Joe Brainard: "I Remember"
I remember the first time I met Frank O’Hara. He was walking down Second Avenue. It was a cool early Spring evening but he was wearing only a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. And blue jeans. And moccasins. I remember that he seemed very sissy to me. Very theatrical. Decadent. I remember that I liked him instantly.
Joe Brainard remembered a lot of things and will be remembered as a lot of things: foremost as a master of collage and assemblage, and so, by necessity as well as temperament, an obsessive collector of materials and appropriator of images; also as a painter; a poet; and a friend. John Ashbery, in his introduction to Joe Brainard: A Retrospective, says: "Joe Brainard was one of the nicest artists I have ever known. Nice as a person and nice as an artist."
Nice Joe Brainard left Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he was raised, and later left a scholarship at the Dayton Art Institute, for the excitement of New York City. (So nice was Brainard that he didn't want to hurt the Institute’s feelings by jilting it for the city: he told the administration that his father had contracted cancer and that he had to leave, failing to mention that he would be on the next bus for Manhattan.) Lucky enough to have Tulsa pals Ron Padgett and Ted Berrigan, the godfather of second-generation New York School poets, as his New York City welcoming committee, Brainard thrived, living the life of a bohemian artist on the Lower East Side and earning his first solo exhibit four short years after arriving in the city.
Brainard worked at a fever pitch on dozens of pieces simultaneously. As if to highlight the kitsch, the camp, and the love of artifice that so delighted him personally, Brainard chose not to disguise the constituent parts in his assemblage and collage, instead naming works such as "Prell" after the products he had co-opted. Brainard adopted a "no comment" approach to art, allowing whatever meaning accrued in his glued-together worlds to go unexplained. Many collages went untitled, as if the "message" were of no concern and many wound up with provisional titles such as "Good’n Fruity Madonna," reflecting instead the process and materials rather than any will of the artist, reflecting style over content and a refusal on the artist’s part to take the art, or himself, too seriously.
Importantly, in New York, Brainard would also meet the poets who would come to define the era, his future collaborators: Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Barbara Guest, Bill Berkson, Kenneth Koch, Anne Waldman, and James Schuyler. His collaborations with writers took many forms, from book covers and illustrations to paintings and collages with text provided by poets. Some of the finest and funniest are his collages and comic strips to which he invited a bevy of poets to contribute quips.
Whereas the New York School's poetry bore little resemblance to the Abstract Expressionism of the New York School of painters, Brainard’s work could be seen as an artist’s take on the poet's aesthetic. O’Hara describes his beliefs about poetry in his mock-manifesto "Personism":
You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife, you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, "Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep."
Similarly, in an interview with the young Anne Waldman, Brainard said:
I don’t ever have an idea. The material does it all. You have a figure and a flower and you add a cityscape and it makes the story. You have control if you want to take it but that’s something I never wanted to do much.
I’m not saying that I don’t have practically the most lofty ideas of anyone writing today, but what difference does that make? They’re just ideas. The only good thing about it is that when I get lofty enough I’ve stopped thinking and that’s when refreshment arrives.
Most artists are very straight, straight in their seriousness and in what they are trying to do. I think I’m a lot more sensual, a lot more ga-ga than that….
Brainard made art for the same reasons the New York School poets wrote: for the pleasure of it. As he said of collaboration, "it’s fun," and in the late 1960s, Brainard took an interest in the other side of his collaborations, the "fun" of wearing his cohorts' writer pants. The book I Remember is the riotous, poignant, earnest and seemingly random result. Painterly in its vivid details and collagist in its hands-off juxtaposition, it is an accumulative, oblique biography, a portrait of the artist as a young man. It is much, much greater than the mere sum of its parts. Ashbery referred to it, only half-jokingly, as "humane smut." It has that sweet, playful self-possession that pervades Brainard’s work.
I remember my first erections. I thought I had some terrible disease or something.
I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie.
I remember when my father would say "Keep your hands out from under the covers" as he said goodnight. But he said it in a nice way.
I remember when I thought that if you did anything bad, policemen would put you in jail.
And this, written in naïve 1969:
I remember when polio was the worst thing in the world.
In May of 1994, Joe Brainard died of AIDS-related pneumonia. Recently, his childhood friend Ron Padgett wrote a memoir, published by Coffee House Press, about his friendship with Joe Brainard, about growing up in Oklahoma in the 1950s, and about his and Brainard's pursuit of poetry and art in New York City. The book is called Joe.