A Joe Brainard show in a book
With texts by Ron Padgett and Éric Troncy
In 1970, the poet, artist and graphic designer Joe Brainard published the first version of his most famous work, his diaristic opus I remember with Angel Hair, conducted by poets Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh. He would publish several other editions of this poem before collating and editing them together for publication in 1975 with Full Court Press (then later republished posthumously by Granary Press in 2001). The poem is striking with its simplistic sincerity and the specificity of the details, lines such as “I remember my first cigarette. It was a Kent. On top of a hill. In Tulsa, Oklahoma. With Ron Padgett ”, and“ I remember the one time I saw my mom cry. I was eating an apricot pie. Brainard’s work illustrates the modernist notion of everyday life, the specifics of personal as well as universal circumstances. I first read I remember in the Library of America 2012 Collected writings, edited by Brainard’s friend and fellow poet, Ron Padgett, which also includes numerous diary entries and comics interspersed between typescripts from his other works. A Joe Brainard show in a book makes these visual works his center of interest, highlighting the material aspects of Brainard’s hand, his sensitivity to graphics and the use of page space.
A Joe Brainard show in a book is listed in chronological order. Fittingly, the oversized (14 × 11 1/2 inch!) Book opens with a collection of stapled 1964 poems by Ron Padgett, Ahead of the broken arm. Not reproduced in their entirety, images focus on Brainard’s illustrations and not on Padgett’s poems. (Brainard’s work is always best captured when images and text are reproduced together.) The included pages show the artist’s signature visual borrowing: a classic 1950s couple kissing with letters beginning to spell ” Love ”in large print above them in popular parlance; in a later image he masks the face of a pin-up girl (who is leaning against a reel of duct tape) in a swimsuit with big Ab Ex-style brushstrokes, the same script next to her reads “Sex”, also crossed out. But like his Ernie Bushmiller credits Nancy comic strip — well documented in another collection, The Nancy Book (Siglio, 2008) —Brainard always adds a touch to the familiar, a humorous play on our expectations. Other illustrated covers include Literary days (1964) by Tom Veitch (misspelled with corrective lines like Vietch on the cover) featuring a superhero obscured by Ab Ex brushstrokes; a slice of cheese with a hole for Tom Clark’s Stones: poems (1969). As Padgett, who now manages Brianard’s estate, writes in the book’s introductory notes, Brainard generously made these works as gifts to his poet friends: “Joe’s art has remained personal, a gift for people he loved.
This collection celebrates Brainard’s generosity, but also his talent as a designer. His continued use of hand lettering rather than typed text, a staple of his own comics, evokes an intimacy and sincerity. His use of the frame (and kept pushing out of it) to create different planes and spaces, as with Kiss my ass! (1971), where the text explodes out of the edges of the frame, echoing the skier flying through the air; and a more subtle choice to allow puffs of smoke to float out of the black monochrome box on the lid of hers The Book of Cigarettes (1972) – a chronicle of the artist’s attempts to quit smoking, filled with images of cigarette packets rendered in the style of other artists, itself fully a tribute to other styles. And its embrace of the unfinished, often leaving letters and shading only partially complete, as with its coloring of “Arm” in the title of Padgett’s zine (and Amo’s “A” in it, itself. even an incomplete “Love”), reminding the reader of the artisanal quality, the idea that all work is still in progress, a point echoed by his personal reflections on his own life and work.
The book succeeds well in capturing the materiality of its work, which is of less interest to the other collections. Each publication is reproduced to scale, distributed in the central margin. The reproductions of the pages are tactile, displaying the stapled bindings; in some places the thinness of the paper is evident, allowing us to see through the spine of the page. Contrary to Collected works, most books are not reproduced in their entirety, so when you turn the page, what is visible on the back is not always what you saw on the front, but rather another sheet of the book, which you can see the back phantom. It’s both playful – perhaps a trick Brainard would enjoy – and frustrating, interrupting our ability to follow his often devious narratives. For example, Self-portrait (Siamese Banana Press, 1972) produced in collaboration with Anne Waldman, opens with one of Brainard’s self-portraits with simple contours, the head turned away, the curly hair and the glasses visible from the back. On the next page of Show in a book on the right, his handwritten mediations on “art”, “ART FOR ME IS A MEANS OF KEEPING OCCUPIED. A WAY TO SHOW MY APPRECIATION FOR THE THINGS I PARTICULARLY LOVE, ”he begins. But on the left, we do not see the inverted self-portrait which opened this book, but another text entitled “WHY I AM PAINTER”. Likewise, the next page shows on the right the answers to “romantic” but on the left we see across the page the answers to “vanity”. Show in a book create a Brainard puzzle game. Much like Brainard’s own work, which turns our expectations upside down in weird and witty ways, this collection is a Brainard hide-and-seek game, rewarding those who decide to seek and find these materials (or search for the full texts). in other collections – although this one reproduces some for the first time). It is by no means exhaustive, partly reproducing a little more than 20 of his works. Instead, it encourages further exploration, ending with a bibliography of other sources on Brainard, and noting future collections. I look forward to more Brainard books down the line, and the chance to glimpse more pages and read more words.