In his introduction to the catalogue accompanying a 1997 retrospective of Joe Brainard’s paintings at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, John Ashbery states, ‘Joe seems to have taken extraordinary pains for us not to know about his work.’ The reason for this, according to Ashbury, was that ‘either he would create 3000 tiny works for a show, far too many to take in, or he would abandon art altogether, as he did for the last decade of his life.’ Brainard’s minor status could also be attributed to the fact that he was not just a painter; he was also a poet, as were many of his closest friends such as Ashbery, Ted Berrigan, Frank O’Hara and Ron Pagett. The current exhibition, curated by Eric Brown and Andrew Arnot, was designed not only to supplement and celebrate the publication by the Library of America of The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard, but also to explore the linguistic influence in his visual work.
Upon entering the gallery it is surprising to see how little space the exhibition takes up. This is very much in line with Brainard’s interest in the undersized and nonintrusive that Ashbery points to. In one of the several notebooks on display, Brainard has a collection of tiny drawings and collages depicting individual objects – a comb, a glove, a cup of coffee etc. – with the caption ‘Mini-Art Exhibition’. Despite the limited physical space, the exhibition is well stocked without feeling cramped; there are twenty individual collages and paintings along with a vitrine containing a number of Brainard’s poetry collections, sketchbooks and various other ephemera. The latter serves the agenda of the exhibition well in highlighting Brainard’s work as both artist and writer.
The connection between the textual and visual elements in some of the collages, such as Flowers (1968), Untitled (toast) (1976) and Untitled (yellow pansies) (n.d.), is not always fully realised, although they are convincing artworks in themselves. Other works, such as Untitled (Female Portrait) (n.d.), do establish a dialogue between language and visuality but are somewhat lacking aesthetically when compared to other works. An antique portrait of a young woman’s face is surrounded by a collection of envelopes and personal letters implying that the letters are addressed to her. The centrality of the portrait, the embellished envelopes, coupled with the fact that the letters bear the markings of keepsakes, all point towards these being the correspondences between lovers. However, this sentiment is unconvincing due to the overwrought cliché of the emotionally intense romantic ‘love letter’.
In contrast, Joe April 27 (1976) emphasises perfectly Brainard’s playful struggle to connect with his audience on both visual and verbal registers. The image is a basic one: a black, Royal typewriter with a ream of paper filled with random letters and numbers. The imagery implies that the written word is not always adequate for comprehensible understanding between people. As a viewer we recognise Brainard’s attempt to communicate, and start to examine the jumbled letters more closely in the hope of fulfilling our part as willing, active participant in this dialogical exchange. Being so determined to find a hidden word, I initially overlooked the fact that a number of individual letters were faintly circled with a red pen, spelling out the phrase ‘I Love You’. With this subtle semiotic play the collage becomes a form of declarative love poem where the viewer has to lean in close in order to hear the visual whisper.
Another collage which creates a symbiotic relationship between visual and textual languages, while remaining thought-provoking and emotionally convincing, is Untitled (Love Story) (1975). With pictorial reference to the theatre, it pictures stage curtains drawn to reveal two unoccupied chairs facing each other. Written in block capitals above the stage are the words ‘LOVE STORY’. The text allows the chairs to anthropomorphise, creating a tense but wonderfully balanced and intimate Nightsea Crossing style narrative of two lovers caught in each other’s gaze but always held at distance.
Inanimate everyday objects in Brainard’s work become the characters of the artist’s life and it is through their stories that we, as viewers, are drawn closer to Brainard himself. The mixed media collage Untitled (Guest Check) (1976) shows two restaurant checks overlapping in the shape of an ‘L’. The bottom check contains a rose constructed out of a stamp, with an image of the flower blossom as its head, and a painted stem on some torn green paper. The second check has a cigarette, an iconic Brainard image, made out of paper and paint. The smoke billows upwards into the image of a heart, painted in the exact colour of the rose. The pleasure of this collage is that it creates a narrative of a date where a flower was brought, food was eaten, an after dinner cigarette smoked, and ending up with the artist in love. The capital ‘L’ of the picture plane echoes the intensity of the emotional response of the artist.
The overall sense of Brainard’s visual practice is one of quiet lyricism, drawing the viewer into his miniature constructions made out of the minute details of everyday life. He embraces beauty, pleasure and a sense of wonder. Brainard’s work is born out of New York, but is unlike the work produced by his contemporaries. There is none of the overwrought physicality of the Abstract Expressionists, or the ironic cynicism of Pop Art (despite Brainard deploying many of the same techniques and themes), and neither is there the kind of social orientated awareness (arguably) characteristic of the neo-avant-garde. Instead, there is an artist sharing his love and joy of the world through the medium of collage. While admittedly the pieces are unevenly convincing, the best of Brainard’s work is playful, intriguing, clever, witty and filled with an emotional sincerity that offers the viewer intimacy without cliché.
Joe Brainard: Painting the Way I Wish I Could Talk was on view, 15 March – 21 April 2012.