Unreal Nature

July 11, 2017


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:56 am

… if his art can look backward, sideways, and forward, it refuses to join the march of history, staking out its own magical territory …

This is from ‘Remembering Joe Brainard‘ found in On Modern American Art: Selected Essays by Robert Rosenblum (1999):

I remember I Remember. Joe Brainard first published it in 1970, and way back then, as now, I usually put aside, unread, volumes of poetry or arty writing that happened to come my way.

But this one startled me to complete and loving attention. … Joe Brainard brought up on the tender screen of nostalgia all those delicious things that nobody before him seemed to think were worth recording. … I never forgot the impact of this first-person catechism of ordinary devotions to ordinary experience that somehow reached every corner of the childish bodies and minds we carry within us; but I must confess, too, that I almost did forget that Joe Brainard was as extraordinarily touching and authentic an artist as he was a writer.

[line break added] Shy to the point of making you think he was putting an imaginary foot in the sand and becoming the archetypal wallflower he might have remembered from a high-school dance in his native Tulsa, Oklahoma, he never had a careerist temperament. He cared about making art, and when he became dissatisfied with his own, he stopped exhibiting, by his own choice, almost disappearing from view in the eighties and nineties. For those like me who were around in the sixties and seventies, when his art flourished, he became a distant memory. For a younger generation, he was largely unheard of.

[ … ]

… [for Brainard] there is no fretting about becoming a big artist with a capital B and A. Why worry about forging a prominent signature style when there were so many agreeably various little ways of drawing and painting, not to mention cutting, pasting, and embroidering?

Nancy Diptych, 1974

… Being an art historian, I of course began to think about how, if at all, the precious jigsaw puzzle pieces left by this unique artist might fit into the big picture of later twentieth-century art; and here, the wheels of history and chronology can start to spin fast. Could we make a place for Joe Brainard as a Pop artist? Turning away, but only when he felt like it, from the self-taught art-school techniques of modeled, realist drawing and painting to the brash flatness of Nancy or Pluto, might he not be put in a lineage with Lichtenstein or Warhol?

[line break added] But on the other hand, where’s the irony and the rebellion? Joe Brainard just plain loved Nancy, as a kid would, and was delighted to mix her up with the history of art, as he did on the cover of the ARTnews Annual, dedicated to the avant-garde, and as he would later do in a drawing of 1972 in which (shades of Peter Saul’s, Robert Colescott’s and Mel Ramos’s later variations) Nancy suddenly becomes a flailing de Kooning woman. So maybe he’s really a postmodernist, as evidenced by his patchwork quilt of mainly art details for ARTnews‘s seventieth-anniversary issue, which anthologizes famous tidbits taken from the usual pantheon of old masters, from Rembrandt to Stella.

[line break added] But this cheerful historical shuffle also includes everything from a yellow smile-face to a child’s happy rainbow, embarrassing us about the very pretentious idea of trying to pigeonhole the work into an “ism.” Similarly, when we look at some of the collages and assemblages of this and that, whether of Chiclets, cigar-box owls, playing cards, or religious artifacts, we can quickly cough up names that range from Schwitters and Ernst to Cornell and Thomas Lanigan Schmidt, but these names too, evaporate before the unpretentious facts of his work.

[line break added] And he can even, if we want, be brought up the 1990s date, as we realize, say, that his use of a childhood past might give us a preview of the nostalgic regressions of so many recent artists, from Duncan Hannah to Mike Kelly, or that, on a totally different wavelength, Damien Hirst’s artistic recycling of crushed cigarette butts might look déjà vu after we’ve seen what Joe Brainard quietly did at home with the same theme back in the 1970s.

Untitled, 1972

But if his art can look backward, sideways, and forward, it refuses to join the march of history, staking out its own magical territory that, beginning with a totally private world, somehow manages to put us all in the same boat.

Whippoorwill, 1974

My most recent previous post from Rosenblum’s book is here.




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