A Visual Artist Who Could Write

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The Collected Writings of Joe BrainardThe Collected Writings of Joe Brainard
Edited by Ron Padgett
Library of America.  541 pages, $35.

 

JOE BRAINARD (1942–1994) is a name that doesn’t appear in comprehensive reference books on gay American writers and artists, though his accomplishments included drawing, poetry, prose, theatre design, and more. The omission makes this beautifully realized compilation of Brainard’s writings an essential work for anyone interested in mid-century gay life and culture.

One of four siblings, all of whom ended up artists or working in the arts, Joe Brainard was raised in Tulsa and moved to New York at age nineteen (after a brief sojourn at the Dayton, Ohio, Art Institute), where he immediately took up with the New York School of Poets, whose members included Anne Waldman, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, and Ron Padgett, among others. Brainard and Padgett, who had been friends since childhood, had started a small magazine called the White Dove Review while still in high school. It ran for five issues and featured such writers as Robert Creeley, LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), and Ted Berrigan. While in his twenties and finding it hard to make a living from his art, he began an open relationship with well-off poet Kenward Elmslie, whose many books of poetry he illustrated with drawings ranging from crushed cigarettes to flowers and fruit and the occasional male nude. Wrote Brainard in 1971: “Kenward’s money. I like it too much. And have gotten to need it too much. And am still embarrassed to admit to taking it.” Elmslie had a summer house in Calais, Maine, where Brainard retreated every summer.

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Martha E. Stone, literary editor for this magazine, is a research librarian at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

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