Monday, February 16, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 36.2 (Joe Brainard and By Ron Padgett)

Padgett, Ron
Joe: A Memoir of Joe Brainard


I received this as a review copy from Coffee House Press a few years ago when I was still writing and editing book reviews at Artvoice, Buffalo's alternative weekly. I actually did write a review for this book, which I have cut and pasted below because it is not online at Artvoice. If you look over on the sidebar you can also link to an interview I did with Ron Padgett when he came to town with Kenward Elmslie for an exhibition of Brainard's work a few years ago.

Here's the review:

The annals of the New York Schools of poetry and painting are chock full lurid tales of sex, drugs and premature death. Jackson Pollack died at 44 in a car crash in 1956. 10 years later, 40-year-old Frank O’Hara was hit by a dune buggy on Fire Island and died several days later from the injuries. In 1983, Ted Berrigan died at age 49, after many years of addiction to amphetamines. In 1994, artist Joe Brainard, then 52, added his name to the list when he died of AIDS, having spent the better part of the last 15 years quietly refusing to show his work.

Each of these untimely deaths has given birth to a legend. These figures have become so iconic in the poetry and art worlds (and in the case of Pollack, the culture at large) that it would seem a nearly impossible task to speak of them as they were in life – as enormously talented human beings shot-through with imperfection. In Joe, his honest and low-key portrait of painter and writer Joe Brainard, Ron Padgett manages to accomplish the impossible. In generous, unadorned prose, Padgett presents us with an earthly view of his lifelong friend and collaborator.

Padgett met Brainard in Tulsa, Oklahoma when they were in the first grade. In high school, the two became fast friends, working together on literary magazines and forming a small artistic community in Tulsa that also included Dick Gallup and Ted Berrigan (who was several years their senior). Eventually, Ron and Joe and Ted and Dick all ended up in New York City, where they met and came to admire the so-called first Generation of the New York School poets, which included O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler. The Tulsa boys have since come to be known as the core of the 2nd generation, continuing a tradition of exuberant, experimental, colloquial, and often very, very funny poems (Padgett and Koch are two of the funniest poets around).

Brainard was primarily an artist, and over the years worked in collage, assemblage, charcoal, cartoons and oil paintings. Like his poetic contemporaries, his works are clever, funny, full of energy and generosity and life. He was also a prolific diarist and writer, influenced by both the “everydayness” of his friend’s writing and the clear, insistent repetitions of Gertrude Stein’s prose. His seminal book “I Remember” (see excerpt this issue) is a memoir in the form of a single, unbroken chain of associations, each beginning with the phrase, “I Remember.” The book contains all the qualities Padgett says he most admired in his friend and in his work: “clarity, specificity, generosity, frankness, humor, variety, a rhythm that ebbs and flows from entry to entry, and the sense that no memory is insignificant.”

What most often compels people to read memoirs is the promise of lurid tales of sex, drugs and premature death. While these attributes are quite present in Joe, what one takes away from this book as a reader is the more hopeful possibility of long-lasting and devoted friendships between people, friendships that outlast even the legends born of sex, drugs, and premature death.

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