SAYING SOMETHING ‘NEW’ about Joe Brainard is a bittersweet assignment, really. Sad to think of Joe being gone but always lovely to remember him, his curious shy grace, his humor, his elegance, his courtesy, his loyalty, his astonishing energy, his amazing gift.
That gift — never to be seen again. Can you imagine another naif genius of such deep trust and sophistication, so good at making (or seeming to make) primitive = advanced, belief so given to everything, generating so consistently, in a way that looks so almost casual, such an infinitely cool all-over heat of presence, contingency, spectacle, design? Where did that gift come from? Why did it pick this planet of the mickey mice on which to arrive?
If Joe were around in person to receive this tribute, I guess the first thing I’d want to say to him is a belated Thanks. It was always easy to come up short in gratitude to someone so freely giving. Back in the days when being poor could still occasionally be fun, Joe’s generous donation of marvelous works and designs to flybynight publishing ventures was one of the great taken-for-granted pleasures, as though we all somehow deserved the honor of world-class illustration and cover art simply because the artist was our pal and willing to deliver same at short notice, totally without ado and absolutely gratis. That was happy presumption, of course. Joe’s work always picked up your two-bit project by its bootstraps and lifted it to a higher plane. Here I recall, for instance, that in 1965-66, on the slightest instigation, he drew directly onto mimeo stencils — mailed back and forth between England and New York — a series of brilliant covers for a scattershot line of one-shot magazines I was obsessively cranking out, the Once series. Joe was in a very sexy phase of drawing at the time — one cover was a voluptuously involuted orchid, one a girl’s legs in nylons, one a rumpled pair of jockey shorts — but each cover also interpreted the specific issue-title (Vice, Slice, Spice, et al.) both provocatively and precisely. His series of covers, a throwaway tour de force of periodical art, lent class, consistency and uniformity to the Once set, bringing a surprising order to an undisciplined and chaotic enterprise.
With Joe it was always pretty much a case of ask and you shall receive. In later years, after we’d met and had a chance to become friends in person, he did the right-on red-on-yellow crossword-puzzle cover and thematic internal drawings for my ‘enigma’ book Neil Young, and also executed pristine what’s-in-a-name covers for the lyric collections Air (a ‘French bathroom’-aerated design of powder-blue rectangles on white) and Stones (illusionistic black ‘stones’ on a black-framed yellow field turn into black holes in a flat Swiss cheese slice). Each of those consummate works, like the Once covers, was presented by Joe as pure gift, and in my mind, when I skim over them all, they definitely seem the most vivid and interesting aspect of those bygone publications — abiding aspects of forgotten signs, aspects, it seems, that will always stay fresh and surely will not be duplicated.
Something like that abiding signalling quality holds Joe present for me even now: a silent, show-stopping, probably largely natural but also a little bit supernatural (thus spooky) rightness or freshness of vision. That’s the Joe Brainard I won’t forget. Funny, I’ve sometimes felt that briefly drifting into Joe’s quiet, charmed living-and-working orbit was the most graceful thing I’ve ever been given to do. It was sheer luck.