Monday, November 5, 2012

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.

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