With texts by Ron Padgett and Éric Troncy
In 1970, poet, artist, and graphic designer Joe Brainard published the first version of his most famous work, his diaristic opus I Remember with Angel Hair, run by poets Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh. He would go on to publish several more editions of this poem before collecting and editing them together to be published in 1975 with Full Court Press (then later posthumously republished by Granary Press in 2001). The poem is striking for its simplistic sincerity and specificity of detail, lines such as, “I remember my first cigarette. It was a Kent. Up on a hill. In Tulsa, Oklahoma. With Ron Padgett,” and “I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie.” Brainard’s work exemplifies the modernist notion of the everyday, the specifics of personal circumstance as universal. I first read I Remember in the 2012 Library of America Collected Writings, edited by Brainard’s friend and fellow poet, Ron Padgett, which also includes numerous journal entries and comics intermixed between the typescripts of his other works. A Joe Brainard Show in a Book makes these visual works its focus, highlighting the material aspects of Brainard’s hand, his graphic design sensibility, and use of the space of the page.
A Joe Brainard Show in a Book is arranged chronologically. Fittingly, the oversized book (14 × 11 1/2 inches!) opens with a 1964 side-stapled collection of poems by Ron Padgett, In Advance of the Broken Arm. Not reproduced in full, the images focus on Brainard’s illustrations, not Padgett’s poems. (Brainard’s work is always captured best when images and texts are reproduced together.) The pages included show the artist’s characteristic visual borrowing: a classic 1950s couple embrace with lettering beginning to spell “Amour” in large script above them in the pop vernacular; in a later image, he obscures the face of a pinup woman (who is resting against a tape dispenser) in a bathing suit with large Ab Ex style brushstrokes, the same script lettering beside her reads “Sex,” also crossed out. But like his appropriations of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy comic—well documented in another collection, The Nancy Book (Siglio, 2008)—Brainard always adds a twist to the familiar, a humorous play on our expectations. Other covers illustrated include Literary Days (1964) by Tom Veitch (misspelled with corrective lines as Vietch on the cover) featuring a superhero obscured by Ab Ex brushstrokes; a holey slice of cheese for Tom Clark’s Stones: Poems (1969). As Padgett—who now manages Brianard’s estate—writes in the book’s introductory notes, Brainard generously made these works as gifts to his poet friends: “Joe’s art remained personal, a gift for people he liked.”
This collection celebrates Brainard’s generosity, but also his skill as a designer. His continued use of hand lettering rather than typed text, a staple of his own comics, evokes an intimacy and sincerity. His use of the frame (and continued pushing out of it) to create different planes and spaces, as with Kiss My Ass! (1971), in which the text explodes out of the edges of the frame echoing the skier who flies through the air; and a more subtle choice to allow puffs of smoke to float out of the black monochrome box on the cover of his own The Cigarette Book (1972)—a chronicle of the artist’s attempts to quit smoking, filled with images of cigarette packs rendered in the style of other artists, itself fully a homage to other styles. And his embrace of the unfinished, often leaving letters and shading only partially complete, as with his coloring in of “Arm” in the title of Padgett’s zine (and the “A” of Amo inside, itself an incomplete “Amour”), reminding the reader of the handmade quality, the notion that all work is always in progress—a point echoed by his personal reflections on his own life and work.
The book does well to capture the materiality of his work, something other collections take less interest in. Each publication is reproduced at scale, with it spread across the center margin. The reproductions of the pages are tactile, displaying the staple bindings; in some places the thinness of the paper is evident, allowing us to see through the back of the page. Unlike the Collected Works, most books are not reproduced in full, so when we turn the page, what is visible on the verso isn’t always what we saw on the recto, but instead another spread in the book, whose ghost we can glimpse from behind. This is both playful—perhaps a trick Brainard would enjoy—and frustrating, interrupting our ability to follow his often circuitous narratives. For example, Self Portrait (Siamese Banana Press, 1972) made in collaboration with Anne Waldman, opens with one of Brainard’s simple outline self-portraits, his head turned away, curly hair and glasses visible from behind. On the next page of Show in a Book on the right, are his handwritten mediations on “art,” “ART TO ME IS A WAY OF KEEPING BUSY. A WAY OF SHOWING MY APPRECIATION OF THINGS I ESPECIALLY LIKE,” he begins. But on the left side, we do not see the reversed self-portrait that opened this book, but instead another text entitled, “WHY I AM A PAINTER.” Likewise, the next spread shows on the right, responses to “romantic” but on the left, we see through the page responses to “conceit.” Show in a Book creates a Brainard puzzle game. Much like Brainard’s own work, which upends our expectations in strange and witty ways, this collection is a Brainard hide-and-seek game, rewarding those who decide to further search and track down these materials (or look for the full texts in other collections—though this one does reproduce some for the first time). It is by no means comprehensive, reproducing in part just over 20 of his works. Instead, it encourages further exploration, ending with a bibliography of other sources on Brainard, and noting forthcoming collections. I look forward to more Brainard books down the line, and the chance to glimpse more pages and read more words.