Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bonus Joe Brainard Edition

In last week's column, Ann Coulter used the phrase "I remember" three times. This led me to attempt Joe Brainard's game of "I remember" — on top of the usual Tom Phillips treatment, of course.
For the uninitiated, Joe Brainard (1942-1994) was an American artist and writer of the Pop era. Like Phillips he created a meme that now serves as the point-of-entry to a diverse, media-spanning oeuvre. In Brainard's case, the meme is "I remember." You start a sentence with those two words and add a pithy reminiscence. Some examples will explain better than explication can:

I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie.

I remember my first erections. I thought I had some terrible disease or something.

I remember planning to tear page 48 out of every book I read from the Boston Public Library, but soon losing interest.

I remember my parents’ bridge teacher. She was very fat and very butch (cropped hair) and she was a chain smoker. She prided herself on the fact that she didn’t have to carry matches around. She lit each new cigarette from the old one. She lived in a little house behind a restaurant and lived to be very old.

In other hands, "I remember" would be mere nostalgia. Brainard took the idea and produced what Paul Auster called "a masterpiece... one of the few totally original books I have ever read." I Remember first appeared in book form in 1970. It was followed by sequels (including a 1973 I Remember Christmas commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art) and compilations. The latest edition of I Remember is available from Granary Books.
Even Brainard's many fans may not know that there is an unusually fine Joe Brainard website. ("From an early age Joe showed artistic talent, winning virtually every art contest he entered. He even designed his mother's dresses.") Brainard is associated with the New York School poets — he collaborated on hilarious comic strips with Frank O'Hara. As a visual artist, Brainard is best known for his takes on the cartoon character "Nancy," paintings of flowers (done simultaneously with Warhol's but more hypnotic), and collages. Brainard was incredibly prolific. He took amphetamines to speed his output, and one gallery show had 1500 of his works. (They were very tiny). After 20 years of intensive work, Brainard stopped making art to focus on reading and going to movies. Above is one of Brainard's later works, Blossom, from 1974.
John Ashbery wrote that Brainard "proves that beauty is really interesting after all."