PRINT February 2001


In 1979, JOE BRAINARD walked away from the art world and all but gave up making new work. Twenty-two years later, and seven years after his death, the full output of the poet and artist can be seen for the first time, as “Joe Brainard: A Retrospective,” opens this month at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum. On the occasion, novelist and poet BRAD GOOCH recalls a figure we have finally caught up with.

Joe Brainard wasn’t a legend in his own time. Well, actually, he started out as one. His send-ups of Ernie Bushmiller’s comic-strip goof-fatale Nancy, the frizzy-haired figure sticking her menacing smiley face into such masterpieces as Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase and de Kooning’s Woman I, were collaged on the front and back covers of Art News Annual in 1968. He was then twenty-six: tall, wiry, curly-headed, peering through oversize nerdy glasses, wearing black Keds. In 1975, People magazine ran a feature with the corny title “Think Tiny” on his Guinness Book of Records-esque Fischbach Gallery show of bits and pieces of imagery culled as a series of 1,500 miniatures. And then Brainard simply erased himself, rarely showing his work in public after 1979.

What’s clear now about Brainard, who died of AIDS in 1994, from the 164-work retrospective opening this month at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum, is how searing and retinal he was, the nimbus effect of his accumulated work shorthanded by Carter Ratcliff in the exhibition catalogue as “quiet dazzle.” From as early as 1962, fresh off the road from Tulsa, and before Brainard had ever seen a Warhol soup can, comes a bright 7 Up logo, painted on canvas in sloppy sky blue enamel. From the deep space of his cut-ups of the early ’70s, layers of Plexiglas segregate traceries of meticulously hand-cut leaves, grasses, and amber straw in a kind of manic pastoral. Most alluring and vertically showy of all are the Madonna collages of the late ’60s and early ’70s, especially Untitled (Good ’n Fruity Madonna), 1968. Sexiest, the drawings of Hockney-limned tan boys in white briefs seemingly woven of photons.

I first learned about this busy eye of Brainard’s the hard way: In 1974, as a broke young poet, I worked for him unsuccessfully for a few weeks. As a collaborator with poets in his C Comics, a designer of chapbook covers for the likes of Ted Berrigan, Kenneth Koch, and John Ashbery, and a poet himself—his book-length catalogue poem I Remember (1970) is arguably one of the most original works of the last three decades—he took pity on me. But when I arrived at his loft on Greene Street in SoHo, which felt like the inside of a cedar trunk, I found the floor covered with ziggurats of piles of playing cards, scraps and colored paper, ripped cardboard, gnarly flattened metal coffee cans. A “recycle bin” of urban detritus. My job was to pick through all these square feet of scraps and retrieve any that contained a certain shade of robin’s breast red. After a few hours of (to borrow Frank O’Hara’s phrase) “practically going to sleep with quandariness,” I gave up.

Of a similar encounter with Brainard’s magpie routine, the poet Anne Waldman wrote in the Saint Marks Poetry Project newsletter: “Once at the beach in Westhampton, Long Island, he was spotting, bending over and collecting ‘anything blue’ at an alarming rate—used flash cubes, ancient seaworn Bromo Seltzer bottles, a frayed plastic cord, and broken light bulbs. Later, these items appeared in some striking ‘sand’ collages, literally embedded in sand (cemented so they stuck fast).” Among these “sand” assemblages is an untitled 1970 mounted quilt of weathered wood scraps that might well have been named "Sunday at the Beach with Kurt Schwitters.” It was this method of working that led Robert Rosenblum to describe Brainard’s 1967-69 “Gardens” series—dozens of tight rows of mechanically embroidered fabric flowers, or a combination of appliqué and paper—as “wondrous excavations from another century’s yard sale.”

I suppose we thought of Brainard then from within the “system” of poetry. He wasn’t a painter’s painter; he was a poet’s painter. Like the mimeographed magazines and diaristic, offhand, funny, blindingly stylish, word-crunching poems of the downtown poets, his witty sparks of art seemed a sidebar to the short menu of “big statement” styles available to the era: Abstract Expressionist, Pop, Conceptual, Minimal. As Brainard told the poet Tim Dlugos in a 1980 interview in Dennis Cooper's LA poetry zine Little Caesar: “Most artists are very straight, I mean straight in their seriousness and in what they’re trying to do. I think I’m a lot more sensual, I mean I’m a lot more ga-ga than that—but on purpose. No, not on purpose.” Besides the poets, whatever semblance of an artistic posse he had included only other idiosyncratics—Alex Katz, Fairfield Porter, and, from afar, Joseph Cornell of the shadow boxes.

Ever since Brainard stopped making work for exhibition, though, the art world has been making a place for him, without even realizing it. Brainard was so into style that he could never pick a style. For several years he even took up oil painting, accomplishing several portraits of poet Kenward Elmslie’s whippet, Whippoorwill, lounging as a sumptuous white odalisque on a putrid green velvet sofa in Vermont. This fitful promiscuity of styles we now glumly think of as “postmodern.” Brainard’s innocent cutouts don’t look so out there after the many homages to the scissors of childhood by Donald Baechler. Keith Haring’s radioactive stick men were as ubiquitous and somehow free of attitude as Brainard’s Nancy. Damien Hirst’s display of cigarette butts like mounted butterflies in glass cases brings back Brainard’s Untitled (Big Chesterfield) of 1961–62, or his framing, as a sort of relic, of an actual cigarette butt squashed out by Willem de Kooning. Certainly no one needs to be convinced there is now a guilt-free audience for Brainard’s boy drawings—Aubrey Beardsley meets pornographer Willliam Higgins. (Of a possible gay slant to his work, Brainard once wrote, “Actually—I can’t see that being a gay painter makes any difference whatsoever, except that every now and then my work seems shockingly ‘sissy’ to me.”)

What might not seem so obvious is how conceptual Brainard was. Not, of course, in the sense of the blackboard didacticism of Joseph Kosuth or Lawrence Weiner. First off, Brainard was a writer, one of the rare examples of someone who could zigzag with equal expertise between painting and poetry. Without any labored manifestos, he devised an entire series of “Ten Imaginary Still Lifes,” including Imaginary Still Life No. 2: “I close my eyes. I see white. Lots of white. And gray. Cool gray. Cool gray fabric shadows. (It is a painting!) With no yellow. By a very old man.” Somehow these slight-seeming knockoffs got to the nub of any debates about mind, perception, process, and product as insouciantly as his I Remember poems—“I remember the sound of the ice cream man coming”—put to rest the pretension that had accrued to the mini-epics of memory of the romantics, while refreshing the formula. (I Remember has recently been rereleased in an expanded edition by Granary Books.)

Saying that Brainard was conceptual partly just means that he knew what he was up to, even if he didn’t always let on. And what he was up to, artwise, was keeping his look fresh, his vision uncorrected. If you walk briskly through a room of Vermeers in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam without even staring at them, you still catch flashes of luminescence peripherally. A walk through a roomful of Brainards has the same allover halo effect. He did let on once, in that same Little Caesar interview, when he said, “People want to buy a Warhol or a person instead of a work. My work’s never become ‘a Brainard.’” He’d wriggled free, whether on purpose or not, from being branded, and so dulled.

When Brainard took down his shingle, no longer participating in the elite cottage industry of high art, he also gave up the Methedrine that had fueled many of his funniest, most beautiful visual riddles of the mid-’70s, little rebuses like the collage he made in 1977 of penguins on ice floes staring up at marbleized beach balls bouncing like a galaxy of suns in a white sky. He swept the floor of his loft clean and took to reading nineteenth-century novels. A pretty accurate picture o his existence from the non shows up in “A Few Days,” by James Schuyler, the poet closest to him in sensibility, in imbuing the everyday with unpretentious luminescence (like Hitchcock's glass of milk lit from within in Notorious): “Joe decides what he's going to do, then he does it. / This summer it's / been sunbathing and reading Dickens and Henry James.”

Yet I remember endless conversations among us young poets about what Brainard was up to. (“I don’t believe in things I want, like being famous and making money,” he told Dlugos. “All that stuff is—I’d like to do it, but I don’t believe in it as much as I used to.”) Especially as his hair turned silver gray, there were all sorts of suspicions that his early retirement was somehow touched by saintliness. That he was teaching us a lesson. That he was a bodhisattva, not just burned-out. It was just such an unusual thing to do. Behind this talk was the felt conviction that Brainard as an artist was going to add up to more than the sum of the hundreds of thousands of pieces he produced before he quit the business. “Joe Brainard: A Retrospective” proves that our hunch was indubitably true.

The thought balloon of a cartoon work from C Comics 2, done way back in 1966, might well be the thought balloon for the entire show, emitting across time from Brainard’s cat’s eye of a stuttering brain. In all caps in an ink cloud above the head of a fox-trotting couple, perhaps on shipboard, he’d written: “PEOPLE OF THE WORLD: RELAX!!!”