Jacket 16 — March 2002   |   # 16  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |    



Joe Brainard feature

Kenward Elmslie

in conversation with Kristin Prevallet


Photo of Joe Brainard

In 1963, Joe Brainard and Kenward Elmslie, poet, novelist, librettist and performance artist, became life partners and collaborators until Brainard’s death in 1994. Of great importance to Brainard’s work were the summers he spent at ‘Poet’s Corner’, Elmslie’s house in Calais, Vermont, where Brainard had a studio. According to Constance Lewallan, (the curator of the Joe Brainard show which closed November 2001 at PS1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City, New York), Brainard created most of his cut-outs, still lifes, and landscapes during this time. These times were also important to Elmslie, whose relationship with Brainard influenced his own work in many ways. Wanting to speaking to Elmslie about the collaborative spirit of their relationship, and the atmosphere that fostered it, I interviewed him by telephone at his house in Vermont.

What is your connection to Vermont?

I came to Vermont in the 50s with John Latouche who had a crazy New York life which I shared. It was a way to find a quiet place away from the city.

What does the house look like?

It started out as a farmhouse, with lots of small windows. It uses every inch of its space. Downstairs is a biggish kitchen. A small front hallway leads, left, to a  living room, and, right, to a so-called music room — phone (hooked up, finally, in the 70s) and an upright piano with an alternate ‘prepared’ clinky sound. I used to think up and practice singing my poem songs, noodling away, solo — no one except chipmunks and deer to hear my experimental yowling and Sati-esque chords. I added a wing on for Joe’s studio. There is also a good-sized bathroom which the locals found astonishing. Back in the 50s there were guided tours to see this huge bathroom.

And the surrounding landscape?

They knew how to build back then, which in this case was around 1840 — it was a farmhouse until the 1930s, situated on a hill above a hollow of ground which gradually edges up to form the woods. It’s surrounded by forests. It was a brainstorm of John Latouche’s to build a dam. A stream with a waterfall runs through this hollow. So we dammed it up and then the state found out about it by accident and it had to be taken out. Then it went back to land for awhile. Then beavers dammed up the stream...

And the state didn’t mind the beavers?

The state didn’t know about them until there was a flood. By then Joe and I were together. One day the state dam-man came by and said, ‘but this pond isn’t on any aerial map!’ This seemed to upset him deeply. So then there was another dam built to state specifications.

So now there’s a lake?

There was a lake, but it vanished. Then it came back because of the beavers. Now it’s there, and it’s legal.

You have a view of it?

It’s a strong, changeable presence, and a great solace, doing dishes. Unnamed to this day. Joe wanted to call it Veronica Lake, the name of the 40s blonde sexy moviestar whose hair-do concealed one eye.

And Joe had a view of it?

Joe’s studio fronts to the edge of the hill. He had the best view.

Can you tell me about your dog Whippoorwilll?

I once saw a Jaques Tati movie in which dogs were very playful. So I got a dog.

Did Whippoorwill and Joe get along well?

Yes. Joe was very gentle about some things, first including dog hairs on his Armani suits, and then cat hairs. It was awful for him having to pick off the hairs.

He liked Armani suits?

Yes. Not always, but he sort of ‘went Armani’ at a certain point. He had two, but every so often he’d get a new one.

Would he just wear them around the house?

No, they were for going out. But a pet in the same place as an Armani... hairs just float around mercilessly and gravitate towards such suits.

That reminds me of the painting of Whippoorwill on the green sofa (Whippoorwill, 1974)  —   the sofa looks kind of plush and velvety and I can just imagine a sea of white fur on the couch after the dog gets up.

That happened.

Where do you keep that painting in your house?

I generally keep it over the fireplace, opposite the same sofa, so you get a kind of double image.

In an interview Joe said, ‘I don’t ever have an idea. The material does it all.’ Do think that is possible?

Yes — that’s pretty much the way I work as well. Several of the collaborations I did with Joe obviously came from ideas, but I don’t remember the process. Our first collaboration was a take-off on baby books: Baby’s First Word, First Dream, feeding sked, and so forth. A relationship joke, too, ta-da! ‘Our’ Baby, ha-ha. At an art world dinner, we collected blurbs for a tiny ad in the Village Voice. Frank O’Hara: ‘The most peculiar book I’ve every read.’ Andy Warhol: ‘Fantastic! Fantastic!’ It was self-published by Boke Press, our very own press. So was there an initial idea to do a take off on baby books? I really don’t know.

So was it that the baby books happened to just appear in your life at some point?

Yes, Joe loved to shop at antique shops and probably picked up a couple antique baby books. He used a lot of the antique store finds for ideas. He would go through books and just tear the little tiny drawings out from dictionaries. I still find torn places in dictionaries, and know Joe tore them out. So you see, getting ideas wasn’t at all cerebral.

It’s such a strong statement to say ‘I never have an idea.’

It’s perhaps too strong. Ideas maybe slid in sideways, like a home run in a baseball game. They didn’t announce themselves, nor were they searched for. They just happened.

Is that what inspires writing?

Oh gosh — that’s hard to answer because so many different things inspire writing.

But if you could answer.

Sometimes it’s a word that I’ve become fond of, or sometimes it’s a memory of the daily round. Because my memory is so terrible, sometimes I want to write about a certain part of the daily round so I won’t forget about it. Like a survival technique, perhaps. But then that bounds to other things, like dreams, or poems by somebody else. It becomes a sort of network of influence. It’s a series of moves through mind, memory, time and space.

What inspired Joe?

That got strange. When he began to read books — he didn’t stop art, he stopped working with his gallery, but he still did art for friends, people he cared about. It was part of the friendship. In the summer when he supposedly stopped art, he did all of the drawings for my poems inSung Sex, published by Kulchur Foundation in 1989. One drawing per poem page, 65 drawings! A different style, spare, Japanesy. Most elegant naked boy odalisques...

That’s a clarification, then, of what Ashbery writes, that in the last decade of his life he ‘abandoned art altogether...consecrating his time to his two favorite hobbies, smoking and reading Victorian novels.’

Hopefully, not a clarification — a debunking of a total myth, a most misleading oversimplification. Joe read and read, not just Victorian novels — Barbara Pym was his favorite — and he also sneaked art work in. He worked and worked and worked.

But did art mean something different to him during this time?

I think so — what he gave up on was the idea of a career, professionalism. His last show at the Fischbach was a total triumph, hundreds of works, some tiny, displayed en masse in vitrines, priced within reach of non-deep pocket fans, as well as collages, constructions, oil paintings: The Works. It was Brainard at his best. So he went out in an incredible blaze of glory, on his own terms, and shifted focus back to what he’s always loved doing: making personal art for close friends.

Was he happy with that decision to leave the gallery, and just do whatever he wanted?

He found Gallery Stress extremely burdensome. And I think he suffered because he felt he couldn’t be as great as DeKooning.

What does that mean?

I think he under-estimated his own oil paintings, and he felt they weren’t in the same league. If you can’t be the best, give up, which, translated in people’s minds, meant he’d given up art. But maybe all he did was give up DeKooning.

Did it make him happy to give up De Kooning?

I’m not sure.

Did it make you happy?

I hate stress — I run into it when I write the words for musicals. The art world, like the theater world, can be such a brutal marketplace. I was glad he was no longer subjected to it. But it was his decision. He helped me enormously because I’d started making postcard collages. I’d spread them around the table, and ask Ron and Pat Padgett, neighbors who have a house downhill, and Joe to look at them. They would circle around the table looking at my collages. This gave me a remarkable pleasure I couldn’t tap into as a writer, watching someone read my work. The closest I could get as a writer to this palpable feedback was if somebody laughed at something funny I had written.

So then its that sense of being in conversation with people, bringing them into the space of the art work?

Well, making collages helped me with my musical Postcards on Parade. I evolved from postcard-sized collages to big ones, backdrop scenery flats for performances, to enhance the songs and dialogues. They ended up hung in an alternative art gallery, track lighting, white walls. My very own art show! Minneapolis! This process helped me discover secrets about my characters. I don’t psychoanalyze them — they appear to me, and I just take them as they are and allow them to say what they say. But every so often, their dark parts would materialize in the collages I was making, and I would think, oh my god, is that what that person is really like, underneath?

What did Joe find beautiful?

That’s why he was so extraordinary for me, because I had certain dumb ideas about good taste. One of the first  presents he ever got for me was an Art Deco figurine, quite large, of two women dressed as sailors — famous vaudevillians: The Dolly Sisters. I thought, now this is ugly. Of course now I know it is very beautiful. So he kept opening me up, so I wasn’t hemmed in by received good taste.

What is your favorite color?

Red.

Why?

It affects me sensuously. I like red food. I like cinnamon candies. I like rare meat. And fingernails.


This material first appeared in The Poetry Project Newsletter, a publication of the St Mark’s in the Bowery Poetry Project , New York City. Jacket thanks the editor for permission to reprint.


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