Joe Brainard touched the lives and work of innumerable people in a variety of ways. Below are a series of reflections by people who knew him or who have written about or been particularly moved by his work (or all of the above).
In 2001 I organized a retrospective exhibition of works by Joe Brainard for the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum, which traveled to the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, Colorado, the Donna Beam Fine Arts Gallery at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and finally to PS I in New York. The show was wildly successful. Critics lauded it, and many people, artists especially, told me how much the show had meant to them. As a longtime curator, I can tell you that this sort of personal response doesn’t happen often.
I didn’t know Joe personally, but my husband the poet Bill Berkson did, and with his encouragement and that of Brainard’s lifelong friend Ron Padgett, I took the plunge and set out to see as many works as possible. I was warned that there was a lot out there, but nonetheless was unprepared for the sheer volume. Joe was very prolific, especially during the mid-1970s when his natural productive energy was amplified by amphetamines. Plus, he was extremely generous often giving away work or pricing it ridiculously low (his prices are still very modest). Moreover, in terms of quality, there was consistently high level across the full scope of Brainard’s artmaking, which included assemblages, collages, drawings, paintings, and book illustrations. The difficulty was not, then, in finding work, but in selecting. To this day, when I come across works of which I was unaware, I feel a pang of regret in not having being able to show more.
Brainard eschewed art world fame. He was content to be making work and living among and collaborating with his circle of poet friends. He pretty much gave up exhibiting after 1979. He would no doubt be surprised and amused to know that has his reputation has grown significantly, not only for his art, but for his writing as well. His “I Remember” books that consist of short, personal reminiscences, despite their specificity, have been received enthusiastically by people around the globe.
Pay attention to minute particulars. Take care of the little ones. Generalization and abstraction are the plea of the hypocrite, scoundrel, and knave.” – William Blake
About 25 pages into Florida Damage Report the recurring set up “I remember” begins to disappear. It no longer seems to register in the mind. I don’t remember this sense of erasure creeping up when reading Joe Brainard’s I Remember. His form has been taken up over the years by prose writers (George Perec, Harry Matthews), poets (Anselm Berrigan, Ron Padgett) as well as countless brilliant children writing in their classrooms. I Remember has become an established holy spring, a warm pool in which writing can unfold naturally without any remembered effort. One of the tricks to keeping it afloat is the constant return to a light, fair tone that can withstand the sudden weight of revelation.
Joe described the sensation behind the writing of I Remember in a 1969 letter to Anne Waldman:
“I am way, way up these days over a piece I am still writing called I Remember. I feel very much like God writing the bible. I mean. I feel like I am not really writing it but that it is because of me that it is being written. I also feel that it is about everybody else as much as it is about me. And that pleases me. I mean, I feel like I am everybody. And it’s a nice feeling. It won’t last. But I am enjoying it while I can.”
Joe’s style possesses a peculiar, dead-on, childlike honesty that feels a lot like reading a transcription of someone talking. Something lighter than the gritty mechanics of writing can ever convey. The only other ‘writing’ that I feel bears a resemblance to Joe’s is contained in The Andy Warhol Diaries, which were recorded over the telephone and then transcribed years later. Over the course of writing this piece I remembered that I had once read a Ted Berrigan version of I Remember. I consulted The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan and found the poem as well as the following information on its composition.
“I Remember” A sonnet composed of lines from Joe Brainard’s opus I Remember.”
I remember painting “I HATE TED BERRIGAN” in big black letters
all over my white wall.
I remember bright orange light coming into rooms in the late
I remember when I lived in Boston reading all of Dostoyevsky’s
novels one after the other.
I remember the way a baby’s hand has of folding itself around
your finger, as tho forever.
I remember a giant gold man, taller than most buildings, at
“The Tulsa Oil Show”.
I remember in Boston a portrait of Isabella Gardner by Whistler.
I remember wood carvings of funny doctors.
I remember opening jars that nobody else could open.
I remember wondering why anyone would want to be a doctor. And
I still do.
I remember Christmas card wastebaskets.
I remember not understanding why Cinderella didn’t just pack up and leave,
if things were all that bad. I remember “Korea.”
I remember one brick wall and three white walls
I remember one very hot summer day I put ice cubes in my aquarium
and all the fish died.
I remember how heavy the cornbread was. And it still is.
I Remember also belongs to the larger context of the list poem. It remains one of my favorite lessons to cure a nervous classroom, it is a great getting to know you form, a formula for sudden flowers, not unlike writing a “Things to do Poem”. It is often dependent on a short, recurring, breathless rhythm that feels easy to depart from and even easier to shoot right back, a track of single words forming a landscape that we are then placed inside of. It’s simultaneously an invocation, a repetition pushed to the point of delirium which reads as pure freedom.
In my preparation for this writing I came upon a recent unpublished poem in my notebook that seems to deal in a similar state.
I kept my books tight down to the last figure
I held the violet reins a bit tighter
I vanished smaller down the hallway
I carried my heavy typewriter to a pawnshop on Mission Street (more than once)
I sold books that were lovingly inscribed
I never faked a signature though.
I was enslaved to their mystique and its golden tipping point
I had to remind myself not to back out early
I was worried they could hear that I had turned the heat off
I shook my head to answer before hanging up the phone
If you think up a good title (a filter) in advance you can coax your imagination word by word or action by action as in a play.
Reading a list poem aloud helps to negotiate the bare bones of narrative. It clings to and flatters those rhythms that tumble out easily. The reader is allowed to climb back down from the apex and the path is kept clear. Revelations are waved forth from a simple, seemingly naïve gesture-to list in trance. The panels upheld at either end are burned into our brains.
Florida Damage Report makes it seem that just by admitting our faults they will disappear. Alternate titles that came to mind when reading this work included I Remember Florida and I Remember Humans. This form will turn somber in the hands of someone incarcerated. Suddenly their whole life tends to be read in reverse, as if every entry is leading up to the point of confinement. But then the form also remains helplessly locked in the past. Parts of this book feel like watching grainy, silent surveillance videos against your will in an empty room – blinding fluorescent lights. It also toys with expose, “contorted and painful truth” to quote the poet John Wieners.
Frank remembers episodes that would have long since blurred for most of us. He recalls his first few acid trips with a marked lucidity and permanent openness. The ‘I Remember’ form always covers more ground than one might think, it can be a way of casting a piece of writing as one does a sculpture or bust, In Frank’s book I can feel a beautifully bronzed bed of nails at work.
“I remember finally arriving home and going to my bedroom. It felt wonderful to be in my room amongst all my things. I laid in my bed and felt the residue of the salt air on my skin. I watched all sorts of television and loved the way it illuminated the ceiling of my bedroom. I stayed up all night. A new and incredible peace washed over me, a feeling I’ve never forgotten.”
Cedar Sigo 8-10-17
Even as memory is an unreliable narrator, fickle and partial; even as words reach but never touch, Joe stays vividly present. He had beautiful large hands, with long fingers. He was lean, and somewhat vain; he just missed being classically handsome. He was elegant and sensuous, wearing white shirts, often open nearly to his waist, and jeans, and sneakers, and beautifully draped Armani jackets. His voice had a breathy granular warmth which I always found calming; I can still hear it in my inner ear: Hi Anni, this is Joe. He loved giving gifts. He had a certain economy of means that went beyond style to a way of being and acting in the world. This is evident in his work, both his writing and his art; he had a profound insight into the essence of persons and things. He over-tipped in taxis and restaurants. He never used a credit card. He was modest in demeaner but ambitious for himself and for others; he was easily kind but not uncritical. He wrote letters and sent post-cards with few words but always with LOVE underlined three times.
Ann Lauterbach, August 2019
How Joe Brainard would have loved the idea that all the bits and pieces that he collected as potential material for further collages, but never got around to using, would have this strange virtual afterlife! He was a connoisseur of bric-a-brac, a devotee of detritus, and as interested – although this may sound paradoxical – in the uselessness of art as in its power to change our lives. He developed collage, that quintessential twentieth-century art form based on mixing and matching, on snipping and gluing, to dazzling new heights. Over the years I have found that any down day can be transformed by dipping into I Remember, by reading an extract or two from his hilarious journals, or by sampling a Nancy collage or one of his goofy comic strips such as the gloriously titled People of the World: Relax! To borrow a phrase that Jean Cocteau applied to Raymond Roussel, Joe Brainard was ‘genius in its pure state’, and even his collage off-cuts and remainders exert a peculiar, uncanny fascination.
I love the Joe Brainard cartoon strip that transforms Marx’s address to the workers of the world into a ridiculous imperative: ‘People of the world: RELAX!’
The strip continues with a little girl ordering her readers to ‘Take it easy and smoke a lot’. A cat playing with a ball of string advises ‘Make all the noise you want to on the toilet’. Dennis the Menace simultaneously warns and comforts, ‘Other people will hear you…but it does not matter’.
This celebration of relaxation embodies Brainard’s practically clinical allergy to the pomposity that so often characterises the way Poets and Critics talk about Poetry and Art. As Brainard puts it in his prose study ‘Ron Padgett’, ‘I don’t know how a poet becomes a poet. And I don’t think anyone else does either. It is something deep and mysterious inside of a person that cannot be explained. It is something that no one understands. It is something that no one will ever understand. I asked Ron Padgett once how it came about that he was a poet, and he said, “I don’t know. It is something deep and mysterious inside of me that cannot be explained”‘.
And yet Brainard’s writings, self-reflexive as they often are, are also, dare I say it, generous. ‘If I’m as normal as I think I am,’ Brainard muses, ‘then we’re all a bunch of weirdos’. Throughout his work, he reminds us that we are all strange and craving bodies desiring diffuse pleasures. And pleasure, Brainard insists, is one of our fundamental human rights no matter the odd forms that pleasure can take.
Take Brainard and sex. In his writing, we understand how sex can be like a joyous cubist canvas come alive, body parts denatured gleefully. ‘I like sex best when it’s fast and fun’, Brainard discloses in his prose piece ‘Sex’. ‘I like warm necks. And the smalls of backs. I’m not sure if that’s the right word: small. What I mean is that part of the back that goes in the most. Just before your bottom comes out. I like navels. I like underarms […] What I’m a sucker for most is a round full bottom’.
For a life in writing to be committed to evoking the kiss, the smoke, the pleasure in a round full bottom – what a terrifically minor goal! And yet major too, because so gloriously tender and unassuming.
Archie Rand was giving a talk about his work. At one point, Rand quickly mentioned Brainard—adoringly—and moved on. It was a great talk with all of Rand’s bold energy and presence, but the room got a little dull during the Q&A. “Could you talk more about the work of Joe Brainard?” I asked. Rand perked up. “I would love to talk more about the work of Joe Brainard,” he said, beaming.
I have a copy of the April 1967 issue of ARTnews with the Brainard flower cover framed in our living room. I mentioned the cover in correspondence with Carter Ratcliff. He replied: “The issue of ARTnews with Joe Brainard flowers on the cover is the one that convinced me that I ought to go to New York.”
I’ve been teaching I Remember in my first-year writing classes at Georgia Tech and encouraging students to do projects on his work. Here are some of my favorites: a website that inventories Brainard’s cover art, a short documentary about Brainard’s visual art, and a podcast about Brainard’s Nancy Diptych (1974), which is featured at the top of this “Reflections on Joe” page.
“And many many light blue flamingo birds. They dance in and out of the roses.” –Brainard’s description of a new assemblage in a letter to Ted Berrigan, mid-1960s (from the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at Emory University).
My partner Carrie and I once spent an afternoon in a courtyard behind a New York City apartment building Skyping into a class at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design to talk to students about Bolinas Journal. I remember a plane overhead, the ephemera of the day and its light.
In the special collections at UCSD there’s a poster-size collage that’s listed as a collaboration between Brainard and Frank O’Hara, but I think it’s actually a piece that O’Hara made wholly for Brainard. It’s a cut-out of a Fleischmann’s Whiskey ad featuring a huge bottle of whiskey in the foreground and a woman in a red coat looking over her shoulder at bottle. O’Hara’s added a white thought bubble over her head and in his characteristic cursive handwriting it says: “I think Joe Brainard is a wonderful person, don’t you? Why don’t we have him over for a drink real soon!” It’s so great. I sent a copy to just about everyone I know.
I met John Ashbery in the summer of 2015. On my right arm I have a tattoo of a Brainard drawing from their 1975 collaboration The Vermont Notebook. When I pulled up my sleeve and showed it to Ashbery, he smiled and said, “Joe Brainard.”
The first “Brainard” I owned—kind of—is a copy of Berrigan’s C magazine with a Brainard cover. It’s the summer 1964 (Vol. 1 No. 9) issue with the black stencil lettering that spells “COVER DESIGN BY JOE BRAINARD.” I found it in a used bookstore for about $100.
I think all the time about the pendant with the emerald and the baroque pearl that Brainard loses on the beach in Bolinas Journal. It’s probably still out there.
I Remember Hearing Joe Read
I remember hearing Joe Brainard read his poem
at the Ear Inn when I was eight or nine years old.
I remember that of all the poets I had heard read
up to that point
Joe was not only the best, but the only one who
was any good at all.
I remember Joe reading “I remember putting socks
down my pants
to make it look like I had more,” and wondering if
he was serious.
I remember going home not too long after the reading
and putting socks
down my own pants to see what I would look like
if I “had more.”
I remember feeling embarrassed, and thinking I
didn’t want anyone
I knew seeing me have more.
I remember taking the socks out and thinking
poets should keep
their ideas to themselves.
When I see a pansy, in life or in lines, I think about Joe, and his renderings of them. I wish I had gotten to know him well, but opportunities were few and brief. He came over for dinner once when my brother and I were teenagers, and I was just proud to have a chance to sit with one of dad’s legendary friends. But he was shy and didn’t linger. Now, I think of him from years of absorbing his work. When I think of his whole body of work, I hear a particular unsounded sound both in his writing and visual art. I want it to be there, but it’s shape is also unexpected, thankfully. Because I don’t really know him, so we live in an arrangement of glimpses.
When I hear people who did know him well speak of him, they are transported, and there’s a distant pleasure there. Like his entries in “I Remember”, he seems to live as a memory in the present tense, never making the object of recollection more or less spectacular than memory itself. When I read his recollections of his early sexual experiences, it feels like I am in the room, a memory of it that stops and starts scantily, like his ink brush drawings of nudes. I feel a tonal consistency even through his assemblages, and they offer a wider shade of personality. His simplicities never preclude complexities, and his individuality is often in response to the invisible communities he lived in — his sexual community, his social community, and the forces of local communities that dissembled the matter from which he created his assemblages.
“What is, is by its nature, on display”, wrote poet James Schuyler. Joe’s displays are a crucial part of my personal mythology, and we cross in these depictions together.