John Ashbery on Joe Brainard: “Nice as a person and nice as an artist. This may present a problem.”


April 4th, 2012


Joe Brainard was one of the nicest artists I have ever known. Nice as a person and nice as an artist.

This may present a problem. Think of how many artists, especially those whose work you admire, weren’t all that nice. Caravaggio. Degas. Gauguin. De Chirico. Picasso. Pollock. Their art isn’t exactly nice either, but the issue seldom arises. In Joe’s case, it does. He began around the same time that Pop Art did. With Lichtenstein or Warhol there is a subtext of provocation, though the Pop Artists generally were too cool, too “down” as we used to say, to let this possibility become anything more than unspoken. In Joe’s work, one of his pictures of pansies, for instance, there is confrontation without provocation. A pansy is a loaded subject. So is the effortless, seed-packet look of the painting. But there’s no apparent effort on the artist’s part to cause stress or wonderment in the viewer. With Joe, a certain gratitude mingles in the pleasure he offers us. One can sincerely admire the chic and the implicit nastiness of a Warhol Soup can without ever wanting to cozy up to it, and perhaps that is as it should be, art being, art, a rather distant thing. In the case of Joe one wants to embrace the pansy, so to speak. Make it feel better about being itself, all alone, a silly kind of expression on its face, forced to bear the brunt of its name eternally. They we suddenly realize that it’s “doing” for us, that everything will be okay if we just look at it, accept it and let it be itself. And something deeper and more serious than the result of provocation emerges. Joy. Sobriety. Nutty poetry.

Read the rest of the essay in the Siglio Library.

“Joe Brainard” by John Ashbery was originally published in the catalogue for Joe Brainard: Retrospective, Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York, 1997 and reprinted in Joe Brainard: A Retrospective, Granary Books, 2001. Copyright © 1997. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. for the author.

More on Siglio’s publication The Nancy Book by Joe Brainard here.

Related posts on the Siglio blog: A truly dirty rotten book. A filthy weird book.


Join Siglio to celebrate The Library of America’s publication of The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard at Skylight Books in Los Angeles on May 9.

Readings and visual presentations of Brainard’s inimitable writings and art by Bernard Cooper, Amy Gerstler, Lewis MacAdams, Lisa Pearson, Aram Saroyan, Ara Shirinyan, Michael Silverblatt and Benjamin Weissman.

Click here to download the invitation. General event info here.

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