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The Nancy Book by Joe Brainard

Joe likes Nancy

For Joe Brainard love hit like a freight train the first time he spied Nancy: “The first time I saw Nancy she was eating a chicken salad sandwich at Joe’s, just around the corner from my father’s hardware store. I didn’t know what to do, she was just so beautiful. So I just stood there, looking. Bright red lips. White oval face. (Soft) big black eyes.” To be clear, Brainard’s talking here about the cartoon character Nancy and the year is 1963. “She was wearing a red dress. There was an empty stool right next to her, so I walked over and sat down. So close, it was impossible to look.” But look he did, for a lifetime -- and thank goodness he left us the evidence.

Actually, who knows when they really crossed paths. But Brainard’s tallish tale, recorded in a brief essay in The Nancy Book out this month from Siglio, certainly conveys the artist’s love for that collection of lines -- nay, for him, that form -- known as Nancy. Few artists present as malleable a trope, and so prolifically, as Brainard does with his riffs on Nancy. All those variations on a theme: “If Nancy Was Rich,”; “If Nancy Was Andre Breton at Eighteen Months”; “If Nancy Was an Acid Freak”; and on and so on --are now elegantly gathered between two pieces of hardcover.

Brainard (1942-1994) grew up in Tulsa but lived most of his adult life in New York City. In high school he met poets Ron Padgett and Dick Gallup and the three began publishing Beat and Black Mountain poetry as well as work by the then-unknown Ted Berrigan. In 1960 Brainard ditched a full scholarship at the Dayton Art Institute to move to the Lower East Side. There he fused himself with a part of New York already generally teeming with irreverent, free-wheeling, almost anti-academy (certainly unacademic) visual artists and writers, people like Frank O’Hara, Bill Berkson, Alice Notley, and Kenneth Koch, as well as Padgett, Gallup, and Berrigan. Their collaborations with Brainard -- and, more widely speaking, amongst themselves -- are durable representations of a web of friendship and community not unlike the legendary salons of ex-pat Paris during the 20s.

The Nancy work, then, offers up fragments, slices of that existence, with the figure of Nancy acting as a kind of visual refrain. Padgett, in an essay in The Nancy Book, describes Brainard’s love affair in perhaps a more grounded and historically revealing way than Brainard. “In his childhood Joe Brainard was well acquainted with Nancy, long before he started using her in his art,” he writes. “Every Sunday Ernie Bushmiller’s little heroine was delivered to the Brainard family’s home, in the color comics section [the "funny papers"] of the Tulsa Sunday World.”

Lodged in his memory as she was, Nancy sprung into Brainard’s artwork in the early 60s and lingered, popping up all along Brainard’s way until he stopped making art altogether to take up full-time, in John Ashbery’s words, “his two favorite hobbies, smoking and reading Victorian novels.” Nancy became Brainard’s catch-all tool, one of a handful of symbols in this artist’s repertoire, the kind that keeps surfacing and resurfacing, at first perhaps unexpectedly and then, later, with the full support and encouragement of the artist. Think of Dali’s melting clocks, Picasso’s jugglers, Warhol’s Campbell’s cans, or Ray Johnson’s bunnies.

While Johnson was learning how to draw a bunny, in fact, Brainard was somewhere nearby (both lived in New York City and corresponded occasionally) learning how to fit the world into Nancy. And, while the prolific Brainard pumped out stacks of other equally interesting drawings and paintings, he got pretty good at his Nancy act. The Nancy Book’s full of the evidence: There’s “If Nancy Was Art Nouveau” or “If Nancy Had An Afro,” both clear lined drawings that stick to a black and red palette, each “a distilled essence”-- in the words of a sometimes long-winded and winding essay in the book by Anne Lauterbach -- applied to the cartoon girl. There are the sly subversions of “If Nancy Was A Painting By De Kooning” or “If Nancy Was A Boy”, the latter a depiction of Nancy flashing us that penis she’s been hiding under her skirt all this time.

More than most of his contemporaries, Brainard crossed genres, showing little concern for disciplinary boundaries. His writings on art are lucid and whimsical, and his major work of uncategorizable poetry, I Remember, is the written equivalent of the Nancy drawings: with “I Remember” as well, Brainard chooses a formal constant on which to lay his riffs down. “I Remember” is, as the name suggests, a litany of memories, each one a gemmy dollop of profane nostalgia. And there’s some crossover. Brainard writes “I remember when, in high school, if you wore green and yellow on Thursday it meant that you were queer.” In The Nancy Book, we find Brainard’s Nancy garbed in a yellow bow and sweater covered with a green vest. She’s smiling like a moon and the caption reads, “If Nancy knew what wearing green and yellow on Thursday meant.”

The success of the Nancy drawings is precisely this fluidity, this ability to contain so much. A range of emotional tones gets made visible, reflecting perhaps Brainard’s own -- and any human being’s -- complexity and wide-ranging concerns. In some ways it’s not surprising that Brainard’s a genre-crosser, integrating text, as he does, so masterfully: He was hanging out with poets like Gallup, Padgett, Berrigan, O’Hara and others. Still, his deft use of text makes these works the antecedents to so many kinds of contemporary work that mixes the sensibility of single-panel cartoons with the depth of fine art (David Shrigley, Raymond Pettibon, and Tucker Nichols come to mind). O’Hara, in fact, wrote of this to Larry Rivers around 1964: “Now I am making some cartoons with Joe Brainard, a 21-year-old assemblagist genius you will like a lot…It is a cartoon revival because Joe Brainard is so astonishingly right in the drawing etc.”

And if Nancy were a critic?

Perhaps she’d say slyly of this book -- as Joe Brainard wrote in his diary on March 29, 1969 -- “Looking through a book of drawings by Holbein I realize several moments of truth. A nose (a line) so nose-like. So line-like. And then I think to myself 'so what?' It’s not going to solve any of my problems. And then I realize that at the very moment of appreciation I had no problems. Then I decide that this is a pretty profound thought. And that I ought to write it down. This is what I have just done. But it doesn’t sound so profound anymore. That’s art for you.”

The Nancy Book by Joe Brainard
Siglio Press
Published April 30, 2008
Hardcover, $40
ISBN-10: 097995620X
144 pages