Excerpt from Pop Poetics: Reframing Joe Brainard
reviewed by Andy Fitch
Warhol’s Soup Can paintings differ from Joe Brainard’s quasi-autobiographical literary projects in obvious ways. The former works reproduce an impersonal, reductive, industry-derived iconography. The latter texts depict an idiosyncratic, detail-oriented, homemade subjectivity. Yet the affinities between Pop-painting and Pop-poem quickly manifest once Pop art’s rhetorical processes get surveyed—as with John Coplans’ phenomenological account (in his 1970 essay, “Early Warhol: The Systematic Evolution of the Impersonal Style”) of viewers’ initial response to a characteristic Warhol canvas:
The imagery that Warhol finally selects is in the range of charged, tough notions that in [Robert] Rauschenberg’s work, for example, become transformed by painterly handling. Warhol’s imagery is transformed … but the crucial issue is that the transformation is not immediately apparent. More immediate to the viewer is that the painting looks as disposable as the original it is modeled from: something to be thrown away, or the cheapest kind of advertising, of no value except as a message to sell.
As with Rauschenberg’s collage-like combines and Jasper Johns’s bronze-casted beer cans, as with Allen Ginsberg’s encyclopedic odes and Jack Kerouac’s speech-based rhapsodies, Pop art appropriates its ostensible subject from vernacular discourse, and thereby contests the formal autonomy of postwar aesthetic objects (painting, sculpture, poem, novel). Yet Pop art also, and unlike the mid-century milestones listed above, refuses to secure a fixed place for itself outside of the everyday ephemera it celebrates. Whereas Rauschenberg, Johns, Ginsberg, and Kerouac foreground the deliberate “transformation” of vulgar data into exquisite art, Warhol’s iconic panels and Brainard’s readymade diaries often appear just as “disposable” as the originals that they get “modeled from.”
Thus if Pop art picks up any cultural value beyond that of the commodity fetish, of the postcard message, it does so implicitly—by posing epistemic problems that formalist art appraisal obscures. Warhol, as Buchloh has argued, heightens viewers’ awareness of the commercial context within which paintings get exhibited. Accessible affect engages his audience, yet site-specific serial installation precludes total immersion in any one canvas (leaving the turned-on consumer/spectator to windowshop a spare, 360° display. For just as viewers of Warhol’s 1962 “Campbell Soup Cans” installation confront both thirty-two distinct flavors and one comprehensive product line, so readers of Brainard’s diary projects encounter detached, dissociated entries and cohesive, composite narratives. In “Diary Aug. 4th-15th,” for instance (begun, coincidentally enough, the very night that Warhol’s “Soup Cans” show closes in Los Angeles, and thus offering an auspicious start to Selected Writings, 1962-1971), Brainard’s supposedly discrete, one-a-day prose blocks read more like sculpted strophes from a carefully calibrated monologue, a camp-inflected Thomas Bernhard rant:
Aug. 4—Today went to the Museum of Modern Art to see the mummified remains of the actual asp that Queen Cleopatra used to kill herself with: a most interesting object. Aug. 5—Today went to the Museum of Modern Art to study Excalibur, with which King Arthur proved his right to Kingship, and to sip coffee in the Museum’s sculpture garden. I found the sword to be a most unusual object. Aug. 6—Today I thought: A rusty old sword and a dead snake? Are they kidding? Where are the real treasures of yesterday? Aug. 7—Today I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to look at the real treasures of yesterday. Their major treasures are exciting. I found their minor treasures rather unexciting. Aug. 8—Today I thought seriously about Excalibur and decided it could just as easily have been Prince Valiant’s or even Flash Gordon’s. I have definitely decided this to be a minor treasure.
With date-lines running down Brainard’s page (as if digits from a Jasper Johns number-painting), “Diary Aug. 4th-15th” evokes less the fugitive present of the “instantaneous” canvas than the consistent pace of the accountant’s calendar—scrupulous sister to diurnal time. Still, fugue-like repetitions (“Today went … Today I thought … Today I went … Today I thought”) convene the continuous pleasures of serial display (“a most interesting object … a most unusual object”), as much as they conjure the daily grind of diaristic progression. A Pop recherche du temps perdu, Brainard’s text invites readers both to revel in the moment (“to sip coffee in the Museum’s sculpture garden”), and to span across eons (to compare Excalibur to Flash Gordon’s sword). However charming line-by-line, “Diary Aug. 4th-15th” demands, in Coplans’ terms, analysis addressed “to the largest entity.”
Again, in “Jamaica 1968,” Brainard assumes the kaleidoscopic journal-keeper’s convoluted pose, required to give himself up to the moment, yet equally concerned to move his plot along:
Our house is a little house up on top of a big hill … We have a swimming pool and two maids. I don’t like having two maids … There are buzzards that fly very low. And geese. They come around and drink from the pool, quack, and do enormous piles of green shit. And there are brown goats, and beautiful peacocks. I would say about a hundred of them. I have never seen anything more beautiful.
I’m outside sun bathing. There is a goose over by the swimming pool. Jane [Frielicher] thinks it is something else that does the green shit piles but I’m sure it’s the geese … Beyond the bay is Montego Bay: the city … We really do have a terrific view up here.
The peacocks woke us up this morning with their various noises. They make incredibly loud sounds … But Joe Hazan got up and shooed them away.
The peacocks woke us up again this morning. About six o’clock. They really are beautiful tho.
Here goose-shit piles and beautiful peacocks emerge in conspicuously well-balanced proportion. Once more, Brainard seems to edit his diary as though shaping an all-over text. Neither “honest record” (along the meticulous lines of Henry Thoreau’s or Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals), nor fictive construct (such as Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea or Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook), Brainard’s alternately hammy (“I have never seen anything more beautiful”) and high-handed (“I don’t like having two maids”) account appears closer to John Ashbery’s Guadalajara-dreaming “The Instruction Manual”—to have been written by a marketing director on strike. Too prosaic or pushy for conventional lyric tastes, Brainard’s text can sound as “disposable” as “the cheapest kind of advertising.” Yet it continues this poet’s rigorous examination of the instant’s relation to the durational whole, of the indented passage’s position on the all-over page.
As if further to foreground this concern with serial display, Brainard begins, in subsequent projects, to insert unbroken typographical lines, perforating his situation-based poems into semi-distinct measures:
Writing Smoking Drinking a beer So as to get more so (More drunk) To get more sleepy (To sleep) Listening to “The Supremes” Almost Christmas Almost a New Year
Just as seasonal change may seem to dilate during the holiday-heavy weeks before New Year’s, so “December 22, 1970” interposes mild impediments to the reader’s progress— restoring attention to our temporal passage through what otherwise appears a swift, almost-instantaneous poem, plunging in vertical descent. Impromptu autobiographical reference (“Drinking a beer,” “Listening to ‘The Supremes’ ”) yields to soft compositional constraint. Space and time get entangled amid Brainard’s typographical scoring of the text.
By 1971’s “Some Train Notes,” moreover, the collagist/poet systtematically deploys this conspicuous line, as if in direct homage to the small white shelves of Warhol’s serial display:
Riding a train is pretty funny. Especially when you don’t really feel like you’ve “been” where you’ve been. Especially when you don’t know exactly what you are going back to or why. Especially when you’re totally stoned out of your head.
Perched atop their graphic grooves, Brainard’s boxy entries stand separate but combined, invoking both the college-ruled page and the schoolboy’s digressive “theme.” As with Warhol’s Campbell soup cans, each utterance appears eminently detachable (“This train stop is a long one”; “A woman just sat down next to me”), yet loses its distinctive flavor set alone. Precursor to Barthes’s S/Z, Brainard’s strophic account accentuates the seme’s (also the seam’s) manifold meanings (the poet’s floundering analysis of not having “ ‘been’ ” where he’s been, for instance, picks up comic precision once we learn that this sentiment springs from somebody stoned “out of” his head).
Fragmentary, subjectless sentences may stumble toward a camp epiphany on the passage of time:
I can see my own face now more than I can see what’s outside. I guess I’ll stop now and try to read some Lillian Helman.
But throughout the piece, Brainard’s grid-like depiction of temporal/geographical progress offers abstract counterpoint to more familiar forms of modernist reverie. It is as if Walter Benjamin, enthused by the latest Mondrian exhibition, opted to systematize “Hashish in Marseilles.”
Here I do not attempt to prove Selected Writings’ poetic puissance, so much as to suggest that each project quoted above expands the parameters of Pop serial display. Brainard mines the journal and one-liner forms for pocket-sized, easily transferable gems, yet nonetheless evokes the architectonic effects of Warhol’s gallery installations. For as with his predecessor’s “largest,” context-affirming entities, Brainard’s deft distributions of equivocal remarks engage our attention, even while they preclude complete engrossment in any one module. To assume, however, that this dispersion of substantive content, this diverting of lyric closure, this flaunting of accessible affect need inevitably produce an inferior text is to deny the epochal impact Pop and proto-Pop hermeneutics have had upon late-twentieth-century serial design.