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Shameless and All-Forgiving Joe

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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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Chris Felver/Getty Images
Joe Brainard, New York City, 1985

Certainly I Remember does ample justice not only to the wonders and puzzles of childhood, but to the varieties of adolescent angst and awkwardness too, though initially they can register as neutralized, even nostalgic, vignettes about growing up:

I remember how much I used to stutter.
I remember how much, in high school, I wanted to be handsome and popular.
I remember when, in high school, I used to stuff a sock in my underwear.

The faux-naif can of course work both ways; while it can disarm the potentially threatening or render harmless what once disturbed, it can also inject menace or hysteria into the seemingly placid, as Brainard does in his pictures of Nancy in various kinds of distress, or when he titles a comic strip People of the World: Relax! What could be more unnerving, more unrelaxing, than this injunction?

Brainard is at his most unrelaxed in Bolinas Journal, which records five weeks spent in this outpost of the New York School just north of San Francisco. Bill Berkson (whose Big Sky Press initially published Bolinas Journal as a stapled pamphlet) had moved there in 1970, and by the time Brainard visited in May of the following year, the Bolinas literary community also included Lewis Warsh, Joanne Kyger, Tom Clark, Philip Whalen, Robert Creeley, and Bobbie Creeley. Brainard reports finding everyone there “amazing” and “totally great” (“really especially crazy about Bob and Bobbie and Joanne”), and optimistically imagines feeling “able to relax more here. And take things as they come more here”; but his entries catalog, rather, an uneasy sense of displacement and isolation. “If I lived in Bolinas,” runs one, “I would soon become the jerk-off champion of the world. Enough said about that.” The next one describes the “‘trying to be honest’ kind of writing” which the journal exemplifies as a kind of mirage; the better he becomes at it, and the closer he gets to “a point (a place) in my head I call the truth,” the less he believes that point can exist: here comes another of his comic-book gobbets of wisdom that somehow remind one of Emerson or Thoreau and, say, Shaggy from Scooby-Doo simultaneously:

I mean, the closer I get to the truth the less I know what the truth is.
Wish I could make myself more clear, but———right now I can’t.

Muted highlights of Brainard’s stay in Bolinas include communal tripping, during which he gets anxious because he knows Bill wants a more “heady” experience than the one he’s actually having, a visit to Robert Duncan and his partner the painter Jess (“Nice house they have, Robert and Jess, tho all that heavy furniture and stuff would drive me up the wall”), and a night with Joanne Kyger, of which he records: “I’m not sure how much sex was on my mind, except that it was. But we didn’t. Being queer isn’t an easy habit to break. And usually, I have no desire to.” When he does finally make out, shortly before his departure, with a boy called Tom who lives on the beach, the result is far from fulfilling the romantic dreams of an overwhelming passion that he’d entertained on arriving in California:

Actually, it was sort of boring. Totally a one-way thing. I mean—to put it bluntly—he just wanted to be blown. “I really like girls better,” he kept assuring me. (And they can have him.)

Yet, perhaps to make up for so much frustration, the cartoon collaboration on which he and Berkson (“slurp”) engaged turned into one of his raunchiest. Only a few panels from it make it into Bolinas Journal, but the whole thing is reproduced in The Nancy Book; it features Bushmiller’s eager, purposeful heroine and Carl Anderson’s Henry (created in 1932) enthusiastically enjoying each other in almost every imaginable position.

The journal format inspired much of Brainard’s best writing, as it did that of James Schuyler, the New York School poet to whom he was probably closest; Schuyler’s long pieces such as “Hymn to Life” or “The Morning of the Poem” or “A Few Days” are really ongoing diaries in verse, and he shared with Brainard a love of the offbeat and homely.2 Both use the journal form in a bewitchingly entertaining way, cutting from stylized anguish to wacky pseudo-profound thoughts—that on reflection do often turn out to be genuinely profound—to precise, rapt description of the world that surrounds them. On his escape from Bolinas back to the East Coast, Brainard almost immediately caught a Greyhound bus up to Calais, Vermont, where he’d spend summers with his partner Kenward Elmslie. His diary of this trip, published here for the first time, registers the look of small-town America as skillfully and hauntingly as his drawings for his collaboration with John Ashbery, The Vermont Notebook, of a few years later, even when it is only a list of things he notices:

A picnic table.
Outdoor chairs.
A planter.
Bicycles.
Toys.
The way things seem “sprinkled” around a yard (even tho probably neatly placed) is somehow very moving.

At which his attention shifts to the cosmic, and his own inability to respond fully to it: “The sun is a bright pink-orange now, and beautiful. And more amazing, I sense, than I am able to realize.”

Perhaps the essence of Brainard’s hypnotic power as both an artist and a writer is his modesty. A line from Elizabeth Bishop’s “Crusoe in England” kept recurring to me while I was immersed in this book: “Home-made, home-made! But aren’t we all?” Beautifully designed, Brainard’s Collected Writings reproduces the improvised, homemade feel of Brainard’s journal writings by including drawings and handwritten notes and memos and cartoons and flyers; and as a result it at times feels more like reading a Sixties mimeograph than a tome in the prestigious Library of America series of great American authors.

Brainard’s modesty did not, of course, mean that he wasn’t ambitious, which he clearly was, acknowledging in an interview that he wanted to be rich, and be thought a great painter, and be charming and loved by everyone, and what’s more, though he conceded that this was “totally unrealistic,” he wanted to look like James Dean. His creative genius, however, lacked the kernel of egotism that drove, say, a Picasso, whose death prompted in him not thoughts of the way Picasso had changed the history of twentieth-century art, but “my God, what a beautiful full life!—91!” And possibly it was this modesty that allowed Brainard himself, after some fifteen years of speed-fueled creativity, to wind down as an artist, and relax, as his comic strip title counseled the world to do. After 1978 both his art and his writing tapered off; between 1981 and his death from AIDS in 1994 he produced little to add to his already substantial oeuvre, devoting his time instead to reading novels (Barbara Pym was a particular favorite), to smoking and having facials and working out at the gym.

This volume ends with a diary entry from the evening of January 13, 1978, in which Brainard carefully describes his surroundings in his apartment in New York: Mozart, a campari and soda, an ashtray with three cigarette butts in it, snow falling outside “against a translucent sky of deep lavender, with a touch of orange, zig-zagged along the bottom into a silhouette of black buildings. (The icebox clicks off, and shudders.)” The point, he continues, is “as simple as this, what I want to tell you about: if perhaps not much, everything. Painting the moment for you tonight.” Whether this you is anyone in particular, or is his interior paramour, to use a phrase of Wallace Stevens, is not disclosed. As in so much of Brainard’s work, not much and everything somehow become one and the same, and the moment, as the icebox clicks off and shudders, remains preserved for us tonight.

  1. 1

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

  2. 2

    Just the Thing: Selected Letters of James Schuyler, 1951–1991 (Turtle Point, 2004) contains numerous letters from Schuyler to Brainard, a number of which make one eager to read Brainard’s side of their correspondence: “Wow, what a couple of wonderful letters,” opens one of July 17, 1969. 

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