a "Madonna with Daffodils." He crammed cigarette butts into small, intricate patterns. (Brainard was as staunch a defender of smoking as Fran Lebowitz.) Sleek athletes in underpants (often with parts of their bodies replaced by bits of blue sky) recall the innocence of physique magazines of the 1950s: "I remember how many other magazines I had to buy in order to buy one physique magazine," he wrote.
One series of small oils was devoted to Kenward Elmslie's dog Whippoorwill. In one canvas, just 9 inches by 12, painted in 1975, the lean white dog is shown crouched on very green grass before a small white clapboard house; it's called "Whippoorwill's World" as a funny allusion to Wyeth's painting, but the humor is gentle, not sarcastic, and it does nothing to detract from the sheer beauty of the image.
Brainard often alluded to other artists (in his 1968 cover for an ARTnews annual, the head of the comic-strip character Nancy is shown collaged onto Goya's Nude Maja, Manet's Olympia, Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase and de Kooning's Woman, and she cavorts through a Mondrian abstraction, a Johns Target and a series of Donald Judd boxes). But his own style has no antecedents and only one real parallel—Donald Evans. Like the art of Evans, whose oeuvre consisted of several thousand meticulously painted postage stamps of fictive nations, each of which corresponded, as Bruce Chatwin observed, "to a phase, a friendship, a mood, or a preoccupation," Joe's work was also often miniature, gently parodic, and personal. Brainard's brother John told me that Joe and Evans were friends and exchanged letters and that Evans, who died in 1977, signed and gave a stamp to Joe as well as a book about his work.
The one event in Brainard's life that puzzles everyone is why he quit painting. When I mentioned the parallel with Duchamp's virtual "silence" as a painter from the 1920s to his death in the 1960s, Pat Padgett laughed and said, "Yeah, but Duchamp was not a very good painter. He may have been a brilliant thinker but he had little talent. Whereas Joe had a good hand and could do anything. And yet Joe thought he wasn't good enough to do great easel painting, which for him was the ultimate form. I think Joe felt that no one after the Abstract Expressionists had come up to their level and that disparity tormented him."
Joe LeSueur added, "I think that at first he was excited by fame and was thrilled by all the attention he got. But then he saw that success doesn't bring much happiness. After all, he knew the most famous poets of the day—Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara—and his friendship with them convinced him that success isn't such a big deal. Then he came off speed; he'd been on amphetamines for years and during those years his hands couldn't work fast enough. He must have seen he couldn't go on like that." Another friend told me that Joe had freaked out when he saw little men and after the mid-1970s he'd never done speed again. "Anyway," LeSueur concluded, "he'd already created a huge, totally original body of work. Maybe he felt satisfied with his achievement."
Ron Padgett believes Brainard was too hard on himself. "Towards the end of his painting days he wanted to do lace as well as Velazquez, a gentleman's waistcoat as vividly as Raeburn, a horse as solidly as Stubbs, a cherry as convincingly as Manet. When he couldn't always reach those impossible heights he just stopped." Everyone agrees that the fact he'd had a considerable fortune settled on him permitted him to stop painting; in that sense the money was bad for him. Curiously, he didn't seem to miss the creative act.
The poet Bill Berkson said, "Joe had a difficult time coming off speed. There were times when he seemed nervous, laughing bizarrely at some private joke. Ted Berrigan would tease him and ask, "Why don't you want to be great like de Kooning?" Joe would demur, but he probably did mean to be great in his own sweet way, like Joseph Cornell. He liked to show people doing dumb, everydayish things—that's why he liked Sluggo and Nancy. And in that way his art was a lot like John Ashbery's poems."
Actor Keith McDermott, whom Brainard fell in love with in 1979 and remained close to, remembers that Joe was surprised by his positive HIV status. "I thought he'd commit suicide, but no, he became very docile and just did whatever the doctors said." John Brainard was with his brother constantly from December 1993 till Joe's death the following May. "He stayed from December to March in the hospital, then he lived in my apartment. He was very accepting of illness and death. Only in September 1993 did he tell me he had AIDS, but at that time he said it was okay with him, he knew much younger people who were dying or who had died. He felt he had had enough time. Though he went through a lot of pain, he suffered it very bravely." At his memorial ceremony several speakers called him "saintly."
I myself always mentally compared him to Dostoevsky's Prince Myshkin—he was that unworldly and Christlike, Joe was the only person I've ever known that I'd try to talk and act like when I was with him. My imitations were embarrassing and never successful, but the urge to delete all phoniness and really took at the surrounding world with a fresh eye and to shower everyone with generosity was so compelling that by the end of an evening with Joe I was even unconsciously imitating his stutter. Joe's personal style was certainly hypnotic.
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