Have you ever looked at a collage by an artist like Picasso or Joseph Cornell, Kurt Schwitters or Joe Brainard, and felt a powerful urge to immediately go make a collage yourself? Perhaps there’s something about the tactile, playful, anyone-can-do-it premise of collage (unlike, say, oil painting) that invites us to try it ourselves.
Fortunately now you can, thanks to a delightful new interactive website called “Make Your Own Brainard,” created by the scholar Rona Cran (an expert on, among other things, collage in twentieth-century literature and art).
Not only does the site enable you to design your own collage, but rather miraculously, you can create one using actual materials that Brainard himself selected, cut out, but never used.
In an introduction to the project, Brainard’s close friend Ron Padgett tells the story of how these little fragments and cut-outs came to be digitized and accessible online: “In the summer of 2011 Pat Padgett discovered, in an outbuilding on Kenward Elmslie’s property in Calais, Vermont, a large number of paper snippets. Selected and grouped by Joe Brainard, the snippets, grouped in business envelopes, large manila envelopes, and plastic sleeves, are in the form of unfinished collages and loose bits for future collages.”
As Cran explains, although Brainard “intended them for use in his own collages, but never got around to including them, so in keeping with the spirit of generosity and collaboration that underpinned all of his work, this project and the Brainard Estate has now made them available for collage enthusiasts all over the world to use as they see fit.”
This seems just right, and in keeping with Brainard’s renowned generosity and collaborative spirit. As Padgett notes, Brainard often sent these kinds of snippets to friends and relatives. including his brother John who used them to make his own collages. “Over the years Joe had sent John Ashbery snippets to use in his collages, which have been exhibited at Tibor de Nagy Gallery and elsewhere. It’s safe to say that Joe would have been pleased to know that now anyone in the world wishing to use his snippets can now pick up where he left off.”
As Padgett’s comments suggest, this project is particularly fitting for an artist like Joe Brainard, whose entire aesthetic is driven by a belief in art-making as collaborative, playful, and experimental. Indeed, Yasmine Shamma argues that “Brainard encourages his peers, in practice, presence, and publication to collage with and without him, inventing a new form of collage: collaborative collage.” The site goes on to note that “collage itself is always a form of collaboration, and certainly collaborative collage is at the heart of this project – in putting Brainard’s tactile, material texts into dialogue with digital media and digital media users, it facilitates the creation of original collages that are also, inevitably, collaborations with Joe himself.”
In some remarks included on the site, Mark Ford concurs: “How Joe Brainard would have loved the idea that all the bits and pieces that he collected as potential material for further collages, but never got around to using, would have this strange virtual afterlife! He was a connoisseur of bric-a-brac, a devotee of detritus, and as interested – although this may sound paradoxical – in the uselessness of art as in its power to change our lives. He developed collage, that quintessential twentieth-century art form based on mixing and matching, on snipping and gluing, to dazzling new heights.”
“Make Your Own Brainard” is filled with a rich array of materials, including some interesting background on the project itself and the discovery of these left-behind materials, information about Brainard’s life and work, about the history and practice of collage, and about the New York School of poetry‘s broader fascination with collaboration, exchange, error, and experimentation. It also features a “series of reflections by people who knew [Brainard] or who have written about or been particularly moved by his work,” including Constance Lewallen, Cedar Sigo, Ann Lauterbach, Mark Ford, Daniel Kane and Nick Sturm.
This ingenious site embraces the spirit of fun and the DIY ethos of Brainard and his New York School circle and takes it into a new, digital realm. As Cran notes, “For Brainard, the chance to be ‘unprofessional’, and to experiment,” was of the upmost importance, and this project gives you the opportunity to play along.
It’s easy and fun to use, even if the experience does remind you all over again just how wonderful Brainard’s own collages are (as can be seen below), and how difficult it is to actually make a good collage yourself (as can be seen by my own humble attempt above).
I encourage you to go check out the site, mess around with the materials, and make your own Brainard. Once you’ve done so, you can post your work in their gallery, either with your name or anonymously, download, or share it.