Monday, November 5, 2012

Joe Brainard Part 3 - Some questions for Ron Padgett

Joe Brainard & Ron Padgett
c.1989, photo Patricia Padgett

Ron Padgett is the author of numerous books of poetry, memoirs, and translations. He was in Joe Brainard’s first-grade class in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They became friends in high school in the late 1950s when Ron started a little magazine called The White Dove Review and asked Joe to be the art editor. They remained close friends until Joe’s death in 1994. Ron collaborated several times with Joe on books and wrote a memoir entitled Joe (2004). This year the Library of America published The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard, which Ron edited. After reading it, I had a few questions for him, which he was kind enough to answer by email.

Q: Did you and Joe Brainard share poems as you were developing them?

A: Joe wrote mostly prose. Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we showed each other new pieces, partly because we were the main audience for them, along with Ted Berrigan and Dick Gallup.

Q: There has been some confusion about the last several years of Joe’s life. If I understand what you wrote, as well as an interview with Kenward Elmslie, Brainard still created art, but he didn’t paint or make art for sale. In addition to his extensive reading, he did designs for his friends’ books and made drawings that he gave away. Is that correct?

A: Yes, he did do some book art and some drawings. Also, recently I discovered a large manila envelope that contained hundreds and hundreds of pieces he had collected for collages, as well as some partly finished collages, which he mailed to himself from New York to Vermont, intending to work on them. Although he didn’t, and although he had withdrawn from the art market, he didn’t stop thinking about art.

Q: Edmund White suggested that Joe stopped making art because he stopped taking speed. I sensed that his inner compass changed. Can you comment?

A: Taking speed gave Joe the energy to make a lot of art in a short time. He made art before speed and after speed. His reasons for slowing down were complicated.

by Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett
illustrations by Joe Brainard

Q: I wondered if Brainard was afraid that his canvases couldn’t capture that elusive “nowness” as well as his other work. Maybe he felt that his technical abilities couldn’t render that pure presence he sought?

A: I’m not sure what you mean by “nowness” and “pure presence.” He was just disappointed by his oil paintings. No one else was.

Q: By nowness I meant his ongoing desire/struggle to capture the present moment. I felt that he was writing about this all the time, but perhaps most directly in I Remember and in the piece entitled “Right Now.”

A: Ah, that nowness. Yes, you’re right in the two instances you mention, but I don’t think he was always going for nowness. He was going for something concrete: visually beautiful, fresh, amazing art works.

Q: Brainard did emphasize being present and kind. Was Allen Ginsberg an influence in this way? As far as you know, did Joe ever study or read about Buddhism?

A: He never studied Buddhism, and any reading about it would have been casual. A number of his friends were Buddhists. But I think Buddhism had a very small influence on him, an indirect one at most.

I'm Not Really Flying
I'm Thinking

Q: Brainard seemed to be an artist who was queer, but not a queer artist. In his work and his writing, his sexuality arrives in waves. It feels like a constant background, but not always a foreground. Do you agree?

A: Yes, I do.

Q: His parents seem mostly absent from the memoir and this new book. Was he ever out to them? Was the relationship strained?

A: He never told them he was gay, fearing that it might upset them. But when his father learned of Joe’s sexuality (after Joe died), he didn’t seem upset at all. The relationship wasn’t strained, but, as I understand it, communication in the Brainard family tended to remain on an everyday, superficial level.

Q: Did Joe sit down and say, “I have to work now, I have to write a poem,” or did he just write when it struck him?

A: His diaries show that he often set work schedules for himself.

Envelope and unfinished collage made by Joe Brainard. Image courtesy Ron Padgett

Q: When did he recognize that he was a writer and an artist?

A: From early childhood he knew he was good at art, though I doubt that at the age of, say, seven, he said to himself, “I am an artist.” His writing came later, when he was around nineteen.

Q: You already explored his life extensively in your memoir. Did the process of editing his collected writings change your view of him?

A: It made me realize that he was even more brilliant than I had thought.

Q: Do you have a different sense of his lasting contribution?

A: This question would have made him smile. In one of his writings, admitting that he had trouble liking Courbet, he added something like, “Someday I hope to understand his ‘contribution.’” He was making fun of highfalutin language. As for lasting, Paul Auster has written that I Remember will endure. I tend to agree, but really I can’t predict future taste.

Q: Do you think there is enough correspondence to do a volume of the letters of Joe Brainard?

A: Easily.

Q: Do you feel that with the Collected Writings, you have finished your work with this material?

A: Gathering Joe’s huge correspondence would be exhausting. I’m leaving that to a younger person, someone with more stamina than I have.

To learn more about Ron Padgett visit

All art works by Joe Brainard used by permission of the Estate of Joe Brainard and courtesy of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York.

Joe Brainard Part 2: Interview with Matt Wolf

Joe Brainard, 1964

Matt Wolf is a young New York filmmaker. He has made a documentary about disco producer Arthur Russell and a fictionalized account of the artist David Wojnarowicz. An editor that I know mentioned that Wolf had made a documentary about Joe Brainard. So I wrote to Matt, and we had the following email exchange.

Q: How did you come to know Joe Brainard’s work? Why did you decide to make a film about him?

A: Years ago I was in a bookstore with an artist named Colter Jacobsen, and he recommended the memoir-poem I Remember to me. Immediately as I started reading, I was amazed by the poem, which recounts hundreds of childhood and universal memories. I was struck by the self-deprecating and charming voice of its writer—the artist Joe Brainard. A few weeks later I was looking at my bookshelf, and I realized that somebody had actually bought me a biography of Brainard for my birthday—Ron Padgett’s Joe: A Memoir.

Ron is an acclaimed poet in his own right, and he was also Joe’s longtime close friend. His book loosely mirrors the structure of Joe’s poem, replaying memories from their childhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, up until Joe’s premature death from AIDS in the early 1990s. I was really moved by Ron’s book, and after browsing through the University of Pennsylvania’s audio archives, PennSound, I found some great recordings of Joe reading I Remember. I really wanted to do something with this audio, Joe’s incredible poem, and Ron’s affecting biography. So I made this film, but I didn’t want it to be a conventional biography.

I Remember 
by Joe Brainard

Q: What reading is his voice taken from?

A: The recordings are taken from several readings. One in Calais, Vermont, in 1970; another at St. Mark’s Church in New York in 1971; and a later recording from a Giorno Poetry Systems record that was released in 1974. You can listen to the full recordings online at

Q: Do you have a favorite passage from I Remember?

A: Not really. The accumulation of all the memories and the rhythm of the entire piece are what appeal to me most.

Q: Have you read The Collected Works of Joe Brainard, edited by Ron Padgett?

A: Yes, it’s an amazing collection of writing that gave me an even deeper and warmer impression of Joe than I already had.

Q: Do you relate to his story about being an emerging gay artist in New York City?

A: Definitely. This isn’t the first queer biography I’ve made. I made a film about the avant-garde cellist and disco producer Arthur Russell, and as a college student I made work about the artist David Wojnarowicz. I see Brainard within that shared history of New York queer artists who died prematurely of AIDS. Since I’m only 30, I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be a queer artist in New York through different eras, particularly the 1970s and 1980s.

Joe Brainard
photo by Wren de Antonio
production still,
I Remember: A Film about Joe Brainard
courtesy The Estate of Joe Brainard

Q: Where is the film being shown?

A: The film is screening in film festivals and at museums. It was commissioned by the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College and has since screened around a lot. Coming up, it will be showing at the Liverpool Biennial in the UK and later in the winter at SFMOMA. We also had nice screenings at the Kitchen and the NY Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1 in New York, as well as the gay and lesbian film festivals in Los Angeles and New York.

Q: Do you plan to make other films about Brainard, Padgett, or the New York School of poets?

A: I’d never say never. At the moment, I’m very busy finishing a film that I’ve been making for four years. It’s a feature documentary based on Teenage, a book by the British author Jon Savage. The film, like the book, is a prehistory of the teenager and looks at youth culture before WWII. It should be out early next year.

production still, I Remember: A Film about Joe Brainard
courtesy The Estate of Joe Brainard

I Love Joe Brainard

In the case of Joe one wants to embrace the pansy, so to speak.
—John Ashbery


I love Joe Brainard. He was an artist and writer who gave to everybody the permission they needed. That includes the permission to use the simple declarative sentence. You can read thousands of these sentences in the recently released book The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard, edited by his longtime friend Ron Padgett. ( Brainard’s most famous written work was the prose poem “I Remember,” which is included in its entirety in this volume. By the end of the book (or just the poem), you will probably love Joe Brainard too. I love this book and will refer to it for the rest of my life.

Joe Brainard took the everyday experience and made it exceptional. He reminded us in all kinds of ways that being alive and kind right now is what really matters. At first reading, some pieces seem simple, even naïve. On rereading, I am not so sure I know what he meant. Even in recalling moments from his past, he was bringing us back to living more fully in this moment. Joe Brainard was a skinny speedy tanned Buddha in an unbuttoned white shirt.

He moved to New York as a young man in the early 1960s, at a time when art and poetry were not so separate. In the beginning, he had to sell his own blood to make ends meet. He was without guile, a skilled draftsman and a freewheeling poet. He was unafraid to mix everything up. Influenced by Gertrude Stein, his writing seemed almost unconscious, but never tedious. He reminds me of the artists Cy Twombly and Jackson Pollock. Not with his visual art, but in his being. The writing and collages just poured out of his unconscious. Had he a less perceptive eye and sensitive ear, he might have produced ramblings or easy realism. But with his hand and eye, all the expressions were art emanating from a deep true place.

Madonna and Child

Brainard was an intuitive artist, not a conceptual artist. With the exception of a few antiwar, pro-McGovern posters, he was not a political artist either. Indeed, he shied away from politics. He didn’t try to place himself in a social or a political context. That would be somebody else’s job. Although his homosexuality can be seen everywhere, I am not sure he would have called himself a queer artist, but more likely an artist who was queer. The art came first. His sexuality was omnipresent, but only occasionally in the foreground.

A few years ago, the Tibor de Nagy gallery held an exhibition focusing on Brainard’s sexual art, called The Erotic Work. (Unable to see the show, I ordered the catalog.) While his erotic work is meant to be sexual, it is never pornographic. Or maybe I should say, I wish pornography could catch the sweetness that Brainard did. But then it wouldn’t be pornography, would it? He favored white briefs. I only know one friend who can get away with white briefs in middle age. (And he does look good and boyish in them.) But I love white briefs all over again.

Untitled (Tattoo)

Early 1970s

Brainard never learned to drive a car and wouldn’t light a gas stove. It took me until I was 30 to drive a car. (And the truth is, I only learned for love.) And I almost blew up a house lighting a gas stove when I was a teenager. I never lit another. So, I also love Joe Brainard for sharing those normal mechanical ineptitudes.

I never met Joe Brainard. I don’t think I knew who Joe Brainard was before 2001, seven years after he died. Like his writing, his retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum woke me up and also confused me. The show that Constance Lewallen curated was a triumph of openness. She caught Brainard’s generosity and extended it.

At first I didn’t relate so much to his representational work. Generally, I favor abstract or conceptual art. My favorite piece in the big show was Prell, a magnificent collage based on the unnatural green of Prell shampoo. It was like an exploded Cornell box with a touch of acid for good measure. (Turns out it was speed.) And many of his smaller collages created a mash-up that beautifully reflected the middle of the 20th century through the 1970s. I understood his appropriation of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy cartoon character. But the paintings? They bothered me, because they didn’t seem to turn over any new ground. Apparently they also bothered Brainard, because when he compared himself to painters as strong (and as different) as de Kooning and Sargent, he found himself lacking. He stopped painting and exhibiting in the late 1970s.

Untitled (Good n' Fruity Madonna)

If Nancy Was a Painting by de Kooning

There has been a lot of speculation as to why Joe Brainard stopped painting. Some have said that he stopped making art, but that isn’t accurate. Ron Padgett said he continued to make art, think about art, and design book jackets for his poet friends. He also said that Brainard was happy during this period. He mostly read books and saw friends. Although he didn’t promote his art from the late 1970s onward, he didn’t stop being an artist. Brainard’s former lover, the actor Keith McDermott, says that he was “the opposite of look at me.” I love that.

Joe Brainard maintained a close relationship with writer Kenward Elmslie from the time they met in the early 1960s until Brainard’s death in 1994. During that time, Brainard had numerous affairs and was also with McDermott . Yet he lived with Elmslie every summer in Calais, Vermont. In his poem about Joe entitled “Bare Bones” Elmslie wrote,
Our M.O. evolves
Four months together in Vermont,
June to October.
Rest of the year, delicate but tenacious bonds.
We cohere, summer to summer,
Despite caesuras, rifts and dumplings,
Once each, luckily staggered.
Maybe the old-fashioned word “companion” fits. Like having a mostly summer companion? And McDermott was his autumn lover? This elastic definition of relationship probably appeals to many gay men. It may have been possible because Elmslie was relieved of the monotony of earning a living (his grandfather was Joseph Pulitzer). It’s easier to play outside the rules if you don’t have to put on a tie and show up at the office every day. Brainard found his patron and then found his own success in selling his work. But by all accounts, he had no earthly understanding of money. I love him for that too.

In a recent videotape, poet Ann Lauterbach also talks about permission in Brainard’s work. Right now, for me, that permission is about innocent sexuality as well as the simple sentence. He never seems jaded, still loving male sexuality with the enthusiasm of the recently out young man. I really love feeling that again.

Joe at Gem Spa, NYC
around 1970

The thread I picked up through Brainard’s diverse mediums was the elusive nowness. Ron Padgett also described it as “seeing what is really there.”

In his piece entitled “Right Now,” Brainard writes,
(It is not my purpose to bore you. It is my purpose to—well, I want to throw everything out of my head as much as possible so I can simply write from/about what “is,” at this very moment: Right Now!)
He concludes the piece,
Feet: looking real hard at feet right now I am wondering “why toes?”
That is what took me a while to understand with his paintings. Maybe he felt that his technical abilities couldn’t render a pure presence as well as his other work. Maybe that is what fellow poet and friend Frank Bidart called his “radical purity.” Brainard’s work was so immediate, it was as if it were channeled more than created. The artist Robert Mapplethorpe called one of his own exhibits The Perfect Moment, but now Mapplethorpe’s work looks more like artifice, just reconstructions for the camera. Brainard was bringing us back into a perfect moment of our own creation, gently, sweetly, and full of love. I want to see those paintings again. I think I might love them now.


All art works by Joe Brainard used by permission of the Estate of Joe Brainard and courtesy of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York.

More resources on Joe Brainard:
A site devoted to the work of Joe Brainard.
A site build to celebrate the publication of The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard. Of particular interest are the videos posted by several of his close friends.
This is a selection of pieces from an issue of the journal Pressed Wafer devoted to Joe Brainard.
His lover Keith McDermott writes about their relationship.
A video tribute to Joe Brainard on the publication of his Collected Writings.
This is a collection of sound recordings of Joe Brainard reading his work.
The gallery that represents Joe Brainard’s estate.