Joe Brainard moment: Poet, artist, and downtown personality gets collection, exhibition, and film

Joe Brainard in 1977 (Peter Hujar)
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In a letter, John Keats once wrote: “if Poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” Art certainly came like leaves to Joe Brainard’s tree, which isn’t to say that he didn’t work hard at it. (The same caveat applies of course to Keats.)

Brainard’s intricate collages make lush lawns of painstakingly painted individual blades of grass, or fields of brightly popping flowers. These, along with his numerous other works—varied in style and medium from realist oil paintings to smutty cartoons, sculptural assemblages to whimsical sketches—have an ease about them, a sense of natural sprouting.

Joe Brainard was also a writer. Brainard’s writing, like his art work, is approachable, plentiful, and wide-ranging in style. The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard, published by The Library of America last week, gathers together this writing for the first time in one place. The book launch is tonight at the Tibor de Nagy gallery, which is also currently hosting a show of Brainard’s visual works.

Although Brainard’s writing has an unmistakable naturalness—“Writing, for me, is a way of ‘talking’ the way I wish I could talk,” he writes at one point—one of the things that makes The Collected Writings so interesting is the sense that all this writing might not have happened at all. Perhaps it’s that very condition of election, rather than compulsion, that gives Brainard’s work its relaxed character. Anne Waldman, a prolific beat poet, begins her interview with Brainard, included in the final section of The Collected Writings, with a series of pointed questions about the choice art offers to its practitioners:

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AW: Do you think one has a choice about being an artist?

JB: Oh yes I think one always has a choice.

AW: When did you make that choice?

JB: I don’t think I ever made it but I think I have a choice. I think I could stop it now.

AW: Isn’t it too late to stop?

JB: No I don’t really think so, I think I could stop tomorrow, I really do.

AW: I don’t believe it.

During the last fifteen years of his life, Brainard actually did stop making art; he stopped writing as well. Why an artist stops creating is as difficult to account for as understanding what brought him or her to the easel or the typewriter to begin with. One thing that’s clear about Brainard’s work, though, especially his writing, is that he knew who he was writing for: some of the best writers of the 1960s and '70s. In other words, his closest friends.

“Suddenly Joe Brainard was everywhere,” Ron Padgett begins his 2004 book-length portrait, Joe: A Memoir of Joe Brainard. It’s 1958, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and young Padgett, poet and high school junior, is looking for an art editor for his literary journal, the White Dove Review. He begins noticing a name affixed to the artwork hanging in the school corridors, and attached to a conventional, friendly-looking kid with dark curls and lanky limbs. Contemplating the greatness of this young artist, Padgett writes a poem about Brainard. Then, he takes a decisive step: he sends him a Christmas card. And finally, after Christmas has come and gone, he approaches the ubiquitous Brainard, introduces himself, and asks if he’d like to work for the White Dove. Brainard stutters, then accepts.

Within five issues, the White Dove Review would publish some of the most important writers of the day: Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones, and the then little known poet and Tulsan graduate student, Ted Berrigan. And roughly a year and half later, Berrigan, Padgett, and Brainard would coast into the heart of the New York literary and art scene on the wings of their dove, becoming known, among various monikers, as the Tulsa School of writers, a second generation of the New York School.        

Throughout his career, Joe Brainard continued to be everywhere, and to be surrounded by poets. In addition to Padgett and Berrigan, Brainard formed lasting connections with such luminaries as Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and John Ashbery, among many others. These were his audience. Friends and artistic collaborators populate Brainard’s Collected Writings like guests at a party.

“If you are one of my friends let me tell you right now that you are absolutely terrific,” Brainard writes in his “Jamaica Diary.” “I know how lucky I am.”

The Collected Writings takes us in and out of this party’s many, intimate rooms. Sometimes the rooms resemble the pleasantly overcrowded backseat of a car as Ron and Patt Padgett and Brainard head back to Tulsa for a holiday, feeling like some floundering hybrid of Oklahoma and New York. Or it becomes the sun-spangled front lawn of Kenward Elmslie’s white farmhouse in Vermont, where James Schuyler is drinking a fresh cup of coffee, and John Ashbery is writing disjunctively evocative lists. Or a door opens and we’re in the small-town art world of Bolinas, California, where everyone (including Brainard) has “a high school crush on Joanne Kyger.” Or it’s Anne Waldman’s birthday; or Barbara Guest's, and everyone, it seems, (including Brainard) is about to give a reading, most likely at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery.

It’s a great party; the sense of enthusiasm and affection (and amphetamines) is palpable; there’s always a portrait to be drawn, a book cover to design, a gallery to visit, a diary to write and read in public alongside a friend. Brainard’s thoughts were consistently directed toward others, even at his most introspective, even when he was alone.

In the earliest piece included in The Collected Writings, the earnestly adolescent “Self Portrait on Christmas Night,” from 1961, Brainard writes: “though I’m writing this for myself and for the sake of writing, Ted [Berrigan] will read it (and I want him to).”

“Joe liked the idea that his friends were going to read what he was writing,” Ron Padgett told me in a recent phone interview. And in his editor’s preface to the Collected Writings, Padgett writes that Joe wrote “mainly for his friends” as “a way of giving himself to them.”

The expectation of an immediate and intimate readership makes Brainard’s writing feel welcoming, even to a reader encountering him for the first time.

“You can tell by looking at his art and his writing that it’s very friendly,” Padgett told me, “even when it’s daring, or aggressive, or risqué. He never wanted to shock.” This welcoming atmosphere allows Brainard to write openly about all kinds of potentially compromising feelings: loneliness, horniness, (and horniness mixed with loneliness), embarrassment, the desire to be so in love that it feels possible to forget everything else, and the realization that you’re not in that kind of love, but that you need the kind of love you are in anyway. Brainard’s writings never feel uncomfortable, even when their subject is discomfort, a ten-hour bus ride or a bad night of cruising.

The Collected Writings is divided into three sections: “I Remember,” “Self Portrait,” and a short section including two interviews, Anne Waldman’s and another with Tim Dlugos. (Both interviewers ask Brainard what his favorite color is. Answer: red.)

As a writer, Brainard is most remembered, appropriately, for I Remember, an exploration of memory’s mundane and emotional conjuring. All of Brainard’s charm, attention to detail, humor, and honesty are at play here, accumulating in a simple, but incantatory, form:

I remember salt on watermelon.

I remember strapless net formals in pastel colors that came down to the ankles. And carnation corsages on little short jackets.

I remember Christmas carols. And car lots.

I remember bunk beds.

I remember rummage sales. Ice cream socials. White gravy. And Hopalong Cassidy.

One of the many pleasures of I Remember is its casual yet visceral documentation of mid-century American culture, a la Hopalong Cassidy.

Sometimes the memories of I Remember coalesce into momentary scenes, such as when Brainard remembers his “grandfather who lived on a farm dunking his cornbread in his buttermilk” and a few lines down remembers “how heavy cornbread was.” But just as often, each memory floats in its own dislocated space: “I remember on Halloween, one old lady you had to sing or dance or do something for before she would give you anything.” Next line: “I remember chalk.”

Dispersed among these snippets, each clipped from any sense of the linearity of the past, are Brainard’s memories of himself: “I remember looking at myself in a mirror and becoming a total stranger.” Or, “I remember when I thought that I was a great artist. I remember when I wanted to be rich and famous. (And I still do!).” These moments are often startlingly clear-sighted, or self-effacingly funny, and often both at the same time. In its combination of the everyday and the aspirational, the aesthetic and the absurd, the honest and the imaginative, I Remember belongs among other great works by New York School writers: O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, Ashbery’s Self–Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Berrigan’s Sonnets.

Recently, New York filmmaker Matt Wolf completed a short film that shares the title of Brainard’s I Remember. Wolf’s film (which screens on May 7 at The Kitchen) splices archival footage from government-produced educational videos of the 1950s and '60s with stills and video footage of Brainard and the Padgetts from Ron Padgett’s personal collection. Accompanying these images, which, like Brainard’s own memories, suggest without insisting, Wolf interweaves an interview with Padgett and recordings of Brainard reading from I Remember. The result valorizes the poignancy of memory, both Padgett’s and Brainard’s, while at the same time maintaining a healthful distance between past and present, memory and life. Memories of Tulsa are transformed, released, by the energy and distance of New York.

“Nostalgia can be very conservative,” Wolf told me when we spoke on the phone. Speaking of his own work, which includes another tribute film, Wild Combination, about the downtown musician and composer Arthur Russell, and an ongoing project about the invention of teenagers around the world, Wolf said, “I’m really interested in how things from the past resonate in the present ... Joe [Brainard’s] poem is not necessarily nostalgic, but universalizing.”

I Remember includes many portraits of friends, including several haunting scenes featuring Frank O’Hara: “I remember one very cold and black night on the beach alone with Frank O’Hara. He ran into the ocean naked and it scared me to death.” But predominantly, this book is a solo affair. With the exception of I Remember, fans of the New York school have mainly remembered Brainard as a visual artist rather than a writer. The Collected Writings is an important contribution because it reveals the true breadth of Brainard’s written work. It’s in the bustle and formal open-endedness of the “Self-Portrait” pieces—close to one hundred generically diverse works, comprising the bulk the volume—that the party really gets going.

This “portrait” includes journals and diaries populated by lovers and friends, cartoons (including the amazing manifesto, “People of the World, Relax!”), several surreal and spooky character sketches (including two of “Nancy,” a spin-off perhaps of Ernie Bushmiller’s spiky-black-haired, short-red-skirted, comic character, whom Brainard loved to recreate in drawings), observations on sex, “sick art,” queer bars, journeys by train, bus, or car, absurdist self-improvement exercises, and imaginary still lifes. As much as these pieces return to Brainard, they also fan out toward the people he loved. So in the end their “portrait” is really “portraits,” an assemblage.

Joe Brainard’s writing is both modest and effusive. Padgett told me that Brainard once said that he “didn’t enjoy looking at art that was bigger than it had to be.” There is an utterly unassuming enthusiasm to Brainard’s art and his writing. Padgett concludes his memoir, Joe, by discussing the saintly qualities of his friend.

When I asked Waldman, another of Brainard’s longtime friends, why she thought Brainard stopped making art, she also turned to a language of saintliness: “He was not comfortable with ambition,” she said, “although he had the highest ambition for the work.… He often reminded me of a renunciant, a saint. Never ego-driven. Modest, not acquisitive.”

Introducing Brainard at a reading for the People’s Poetry Project in 1981, Bernadette Meyer concluded her introduction by quoting John Ashbery’s account of Joe Brainard: “His modesty is the modesty of the gods.”

That feeling of possibility—the grandness of approachability, benevolent ambition, the ecstasy of the everyday—defines the godly modesty of Joe’s writing. This volume will gather many new friends to him.

The book launch of The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard is tonight at Tibor de Nagy Gallery. Matt Wolf’s ‘I Remember—A Film about Joe Brainard,’ screens at The Kitchen on May 7.