Joe Brainard (1942 - 1994)
Untitled (Purple Flower), 1977
Mixed media and collage
6 x 4 inches
Signed and dated at lower right: BRAINARD – 77
Joe Brainard was born in Salem, Arkansas, in 1942, but shortly thereafter his family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he grew up. From an early age Joe showed artistic talent, winning virtually every art contest he entered.
For Brainard, art was a calling, but it was also a way that he, a gentle, skinny, unathletic stutterer, could deal with the world outside his home; the world of public school in a working-class neighborhood.
At the age of sixteen Brainard got to know two fellow classmates who, like him, felt somewhat marginalized: poets Ron Padgett and Dick Gallup. Through them he met two graduate students at the University of Tulsa, the poet Ted Berrigan and Patricia Mitchell, both of whom would prove to be lifelong friends. Still in high school, Brainard, Padgett, and Gallup produced The White Dove Review, an art and literary magazine.
After graduation and a few months of study at the Dayton Art Institute, which had given him a full scholarship, he moved, in late 1960 or early 1961, to New York City, where Padgett had gone to study at Columbia. Berrigan soon followed. Brainard stayed for two years, living in low-rent tenement apartments on the Lower East Side and barely scraping by—sometimes selling his blood so he could eat. Then, feeling his art needed a radical change, he moved to Boston, where he spent a penurious and lonely year but did discover new directions for his work.
Back in New York in the fall of 1963, he quickly met a galaxy of literary and artistic stars who became his friends, such as Joseph LeSueur, Frank O'Hara, Kenward Elmslie, Kenneth Koch, Alex Katz, James Schuyler, Edwin Denby, Larry Rivers, Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher, Rudy Burckhardt, and Yvonne Jacquette, soon followed by Andy Warhol, John Ashbery, Jasper Johns, Ned Rorem, Virgil Thompson, and others, as well as younger poets later associated with the St. Mark's Poetry Project, such as Anne Waldman, Lewis Warsh, Tony Towle, Tom Clark, Larry Fagin, and Michael Brownstein, to name a few.
A Breakthrough moment for Brainard came when Larry Rivers picked him as a companion artist for a group show at the Finch College Museum in the fall of 1964, followed a few months later by his first New York solo exhibition, at the Alan Gallery. Subsequently he showed regularly at the Landau-Alan and Fischbach galleries, and took part in many group shows around the country and abroad, including those at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, Yale University Museum, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
His early paintings and assemblages showed the influence of Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Joseph Cornell, but Joe's work soon distinguished itself by its lyricism, wit, warmth, and generosity, combined with his penchant for making art that was unabashedly beautiful. Brainard’s work ethic and singleness of purpose—as well as his use of amphetamine—allowed him to produce art at an astonishing rate. For example, his 1975 show at Fischbach consisted of 1,500 miniature works. It was praised by New York Times art critic John Russell as "the wittiest show of the winter." (Along the way, other critics who admired his work included James Schuyler, Robert Rosenblum, John Ashbery, Peter Schjeldahl, Carter Ratcliff, Jed Perl, and Hilton Kramer).
Other solo exhibitions took place at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Hamilton College, the New York Cultural Center, the Phyllis Kind Gallery (Chicago), the Benson Gallery (Southampton, N.Y.), the Gotham Bookmart, the School of Visual Arts, the Long Beach Museum of Art, and the Mandeville Gallery of the University of California at San Diego, in addition to shows in Philadelphia, Kansas City, Newport, Paddington (Australia), Toronto, and Paris.
Brainard's drawings, collages, assemblages, and paintings are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum, the Whitney Museum, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Yale University Art Museum, and the Joe Brainard Archive at the University of California, San Diego, as well as in many private and corporate collections. His work is now represented by the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, which mounted a retrospective of his work in 1997, followed by a smaller show six months later. In February of 2001, a major traveling retrospective, consisting of approximately 160 pieces, opened at the Berkeley Museum of Art.
By the early 1980s, Brainard had become increasingly dissatisfied with his art. Fearing complacency and uninterested in self-repetition, over the years he had kept raising the standards he set for himself, until finally he set one so high that he could not reach it. The resulting frustration and discouragement made him decide to do something other than make art.
Perhaps he also felt that he had simply done enough: the relatively brief time-span of his production of mature art, twenty or so years, was offset by the enormous volume of his work. By the mid-1980s, with some sporadic and later exceptions, Brainard had pretty much stopped producing art. But he did not abandon it. Instead he devoted his energy to reading (fiction, poetry, and biography), going to exhibitions and movies, and to living a life that showed the generosity, pleasure, and flawless taste that are characteristic of his art.
In a sense, he became his art. And he achieved his lifelong goal: having friends—gay and straight—who not only admired him, but loved him. He died of AIDS-induced pneumonia, on May 25, 1994. At his own request, his ashes were scattered in a high, private meadow in northern Vermont, where he had spent every summer with Kenward Elmslie for the past twenty-nine years.