Joe Brainard quietly quit making art in 1979 to read 19th-century novels and kick a nagging dependence on amphetamines, which he used to get through his frequent art-making marathons. As with Marcel Duchamp, who also ostensibly resigned his post to pursue other pleasures, Brainard's approach to making art was so eclectic that it has frustrated attempts by critics and curators to adequately define it. While the restless diversity of his work - including collage, comic strip-inspired graphic works, book design, poetry, oil paintings, watercolours and sculptural assemblage - seemed a professional liability during his lifetime (Brainard died of AIDS in 1994), his cheerfully egalitarian mix-and-match approach has proved resilient, and in this major retrospective appeared refreshingly relevant.
Coming of age artistically in the early 1960s, Brainard intuitively zeroed in on the commercial artefacts that were to become Pop icons. Product packaging, comic books, cheap print advertising - all were integrated into his collages before he had seen a single Warhol soup can. But his approach to vernacular visual culture was less ironic and coolly detached than Warhol's. With his hyperactive visual and linguistic wit, Brainard had more in common with the New York School poets - Ted Berrigan, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery and others - who were his friends and frequent collaborators, and with whom he shared a love of narrative disjuncture and Absurdist juxtaposition.
In his collages featuring figures with cartoon-like speech bubbles containing playfully cryptic remarks, text was key. In one work from the mid-1960s a dapper top-hatted dragonfly asks his companion - an attentive grub holding a carpetbag - if he has yet seen Kubrick's Dr Strangelove (1963) suggesting the ease with which characters purloined from Victorian children's books can be updated with overheard bits of dialogue. In another mixed media work, American Flag (1962), Brainard and Berrigan went one better than Jasper Johns, using the iconic national symbol as a ground for the scrawled, nearly unintelligible picaresque erotic exploits of some unnamed hero. In a pacing stream of overheated prose they name-dropped their way through a Ginsbergian portrait of America, spewing out references to outsider figures such as puerile outlaw 'Pretty Boy' Floyd and reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, even squeezing in a passing mention of Walt Whitman, whom we learn the hero 'fucked in Brooklyn'.
The light-hearted, erudite smuttiness of American Flag stands in contrast to the homespun Surrealism of Joseph Cornell, whose avuncular aura hovers over Brainard. Like Cornell, Brainard was comfortable pottering between High and Low, relishing the appropriation of anything handy that sparked the right poetic association. For Brainard, an avid gleaner, material largely determined content, and he once remarked that in his cluttered studio collages formed themselves spontaneously. His ornamental sculptural assemblages are composed like jumbled devotional objects, encrusted with scraps of torn paper, food stamps, sequins, rosaries and carpet remnants. His all-over sensibility spilled over into his richly abstracted and kaleidoscopic 'Gardens' series of the late 1960s, intricate eye-popping collages of paper or fabric flowers that anticipated the later legitimation of pattern, decoration and craft in contemporary art. Although Brainard acknowledged camp undercurrents in his floral works, his obsessive dedication to the then distinctly uncool notion of beauty seems sincere and unadulterated.
Clearly, the episodic pacing, presumption of narrative and punchline set-up of the comic strip also figured prominently in Brainard's visual thinking. Among cartoon characters, Brainard reserved special affection for Nancy, the resolutely plucky woman-child whose backyard philosophy had been chronicled in the dailies since 1933, and whom the artist adopted as his alter ego. Nowhere is this more evident than in If Nancy Was a Boy (1972), which depicts the scamp lifting her skirts to reveal a benignly cartoonish penis. Nancy offered Brainard a way of mischievously addressing his own homosexuality, his drawing one of a series of hilarious small-scale works featuring the satirical permutations of his graphic surrogate. The art-historical in-jokes of Nancy as a Da Vinci Sketch (1972) or Nancy as a De Kooning (1975) contrast with darkly comic images such as If Nancy was Bright's Disease (1972), which transformed the little tike into a kidney lesion, her image grafted onto an illustration from a medical dictionary.
Having a muse with such a mutable 'can-do' attitude gave Brainard licence to play at style while waggishly disregarding the traditional importance of a consistent artistic signature. He noted his work's apparent lack of visible authorship, and it is not surprising that he eventually permitted himself to disengage from the public role of artist. In his memoirs Brainard wrote that art was simply 'a way of keeping busy. A way of showing my appreciation of things I especially like. A way of pleasing people. (Which pleases me.)'