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Joe Brainard: A Retrospective PS1 Contemporary Art Center

Scruffy but fluid, disguised in a wide array of visual vernaculars, Joe Brainard went incognito: the artist, usually identified by a single style or a coherent, lifelong project, is in this case unrecognizable. Brainard moved to Manhattan in 1962 at age 20, where he lived until 1994, when he died of AIDS-related pneumonia. He was, among other things, a cartoonist, an assemblagist, a collagist, a painter, an illustrator, and a writer. His social milieu was literary and included such New York poets as John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara and Ron Padgett. The 25-year retrospective of Brainard’s work at PS1 provided evidence of his socially engaged and image-filled life. Yet the specificity of Joe Brainard is, intentionally and by his own admission, virtually impossible to locate. His hybrid artistic voice is alternately chatty, vulgar, and nostalgic.

One room of the exhibit was dedicated solely to collaborations with writers. Comic strips with text provided by poet friends and book cover illustrations, often for the same friends were displayed. Both sets of efforts accentuate his stylistically camouflaged drawing skills, as well as his exceptionally talented and successful clique. Brainard coyly but convincingly appropriates recognizable styles and imagery from his fine-art contemporaries—both Abstract Expressionists and Pop artists—as well as racist icons, the suave Dick Tracy set, muscle men and product logos. In “I Love You De Kooning,” a collaboration with poet Bill Berkson, a smeary De Kooning-esque woman complains, “Drawing a line on paper isn’t easy. It isn’t as easy as you might think. It isn’t hard either! Just medium I guess.” Although he admired De Kooning, he cloaks his respect in sarcasm and skepticism about the “heroism” of painting purported by the Abstract Expressionists.

Another room contains shrine-like assemblages comprised of kitschy, musty debris that could have been excavated from grandma’s attic by Joseph Cornell. A mass-produced Native American head with purple and green face makeup is surrounded by a sunburst of fake purple irises and aqua ferns. A plastic Pieta is splattered with green paint and surrounded by rows of green tassels, upholstery and small bottles of Prell (emphasizing the spiritual necessity of clean hair?) Brainard’s collages, also installed in their own room, ranged from clever, one-liner revisions of product packaging, to the chintzy staleness of greeting-card abstractions; to works that looked like scrapbook pages methodically encasing sentimental memorabilia.

Add to this heterogeneous and charmingly incoherent mix a few oil paintings of his dog, “Whippoorwill,” crafty, decorative paper cut-outs, gouaches of flower arrangements and psychedelic, wallpapery floral patterns, and what do you have?  Evidence of singular and possibly sociopathic behavior that parallels a life lived in exuberance and questionable taste, rather than a heroic response to the existentialist dilemma. Like Warhol, Brainard linked art to pictorial vernaculars and commerce, yet rather than mechanizing the hand of the artist, he chose to fetishize popular methods of constructing images with the idiosyncratic hand of a folk artist.


Jennifer Coates

Coates's paintings utilize landscape as a vehicle for hallucinatory visions and psychological spaces.


The Brooklyn Rail

JAN-FEB 2002

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