- The Nancy Book by Joe Brainard
Siglio, 144 pp, $39.50, April 2008, ISBN 978 0 9799562 0 1
The prodigiously gifted artist and writer Joe Brainard died of Aids in a hospital in New York in May 1994, at the age of 52. He had long been revered in certain parts of the New York art and poetry worlds, though he never achieved, or, by all accounts, desired, the celebrity and status of Andy Warhol or Claes Oldenburg or Jim Dine, alongside whose work his elegant collages were first presented to British gallery-goers at the Hayward’s Pop Art show of 1969. But Brainard wasn’t really a Pop artist, and though a big Warhol fan, instinctively resisted the brutal equation between art and commodification that Pop Art propounded. In an interview of 1977, around the time he more or less gave up his artistic career to devote himself to his two favourite recreations, smoking and reading novels, Brainard suggested it was probably the eclectic nature of his output that had saved him from developing into a brand name:
I don’t have a definite commodity … I’ve had oil-painting shows that were very realistic, then I’ve done jack-off collages, cut-outs one year and drawings … it’s all been different … People want to buy a Warhol or a person instead of a work. My work’s never become ‘a Brainard’.
Or even a Jainard or a Bernard or a Joe. Here are the last six ‘I remember’s from his sparklingly original and ‘totally great’ (to use one of his own favourite locutions) memoir, I Remember, issued in four instalments between 1970 and 1973, and then collected in a single edition in 1975:
I remember one day in psychology class the teacher asked everyone who had regular bowel movements to raise their hand. I don’t remember if I had regular bowel movements or not but I do remember that I raised my hand.
I remember changing my name to Bo Jainard for about one week.
I remember not being able to pronounce ‘mirror’.
I remember wanting to change my name to Jacques Bernard.
I remember when I used to sign my paintings ‘By Joe’.
I remember a dream of meeting a man made out of a very soft yellow cheese and when I went to shake his hand I just pulled his whole arm off.
Brainard was born in 1942 and grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he won almost every art prize going. A precocious draftsman, he initially intended to become a fashion designer, and was hailed at 14 by a Tulsa newspaper as a ‘budding Dior’. I Remember suggests he was interested not only in designing women’s clothes, but in wearing them too:
I remember when I went to a ‘come as your favourite person’ party as Marilyn Monroe …
I remember that for my fifth birthday all I wanted was an off-one-shoulder black satin evening gown. I got it. And I wore it to my birthday party.
In 1959 he was approached by a couple of fellow students at Tulsa Central High to be the art director of a magazine they were starting; though it ran for only five issues, White Dove Review succeeded in attracting contributions from a number of the leaders of the country’s emerging counter-culture, including Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, LeRoi Jones and Robert Creeley. It also ran a selection of the early work of a maverick graduate student in English at the University of Tulsa, Ted Berrigan. Berrigan was soon accompanying Brainard and his fellow editors, the poets Ron Padgett and Dick Gallup, on their forays into Tulsan bohemia, and together they began experimenting with the artistic possibilities unleashed by speed pills such as Benzedrine. Almost overnight, as Padgett records in his illuminating biography, Joe (2004), Brainard’s ambitions shifted from fashion design to avant-garde art. Over the next few years each of the Tulsa Four migrated to New York, where for a while Berrigan and Brainard shared a store-front room on East Sixth Street, one sleeping on the single bed by day, the other by night. They survived by shoplifting and selling their blood for $5 a pint. Things weren’t always easy between them: ‘I remember painting “I HATE TED BERRIGAN” in big black letters all over my white wall.’
The downtown New York art and poetry worlds enjoyed an almost symbiotic relationship in the early 1960s, and their appeal to Brainard and the other Dust Bowl refugees (as Padgett once called them) is often vividly captured 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 even went to the trouble, he tells us, of learning to play bridge in order to get invited to O’Hara’s bridge evenings, which proved to be ‘mostly talk’; it fell not to O’Hara but to his roommate Joe LeSueur (who records the evening in some detail in Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara) to initiate the gawky, shy, stuttering new arrival into the city’s gay scene. ‘I had the feeling,’ LeSueur rejoiced, ‘he had waited all of his 21 years for what we conspired together.’