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Shameless and All-Forgiving Joe

Joe Brainard/Siglio
Joe Brainard: ‘If Nancy Was André Breton at Eighteen Months,’ 1972; from The Nancy Book by Joe Brainard, published by Siglio in 2008

“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 designed the covers for The White Dove Review, which would attract contributions from such writers as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Robert Creeley, and LeRoi Jones; and in due course he would be responsible for the artwork of a huge range of magazines, pamphlets, and books produced by writers of both first and second generations of the New York School.

He and Padgett paid their first visit to New York in September 1960, but Brainard didn’t settle there until December of that year, after an unhappy spell at the Dayton Art Institute in Ohio, to which he’d been awarded a scholarship. Not wanting to hurt the feelings of the institute’s authorities, who had invested such faith in him, he told them that his perfectly healthy father was dying of cancer, and that he had to return to care for him at once; but instead of catching a bus home to Tulsa, he caught one back to New York.

Aficionados of I Remember can in time come to feel that they know Joe Brainard’s childhood better than their own:

I remember my first erections. I thought I had some terrible disease or something.
I remember the only time I saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie.
I remember how much I cried seeing South Pacific (the movie) three times.
I remember how good a glass of water can taste after a dish of ice cream.

Each entry, many of which are only one sentence long, begins “I remember,” and in his excellent introduction to this volume Paul Auster breaks down the nearly 1,500 memories in the book into various categories, such as family, food, clothes, movies, school and church, the body, dreams, holidays, jokes, sex, and so on. Some of course belong to more than one category:

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, in high school, if you wore green and yellow on Thursday it meant that you were queer.

Useful as Auster’s taxonomy is, it also seems to me true that one of the most enchanting and liberating effects of Brainard’s scrambling of so many disparate kinds of experience into a vast, unchronological collage is the way it thwarts our urge to create hierarchies or invent purposeful narratives that would impose order on life. The form of I Remember makes each entry the democratic equal of every other entry, and allows no privileging of the profound over the banal, of confessional revelation over the accidents of memory, of adulthood over childhood—or vice versa. Consider these four entries:

I remember chalk.
I remember that life was just as serious then as it is now.
I remember Bermuda shorts and knee-length socks.
I remember my first sexual experience in a subway. Some guy (I was afraid to look at him) got a hard-on and was rubbing it back and forth against my arm. I got very excited and when my stop came I hurried out and home where I tried to do an oil painting using my dick as a brush.

This blending of the generic and the unique creates a sort of verbal emulsion that eludes the conventional ways in which we arrange and judge. It allows Brainard to be at once shameless and all-forgiving; I Remember reassures us that it is OK to think both our most clichéd thoughts and our most singular ones, to have trite experiences as well as peculiar ones, that to be weird is really normal, and that to be normal is really weird.

The mixture of innocence and sophistication that is so characteristic of Brainard’s art and his writings was evidently an inherent part of the way he was, but it was also fostered and treasured by the “New York School” circles in which he and Padgett and Ted Berrigan, another Tulsa refugee, were happily revolving by the mid-Sixties. Frank O’Hara, the benign godfather of the burgeoning second generation of the New York School, was an encouraging catalyst and inspiring paradigm of camp, metropolitan style, and is warmly recalled by Brainard in 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.

He and Brainard were soon friends and collaborating on a hilarious comic strip about a cowboy called Red Rydler. It was the age of the mimeograph, of Berrigan’s C Comics, of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, and Brainard’s work flourished in the expanding but still intimate coterie of the intertwined downtown art and poetry scenes. His first show in 1965 at Alan Gallery consisted of seventeen assemblages fashioned from items scavenged from the streets or picked up in junk shops and thrift stores. They mingled the lurid and the religious, the melodramatic and the gritty, the discarded and the extravagantly stylish, combining trouvailles such as pink rubber snakes, a moose statuette, rosaries, cigarette butts, a rubber fried egg, ostrich feathers, bowties covered with glitter, and images of the Virgin Mary.

Pop Art was also, just around this time, establishing itself as the supplanter of Abstract Expressionism, which had ruled the New York art world for the previous fifteen to twenty years. Brainard was a great admirer of Andy Warhol, as he makes clear in the short piece “Andy Warhol: Andy Do It,” collected here, which repeats the phrase “I like Andy Warhol” fourteen times in a row; but where Warhol is ice-cool and unfazed, indeed glamorously unfazable, Brainard is emotional and expressive. The reason commercial products such as Prell shampoo bottles and Lucky Strike cigarette packages and 7-Up bottle caps figure in certain of his creations was simply because he loved the way they looked there.

Brainard was neither, then, an ironist of modern times nor a critic of popular culture but rather a radical sensualist who delighted in whatever gave him aesthetic pleasure, wherever he found it. What comes over somewhat more strongly in his writings, however, is an edge of anxiety, a sense that his magical juggling of so much assorted bric-a-brac into so many beautiful compositions was also a way of triumphing over, or at least temporarily suppressing, fears and uncertainties. The earliest piece collected here is “Self-Portrait on Christmas Night,” which was written in 1961 when he was nineteen. It opens:

It’s Christmas night, how I want to paint, to say so much. I can’t, why? Would like to cry, beat off, or go to the movies. But won’t do any of these. Can’t make contact with myself. Took two pills earlier. Can’t find peace. Am nervous and just can’t understand anything. My brains and my hands won’t co-ordinate. Listening to classical music. How music makes me cry, so beautiful. At times like this I really know, though I rarely admit it to myself, I and the world are great and so fucked.

Nine pages of classic late adolescent soul-searching follow. This cri de coeur, obviously written in the heat of the moment, is a meditation in an emergency, to borrow a phrase of Frank O’Hara’s, but it also prompts one to respond to the neurotic energy underlying even Brainard’s most serene and seemingly effortless compositions. Surely one of the reasons he appropriated Ernie Bushmiller’s dogged heroine Nancy for a series of paintings, cartoons, and collages was out of envy for her smug self-possession in the face of whatever scrapes her inventor created for her.1 Brainard’s Nancy similarly maintains her determined grin while flipping up her skirt to reveal a penis (If Nancy Was a Boy), while replacing Theodore Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore (If Nancy Was President Roosevelt), and while waving from the pouch of a member of the US Navy (If Nancy Was a Sailor’s Basket). But Brainard also subjected her to the kinds of vertiginous anxiety he experienced on Christmas night in 1961, imprisoning her in a diseased kidney (If Nancy Was the Bright’s Disease), picturing her screaming for help from her own maw (If Nancy Opened Her Mouth So Wide She Fell In), and even drawing her desperately trying to escape her own picture in one that is entitled Fear.

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    These are collected in The Nancy Book (Siglio, 2008). 

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