In the current issue of The New York Review of Books, Geoffrey O’Brien has a great review of a new book by the poet and art critic John Yau, Joe Brainard: The Art of the Personal.
According to O’Brien, Yau explores Brainard’s wide-ranging work “brilliantly and with contagious enthusiasm” in a book filled with a “lavish array of reproductions”: “The profuse reproductions in this volume suggest the staggering variety of a body of work encompassing ‘assemblage, collage, drawing, printmaking (including etching and silkscreen), painting, stage sets, costume design, posters, book and magazine covers, cartoons, cutouts, and writing.'”
O’Brien’s piece gives a wonderful overview and assessment of Brainard’s career and his work as both a writer (not least his beloved, uncategorizable masterpiece I Remember) and as a visual artist of great artistry, humor, charm, and daring. Brainard, as he suggests, is a masterful artist of the everyday:
“He often made art with the humblest and most ephemeral found materials (cigarette butts or scraps of food packaging) and avoided working on a grand scale, remarking that he ‘didn’t enjoy looking at art that was bigger than it had to be.’ Miniature images and objects delighted him.” As O’Brien puts it in a nice turn of phrase, “the modesty with which he undermined the heroic stance itself had a heroic quality.”
For O’Brien, Yau’s book makes a convincing case that “Brainard is a major artist too often seen as minor or marginal—not by in advertent neglect, but because his work and his approach to art making were from the start inimical to the contemporary art world’s ways of measuring artistic success.”
Hopefully, the welcome attention paid to Brainard by Yau and other recent scholars and critics will help change this calculus and allow Brainard, master of the ordinary, the quotidian, and the minor, to be viewed as a major artist at last.
Nice, Andrew, I always liked Joe’s anti-heroic stance, something his beloved lifelong friend Ron P. has also impressed me with, over and over again.
It made me laugh, the quotation about not enjoying looking at art that was bigger than it had to be. The Oscar Wilde of his generation…
His extraordinary productivity was glorious and inspiring (to the artistic kid I was) seeing his work go through all the changes it did—he was like the Beatles, constantly shape-shifting and surprising and jaw-droppingly good at every style he attempted. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.
Thanks for the piece! (I almost feel as if I don’t need to get the book, much as I like John Y’s art criticism and championing of various artists—he was a prof of mine at SVA—since I was a witness to much of Joe’s life and career, again mainly as a child, being dragged to most of his openings by my parents, seeing Joe and my dad collaborate, reading C Comics, learning a lot about Joe from Ron whom I worked with at Teachers & Writers in the 1980’s…Anne Porter, knowing how much I loved Joe, gave me a portfolio of work he made when he stayed at the Porters’ house in Southampton one summer with Kenward…)
Thanks for your comment, Katherine — so interesting and inspiring to hear about your experience growing up as an artistic kid with Joe Brainard as both a model and someone you knew personally. Bliss indeed!