Joe Brainard (1941-1994) was a marvelous artist – a painter whose work, including his collages and drawings, revealed a shrewdly intelligent man who was able to tap into a naif’s youthful innocence, a sharpie’s wit, and a commercial creator’s uniquely sophisticated sense of design. Brainard was also a sometime-writer whose words (and some art) have been collected in a “special publication” from The Library of America as The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard.
Brainard’s most well-known work – included here — is I Remember, a book-length collection of memories cast as a list of deceptive simplicity. To quote from a near-random page:
I remember the smell of Jergen’s hand lotion on hands. And its pearly white texture as it oozes from the bottle.
I remember large bars of Ivory soap that broke easily into two. (Actually, now that I think about it, not so easily.)
I remember the Dutch Cleanser girl with no face.
I remember wondering about the comfort and practicality of wooden shoes.
I remember filling out a form once and not knowing what to put down as “race.”
I remember speculating that probably someday all races would get mixed up into one race.
The Collected Writings include journal entries Brainard kept that serve as vivid recollections of New York School poets including Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Kenward Elmslie, Ted Berrigan, and this volume’s editor, Ron Padgett.
There’s also a fair sampling of Brainard’s poetry, which, unlike his paintings and collages, tends to be artful in its artlessness. From “I Like”:
There are none under anywhere
I find only dirty tulips
Or orchid ribbons
With big black words
A royal sky:
It lets one see
And what a good thing a white shirt is! …
There are Brainard images burned into my memory, such as his gorgeous design for that crucial book An Anthology of New York Poets, with its red images (a cherry, a butterfly, a ball) drawn against a stark white background. I remember (to quote Brainard) saving money during impecunious college days to buy a copy of Bean Spasms, a collaboration of art and text between Padgett and Berrigan with drawings and a cover by Brainard – a brilliant yellow flower – that I cherish. And if you’re new to Brainard’s work, you’ll be drawn in here by the way he could sketch items as banal as a squashed cigarette butt or a pencil or a bottle cap, and make them three-dimensionally present.
There’s no doubt that Brainard was a “minor” writer and a “major” artist, but part of his achievement was to redefine what those phrases mean. Certainly his paintings and collages, with their assiduously everyday subject matter and straightforward presentation, are the sorts of creations that are raised in significance through the vigor and purity of Brainard’s execution. And his prose musings, whether the simple sentences of I Remember or the near-abstract, Gertrude Stein-ish word assemblages of his poetry, evince a playful yet sincere sensibility that lend his words emotional force. Again and again, each creation summoned up a small world to get lost in, without lapsing into coy fantasy. He was an impish realist, and the publication of The Collected Writings help keep Joe Brainard’s art and life feverishly alive.