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Joe Brainard’s “Hard” Bodies

Joe Brainard, Untitled (Still Life), 1968. Watercolor on paper, 14 x 11 inches. Images courtesy of Tibor de Nagy.

Joe Brainard: 100 Works

Tibor de Nagy (NYC)

April 20 - May 26, 2019 

By CORI HUTCHINSON, May 2019

“I remember ‘hard’ Christmas candy. Especially the ones with flower designs. I remember not liking the ones with jelly in the middle very much.” —Joe Brainard, from The Collected Writings (2012)

Joe Brainard spoke the language of flowers. Both in his text and paintings, he is the fleurs du fleurs to Baudelaire’s fleurs du mal. At Tibor de Nagy, the experience of the viewer is akin to that of the Deleuzian wasp hopping giddily between Brainard’s orchids (100 of them here!) that enact certain physical and sensory qualities of female wasps in order to attract the pollinator. The wasp is becoming-orchid and the orchid is becoming-wasp through this drag-play. As observers baited by Brainard’s art, we are becoming, too, gentler, floral, and more multiform.

Joe Brainard, Untitled (Toothbrushes), 1973-74. Oil on canvas, 12 x 9 inches.

An artist associated with the New York school, Joe Brainard’s work skirts Warholian Pop and the low-key yet numinal poetics of his contemporaries: Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and John Ashbery among them. His particular tinkering with found material in collages and shadowboxes airs a wink unique to Brainard; the numerous repetitions (cigarette butts, whippets, toy animals, pansies, sweets, saints, Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy comic character) are of a decadence made otherworldly by assemblage. At times, one senses a flirtation with the subjects. 

Joe Brainard, Untitled (Puppy), 1972. Mixed media and gouache on paper, 13 1/2 x 10 1/2 inches.

Much writing has been done on the “seriousness” of Brainard’s practice (1). Both “beautiful” and “miniature” crop up in spanning reviews of his work. This minor beauty might be equivalent to cuteness, which is inherently diminutive. Aesthetic theorist Sianne Ngai cites Gertrude Stein in Tender Buttons ascribing the qualifier “handsome” to cheese (see Brainard’s “Untitled (Cheese”), 1975) as popular literary evidence of diffused aesthetic relation. This point validates the critical examination of the minor aesthetic category “cute” as a taste concept. She writes that “prototypically cute objects often have a deverbalizing effect on the subjects who impose cuteness upon them” (2). This response is separate from that vacuous muteness of the Kantian sublime induced by sheer, major beauty. One potent example of this response dwells in a 1972 Art News review by Gerrit Henry, who compares the effect of one Brainard show to “some kind of rare, major potpourri” (3). At a loss for words, the viewer may rely instead on the arresting phantom smell of Brainard’s spread squished into floral powder and dispersed. 

Joe Brainard, Pansies, 1968. Watercolor and collage on paper, 28 x 22 inches.

As Ngai also asserts of Stein, it remains possible for an object to perform cuteness while critiquing the effect of cuteness, especially as it exists within the avant-garde. It is in this way that, in Brainard’s art, vulgar items are softened by juxtaposition, agitating the “hardness” typically associated with the postwar experimental mode. In one relevant collage, “Untitled (Hard Body),” a “hard” body in sepia is softened by a fleshy belly-button cut-out. Brainard’s flower collages, which slightly predate Warhol’s, are tinged with a cute anthropomorphic affectation with their pansy faces. Murakami’s later flowers lean into a similar cuteness more resonant with Ngai’s analysis of a frog-shaped bath sponge.  

Joe Brainard, Untitled (Male Torso in Glass Cloche), 1798. Mixed media collage mounted on board, 11 7/8 x 9 inches.

One eldritch still-life, “Untitled (Male Torso in Glass Cloche),” has the dusty color quality and composition of a Cezanne sans the skulls. The piece possesses the sense of humor and hoax of a homunculus, that alchemical phenomenon revived by this viral Youtube experiment (4). There is ambiguity as to whether the torso and bulge is a reflection in the glass of a bell jar (punned belly jar?) or an object of desire suspended as in a snow-globe. The miniature torso is a slice representative of this exhibition on the whole. 

Joe Brainard, Untitled (12 Madonnas), 1966. Mixed media collage, 21 x 16 inches.

Each petal of Brainard’s work is gingerly considered. For example, see the rhinestone detail of “Untitled (12 Madonnas),” which features a jeweled flower overlay, and the equally precise tattoos and pubic hair in “The Grass Harp.” Both Brainard’s nudes and flowers pay awe to the form through repetition, yet each remains distinctive in the crowd. These associative pieces stage new and strange contexts as with I Remember (1970), Brainard’s beloved litany published initially by Angel Hair Press.

Joe Brainard, Untitled, 1972. Mixed media collage, 13 3/4 x 10 3/4 inches.

In one collagelet, “Posy Power” is inscribed on a medallion framing a scene: a flower stands between two lifesavers as if on a cruise. Posies, in Brainard’s work, function as both prongs of their definition: flowers and verse. Pansies and Nancy, especially in combination, comically shake loose from their pejorative. The florid palette and ephemeral material quality of Brainard’s “Untitled” collage addressed endearingly to his lover and collaborator Kenward Elmslie (author of the recently reissued Orchid Stories) takes the shape of a valentine. The doubling of velour seats, neckties, roses on ice cream cones, clouds, etc. is an amorous sampling of Brainard’s motifs—2 each like a chocolate box. The white whippet, a well-represented subject in this showing, takes Elmslie’s dog “Whippoorwill” (note the double consecutive letters) as a model. One might first know whippets as nitrous oxide inhalation popularized during the gay liberation movement. 

Joe Brainard, Untitled, 1974. Oil on canvas, 18 1/2 x 24 1/2 inches.

To return to the moment of becoming- (what Ashbery might call “doing”), Brainard pulls off hybridizing the natural in several combinations (owl-cat, Ron Padgett-cat, flower-people, people-flowers) without it feeling uncanny or blasphemous. Four shrines to actresses promote these celebrities to the status of saints. With immense range, Brainard charmingly represents the sugary, venerable, chic, soft/hard, domestic, and cartoonish. This latitude recalls Eve Sedgwick's definition of queer as an "open mesh of possibilities." Tibor de Nagy’s in-bloom showing would leave anyone wishing to peek into the pockets of the late Joe Brainard on any given day, which is only to underscore serious interest in and immense gratitude to this nimble painter. WM

Endnotes

1. For more to this end, see Gavin Butt’s excellent essay “Joe Brainard’s Queer Seriousness, or, How to Make Fun Out of the Avant-Garde.” 

2. Ngai, Sianne. “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 31, no. 4, 2005, pp. 811–847., doi:10.2307/3651437.

3. A handy critical compilation is available on Joe Brainard’s legacy site managed by Ron Padgett: http://www.joebrainard.org/CRITICS_MAIN.htm.

4. Heartfelt thanks to poet James Barickman for sharing his knowledge of the homunculus during our gallery visit.  

 

Cori Hutchinson

Cori Hutchinson is a poet, watercolorist, and library assistant living in Brooklyn. 

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