The Telegraph
Friday , March 14 , 2014
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In 1964 — the year after the 21-year-old Joe Brainard moved to New York from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the year after Roy Lichtenstein painted Whaam! and Andy Warhol made Double Elvis — Susan Sontag was earnestly trying to define “camp” in an essay that is, unfortunately, considered a classic today. “Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature,” she wrote, “It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of ‘character’… People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as ‘camp’, they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.” Brainard’s close friend, Ann Lauterbach, quotes this passage in her introduction to Brainard’s THE NANCY BOOK (Siglio, $39.50), calling Joe and Nancy — his comic-strip persona, stolen from her original creator, Ernie Bushmiller — the “perfect camp couple”. That would have been absolutely right had Brainard — dead of AIDS at 52 — not also shown in his Nancy series, with obsessive and deadpan precision, a core of self- destructive cool that turns on its dark head the tweeness and light on the brink of which Sontag’s definition of camp teeters. In a superbly black piece of comic writing, reminiscent of Warhol’s crystal-crazy prose, Joe narrates the first days of getting to know Nancy, whom he met eating a chicken-salad sandwich in a Middleville eatery called Joe’s: “Nancy was always handing me jars that I couldn’t open. ‘Open this jar for me,’ she would say. Then she would leave the room and I would twist and twist. The jar would never open. She would come back in a few minutes and without saying a word take the jar from my hand and with one simple twist open it. Then she would go on about her business until there was another jar to be opened. ‘Open this jar for me,’ she would say. She didn’t do it on purpose. Not Nancy. I don’t know why she did it.” This is more Kafka than camp — with a touch of Alice at her cruellest.

Siglio started its series of “uncommon books in the intersection of art & literature” with this brilliant collection of drawings, assemblages and related writings that Brainard made from the early Sixties to the mid-Seventies. For Brainard, this was a prolifically creative period of art-making and every kind of experiment with design, at the end of which he abruptly and completely gave up all that, and spent the next couple of decades until his death in 1994 reading, writing letters, and conducting tender friendships with a variety of unusually talented people (Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Edmund White, among others), whose inner lives were lastingly enriched by his otherworldly generosity, his quietly uncompromising subversiveness, and his intuitive discernment in both art and life. In his Lower East Side attic with not much more than a single bed, Brainard read one immense Victorian novel after another in a chain as endless as that of the cigarettes he smoked, with a radio tuned 24 hours to a country-and-western station. It would be the same during his art-making years, when he would sweetly take on New York’s Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art establishment, together with their literary compatriots and European contemporaries (as in this revisiting of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase in the middle), subjecting their work to a form of relentless parody that also became the vehicle of a unique form of self-expression. Siglio’s republication of his artwork is particularly welcome, as Brainard himself never thought he was “good enough” or had “enough ambition” or “the right kind of ambition” to make it big in a success-driven city like New York. So he is remembered more for the startlingly original form of his memoir, I Remember, than for his art. Edmund White remembers him as “both a collector and an antimaterialist”: “He loved beautiful objects and bought them, but he loved emptiness more and was always giving away his collections and restoring his loft to its primordial spareness... It was difficult for him to live in the real world. He’d get rid of everything... I remember at the end, when he was so ill, the nurse would have to kneel next to his mattress on the floor.”