“If I’m as normal as I think I am,” Joe Brainard reflected in one of his “29 Mini-Essays” from the mid-Seventies, “we’re all a bunch of weirdos.” Painter, cartoonist, collagist extraordinaire, author of the brilliantly original I Remember, Brainard was also the master of the faux-naif aphorism, the seemingly goofy one-liner that sinks through the layers of the mind like a Zen koan, and embeds itself there. Often these invite us to ponder the sheer strangeness of things: “Feet: looking real hard at feet right now I am wondering ‘why toes?’” Others unobtrusively capture some peculiarity or paradox of modern life, like this pithy take on the information age: “What with history piling up so fast, almost every day is the anniversary of something awful.”
The normal and the weird are so intricately fused in Brainard’s best work that there is no prising them apart; an “oddball classicist” is how John Ashbery has described him, and the new volume of his collected prose pieces, a number of which are published here for the first time, allows us to savor in full the unique and addictive way that Brainard’s writings enact his particular way of being in the world.
In his editor’s preface the poet Ron Padgett—who first met Brainard back in grade school in Tulsa—suggests that most of Brainard’s work can be seen as an ongoing process of self-portraiture. This process, however, took a range of unusual forms. In his early twenties Brainard put together a booklet called “Self-Portrait,” which consisted of ten drawings of individual hairs plucked from ten different parts of his body, with captions identifying each hair’s original location. (A second volume, only a page long, featured a tiny photograph of a nose and the caption “I have a big nose.”) How much are our hairs us, and how much are they not us? It’s the kind of question children are more likely to ponder than adults, and one Brainard returns to in his diary entry for July 11, 1972, reproduced here in facsimile, which records a secular mini-miracle: “AFTER WASHING MY HAIR THIS MORNING IN THE SINK,” he writes in his blocky handwritten capitals, “FOUR HAIRS SPELLED OUT MY NAME.” Below float twelve hand-drawn hairs, four of which indeed spell out Joe.
The second of four children, Brainard was born in Salem, Arkansas, in 1942, but grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He proved himself an astonishingly gifted draftsman from an early age, designing numerous posters and winning various art awards. He originally planned a career in fashion, and was hailed by the local paper as a “Budding Dior” when he was only fourteen. A few years later, however, he was invited by Padgett and Dick Gallup to be art director of the literary magazine they were about to launch. Brainard …