Poetry and the artful presence of materials:
Joe Brainard at P.S.1
Kristin Prevallet

 


Anne Waldman: What's your favorite color?
Joe Brainard: Red.
AW: Why?
JB: I would miss the chance to say 'red' for one thing. I'd say 'red' even if it weren't my favorite color.

 

     Joe Brainard likes the word "red" and it also happens to be his favorite color. Walking through the retrospective of Brainard's work which is currently on view at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, the color red subtly blends in with the incredible variety of materials, shapes, and dimensions that comprise his work. Red pansies sprinkled in a dense garden of cut-out yellow, pink, blue, and orange flowers. The bottom triangle of a Cinzano ashtray, painted in 16 small squares, each with a different shade of red. The faded stripes of the American flag draped across a densely layered shrine draping with rosaries. A red butterfly suspended in the center of a collage around which there is a red carpet, red ladybugs, pinwheels, and two young girls, one smelling roses and one with a huge red heart.
     "Red" is a both a word and a color—and although Brainard is an artist, he is not interested in distinguishing between the two. In his work, words and materials are equal. The same could be said for beads, bottles, grates, and statutes; for dried flowers, puzzle pieces, straw, and net. For Prell bottles, Tide boxes, 7-up logos, and rose tattoos. These are the materials—and the words—that came into Brainard's life at particular moments, and these are what he used to create his art. Brainard's work and life are so unique because the act of creating an art work is never prioritized over the act of writing a poem. The materials, the words as they appear, speak for themselves. As he says, "I don't ever have an idea. The material does it all."(1)
     Brainard blurs the boundary between art and writing because he approaches both in the same way. In answering a question about his collages he talks about why he could never plot a novel. In discussing whether or not he could sustain a character in a novel for over one hundred pages, he responds by talking about the ways in which lines extend or curve. "I'd never have a vision in my head of a line that went this way and curved. It simply wouldn't come to me, but it would come to me as a logical development from what I'd already done."(2) This has everything to do with novels, and everything to do with art. It is for this reason that the P.S.1 retrospective of Brainard's work exists as a marvelous invitation: in being artworks that are inseparable from poetry, it is a show that asks to be both seen, and read.
     John Yau writes about how Robert Creeley's collaborations with visual artists provoke a number of fundamental questions regarding the sources and / or inspirations of poetry and prose: where it comes from, and where it goes. "In addressing these issues, Creeley has subtly but forcefully connected poetry to the larger place language and things, writing and art, have in our lives, not as separate entities, one to hang on the wall and the other to be kept on a shelf, but as fundamental to one's understanding of reality, both as the flux of now and as time passing."(3) One may say the same of Brainard, switching the fundamental question to "what are the sources or inspirations of art?" And this question, which seems so abstract, is answered quite simply by the amazing range of work on the gallery wall.
     What becomes apparent is that there are no ultimate ideas—only multiple ways to generate them. Inspiration is the process of sitting down and creating something using the materials that happen to be around. Inspiration is generated by the living presence of words and objects in the world. In Brainard's case, the two are indistinguishable, and work together like boats in water. Inspiration is not about waiting for strikes of brilliance, but about living with such attention to the details of the world that you can close your eyes and still be able to see:

               I close my eyes. I see something copper. (A tea pot with missing lid.) And dried cornflowers in an earthenware pot. Against a brown                velvet drape. "Sniff": I can smell last week's clay still in the air.(4) (From: Ten Imaginary Still Lifes)

     Brainard was both a poet and an artist whose work was in constant conversation, both with the words and objects of the world and with the people in his life. Being a poet means entering into a web of texts and writers all talking to each other. Brainard's collaborations with other poets reflect the spirit of multiple minds. Awry metaphors and intentional metnymic disconnect between image and words evokes the spirit of spontaneity, play, and fun. Collages, book covers, portraits and comic strips were some of the forms Brainard's collaborations with other poets took. (For a great example of this, in case you can't make it to the show, Boston's literary magazine Pressed Wafer recently published an issue dedicated to Brainard, in which there are excellent reproductions of a series of collages made with Ron Padgett called S, portraits of Berrigan and Lewis Warsh from Warsh's collection, the comic strip "Recent Visitors' done with Bill Berkson, and a "Joe Album" series of collages assembled by Kenward Elmslie.)
     Instead of simply summarizing Brainard's work, I thought it would be fitting to call in Ted Berrigan, one of Brainard's close friends and collaborators, in order to make the act of "looking" be another kind of collaboration. Walking with Ted Berrigan through his poem, "Things to Do in Providence" is one way to walk through the gallery reading Brainard. It is a great poem, a testament to moodiness, and the emotional shifts that occur when life is really paid attention to. There are the short imperatives: "Crash, Sleep, Take Valium Dream & forget it." There are the fruitless moments when nothing is happening: " Sit watch TV draw blanks"; there are the moments when stories appear out of nowhere, like the seven young men on horses who die stupidly and then wonder what will happen next. There are the silly conversations: "Hello! I'm drunk & have no clothes on!" There are the books that are read with concentration, and the revelations that suddenly arise about family. It comes around, it goes around, and then it ends: "I can hear today's key sounds fading softly / & almost see opening sleep's epic novels."
     This poem provides a structure for how to look at Brainard's work. There are the specifics of sleepy afternoons: the painting "Whippoorwill" (a white dog napping on a green couch). There are the moments in life that seem so epic but can only be described using the simplest, most universally acknowledged metaphors: Brainard's famous "Tattoo" (a man's torso covered with tattoos—the names of his lovers, four leaf clovers, chains, a snake, a rose, and hearts—that are simultaneously cliché and deeply personal). There are the times when nothing seems to come together, when everything is disconnected and out of place: Brainard's "untitled 1972 collage" where all the objects— a naked man, a pop top, the corner torn from a dollar bill, a cracker, a raggedy feather, a Band-Aid, a torn envelope, and one half of a butterfly—lack synthesis and are out of sync. In Brainard's "Prell" (travel-sized shampoo bottles are transformed into pillars which hold up an ornate and elegant temple overgrown with grapes, encasing the Pieta), irony, reverence, and a perfect blend of color tones give a sense of the possibility of ritual even in the most mass-marketed plastic objects. "Living's a pleasure," writes Berrigan—although at the moment he is writing this he is thinking about his mother, and how she will inevitably pass away. The poem is a part of the cycle of life. It gets written over and over again, and like the art work that transforms the materials beyond their original intent—but never beyond the viewer—is constantly in flux and changing over time.
     Art and poetry: to Brainard, one is not better than the other. There is no prioritizing of one over the other because of market value or a career path that identifies an artist with a particular aesthetic, a poet to a singular literary movement. One does not illustrate and the other explain, one is not bound by the borders of the paper and the other free to spill out beyond the frame. They move into each other's territory all the time, like horses running in a range without fences. And this freedom to roam the animate zone between words and materials is one of the great pleasures of reading (viewing) this retrospective of Brainard's work.


Sources:
Joe Brainard: A Retrospective, edited by Constance M. Lewallen. New York: Granary Books, 2001.
In Company: Robert Creeley's Collaborations, edited by Amy Cappellazzo and Elizabeth Licata. Buffalo, NY: Castellani Art Museum, 1999, 45-82.
Pressed Wafer, 2 (March 2001). 9 Columbus Square, Boston, MA 02116.

Joe Brainard: A Retrospective
September 30-November 25
P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center
22-25 Jackson Ave at 46th Ave
Long Island City, New York
718-784-2084

Kristin Prevallet writes essays and poetry and lives in Brooklyn. Her most recent chapbook is RED (Second Story Books.)