The day after I saw the show of Eric Holzman’s drawings, I stopped by Tibor de Nagy Gallery uptown on Fifth Avenue to catch the show of Joe Brainard’s drawings and collages and miniatures and his usual techniques only this one almost entirely devoted to “The Erotic Work” which in Joe’s case meant male bodies, and body parts.
Here’s another artist, as well as poet, who should never be underrated or forgotten. Not that he ever will be, I suspect. Since in the past several years there seems to be more interest in him than ever.
Joe was a friend, we saw each other at least once a week for many years when I lived in Manhattan back in the 1970s and early ‘80s. But he remained a kind of mystery to me.
For a long time I thought he just tolerated me, my obvious need to be close to him because of how much I admired his work.
He often dismissed his work as less than what he had hoped it would be, or at least acknowledged that it had gotten less accolades than he had expected and wanted.
He was sometimes compared to Andy Warhol when he was starting out in New York just as Warhol was beginning to garner attention as the frontrunner in “Pop Art” as it was being labeled.
Warhol figured out how to exploit that and turn it into the kind of fame only movie stars had back then. While Joe, shy in a different way than Andy, and not good at tooting his own horn or manipulating others into doing it for him, stayed true to his own instincts and seemed to be left in Warhol’s dust.
But, what really happened, at least in the eyes of a fan like me, is Joe made art that reflected his childlike grasp of the equality of people and things, of all aspects of life and objects. While Warhol elevated the commonplace to the level of icons, Joe’s art seemed to reduce everything to the level of childhood delight in everything, even the scary.
Whatever struggles Joe went through, and he shared some with me so I know he went through some, in his art, he expressed them with an almost naïve exuberance. Something I always felt guilty of around him and other New York artists and poets and writers whose urbane wit and ironic take on so much I held dear always left me feeling vulnerable and like a kid from Jersey who was just discovering everything these people seemed to have known since birth.
But I saw in Joe’s art the same kind of lack of irony, for the most part, that motivated me and my love of the creative act. He loved to make art, for a long time, until he no longer seemed to.
We were the same age and weight and height, which made me feel somehow related to him, even though he came from Oklahoma and Protestantism and other cultural and ethnic differences from my background.
When I was interviewed for a biography of him, I looked through the boxes of unorganized papers I’ve been carrying around with me for years and discovered a cache of letters to me, many of them passionate and obviously a reflection of how much I did mean to him during all the time I felt like it was me pursuing him and him tolerating me.
I was surprised to discover them and what they obviously revealed. I spent my life feeling pretty cocky about a lot of stuff others feel insecure about and feeling insecure about a lot of stuff other people take for granted. Joe was one of those things I felt insecure about.
He felt insecure about how successful he had been as an artist. He felt he hadn’t achieved what he wanted to. At least that’s what I got from him. I only wish he had lived long enough to witness the renewed interest in his work, but also to be old enough to see that he in fact did exactly what he was meant to. No other artist could have produced the work Joe did. Not Warhol, not Michelangelo.
There’s a spirit always present in Brainard’s work, a childlike innocence despite the sometimes gay erotic nature of some of it. In fact, even the eroticism is often childlike, some of it second-grade-humor childlike. It’s what I loved about his work that made me first love him. Even if he helped me see how my own naiveté and insistence on my own innocence and lack of sophistication could become a nuisance, an intrusion on an otherwise adult interaction. Something I can still be guilty of.
But he did the same thing in his work, in a way that seemed more guileless and yet more self aware, if that makes any sense.
At any rate, find some of his work for yourself and make your own decision. I hope his lovely craftsmanship, his original use of subject matter and techniques, his childlike delight in the act of making art make you feel as good as it always does me when I see anything he made, from paintings to cartoons to collages to constructions to poems and bits of prose. He was a true original. And his work will always be so. No matter how many people know about it. I hope he understands that now.