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Frieze New York 2021

Joe Brainard for Loewe's New Menswear Collection

From blazing the 1960's New York scene to writing a memoir, Joe Brainard now takes centre stage in a new collaboration with Loewe

BY Matthew McLean in Frieze Week Magazine | 12 MAY 21

Like the first winter crocuses, the bursts of bright floral pattern scattered throughout the Loewe AW 21 menswear collection brought joy to the grey, locked-down days of January 2021. Pansies, specifically: patched onto the collar of a flannel blazer; knit across every inch of jacquard two pieces; or tumbling in a print down the centre of a dramatic, triangular-flare trouser. These motifs were quotations from works by the Joe Brainard, an official collaboration with the late artist’s estate, taken from works such as the gouache Three Pansies (1967), or the sumptuous-verging-on-psychedelic collage Pansies (1968). From Elsa Schiaparelli to Yves Saint Laurent, designers have long made quotations from artworks, and at both Loewe and his own JW Anderson label, Creative Director Jonathan Anderson has collaborated with ceramicist Takuro Kuwata, and the unclassifiable duo Gilbert & George, among others. ‘It’s all about being obsessed’, writes Anderson in an email to me. ‘Creativity today is defined by a lot of crossover, and I think it’s less elitist when you reject segregation’. Anderson was drawn to Brainard as someone who ‘defied categorisation’, as well as for his ‘enormous optimism.’ ‘There is a lightness and an immediacy in his work that I find acutely apt for this very moment’, he writes, ‘and indeed any moment’.

A Shirt from Loewe Menswear Runway A/W 2021, featuring a motif based on the work of Joe Brainard. Photograph: Davey Adesida
A Shirt from Loewe Menswear Runway A/W 2021, featuring a motif based on the work of Joe Brainard. Photo: Davey Adesida

Joe Brainard was born in 1942, and grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In high school, he befriended Ron Padgett, who would go on to become a prolific poet of the New York School. Moving to New York City in 1960, where initially he and another Tulsa friend, the poet Ted Berrigan, alternated nights on a single shared bed in a storefront apartment, Brainard turn to visual art. Joe Brainard: A Show in a Book (2021), a new Loewe-published volume designed by the legendary Paris-based graphic studio M/M, highlights the overlaps between writing, publishing and Brainard’s art, reproducing at original size selections from publications, printed matter, poem illustrations, book covers and other ephemera. It’s an enlightening look at Brainard deft graphic sensibility, as well as his tender wit. A Sad Story is a postcard sized work bearing an illustration of a cookie, accompanied by the words ‘She had a fatal weakness for chocolate chip cookies’; David Shrigley, eat your heart out.

Brainard’s name is often spoken in the same breath as pop art, and his works do share with pop a certain interest in the landscape of commerce and mass media – see the Cinzano-branded ashtray he depicted time and again, or his appropriation of Nancy, the title character from the Ernie Bushmiller comic strip, who, in Brainard’s hands, becomes a kind of impassive version of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, popping up across (art) history, taking on different forms and genders. Yet, says curator Constance Lewallen in one of a three part video series on Brainard made by Loewe, available online, one thing distinguished Brainard from his pop contemporaries: his concern for beauty. Brainard, wrote the poet John Ashbery on a flyer for his first show at the Alan Gallery in 1965, ‘proves that beauty is really interesting after all.’ Looking at the floral works, or the Alex Katz-like capture of a fleeting moment of light in Foot Landscape (1975), the claim feels true.

Regularly surrounded by poets like Ashbery, Brainard himself wrote copiously, most famously the book I Remember (1970), a compendium of memories from his Tulsa days, each one short and standardly formatted: ‘I remember the sound of the ice cream man coming. I remember once losing my nickels in the grass before he made it to my house. I remember that life was just as serious as it is now.’ In my mind, it’s a kind of goofy cousin to more famous experimental fiction, like David Markson’s Reader’s Block (1996). Besides I Remember (and its three follow ups) Brainard’s writing took myriad forms: the Library of America volume of his Collected Writings (2012), introduced by the novelist Paul Auster, a great Brainard fan, contains poems, jokes, comic strips, journals, mini-plays – forming together, perhaps, a kind of self-portrait in mosaic.

While Brainard’s writings (and the odd illustration) are available in said volume, the only Brainard catalogue, accompanying a 2001 retrospective organized by Lewallen, is out of print. It’s as if his liter- ary achievement has edged out his art. ‘His work is at MoMA and the Pompidou’, says Anderson, ‘yet he is one of those underground figures’. This recessive-ness is echoed in Brainard’s own life. As if experiencing a prolonged crash from his often amphetamine-fuelled hyper-productivity – for a single 1975 show at the Fischbach Gallery, he produced some 3,000 works – in the early 1980s onwards, Brainard began what Padgett called the ‘easing off’, slowing his output and virtu- ally quitting exhibiting. After a survey at the Long Beach Museum of Art in 1980, he made just one more solo show, at a small university gallery, before his death.

The poet Mark Ford in an LRB essay quotes from a 1984 letter to Padgett, in which Brainard details what then filled his days: ‘Rereading some old reliables, like Madame Bovary and Great Expectations and several Barbara Pyms. Play at work from time to time, but...’ It was another, earlier, pandemic that meant death for Brainard at the tragically early age of 52. Appropriately, given his love of flowers, his ashes were scattered in Vermont, where, a creature of habit, he summered with his partner for nearly 30 years. Yet, something about the quiet, introspective approach to life conveyed in this letter has a peculiar new resonance with how many of us live now, in the shadow of COVID.

From the vantage point of 2021, so much of Brainard’s work looks prescient: the fluid exchange between art and writing (like today’s artists-who-are-poets, like Precious Okoyomon or Patrick Staff, or sculptor Helen Marten’s recent turn as a novelist); or how, with the Nancy works, he creates an iterable, happy-sad icon that anticipates, say, the wildly successful ‘Companion’ of KAWS, but which, in its treatment of a character as stock material, hackable intellectual property, also oddly prefigures, say, Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno’s licensing of Ann Lee; or the way his sexuality feels so present, yet also so resistant to being pinned down, in his aesthetic of gayness (making him a bedfellow, I feel, for the quietly queer art of a Leidy Churchman, say, or an Amy Sillman).

The creation of a new generation of Brainard admirers would give Anderson’s act of homage, when the gorgeous garments are all sold and the luxurious books safely on the shelf, a lasting legacy. At home, I have framed a postcard designed by Brainard, from a set of 12 printed by Z Press in 1975, on which is read: ‘REMINDER / YOU’RE MORE THAN / JUST ANOTHER PEBBLE ON THE BEACH / TO AN ANT.’

This article appeared in Frieze Week, May 2021

Matthew McLean is creative director at Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.