By Deborah Solomon
Nov. 16, 2022
Joe Brainard sought to take up as little space as possible. He specialized in small-scale works — collages, drawings, and occasional paintings that relate more to the proportions of a writer’s desk than an artist’s looming studio. “There is something I lack as a painter that de Kooning and Alex Katz have,” he jotted in his diary in 1967. “I wish I had that. I’d tell you what it was except that I don’t know.”
However much he may have lamented his perceived shortcomings, Brainard was ahead of his time in acknowledging his feelings of marginalization. Unable or unwilling to advance the grand tradition of painting, he created a major body of work by questioning the prevalent belief that artists should have an instantly recognizable, money-in-the-bank style. And he understood how cheapo things (comic books, cigarette packaging, gift tags, restaurant receipts, etc.) can be an expression of authentic emotion.
“Joe Brainard: A Box of Hearts and Other Works,” a fascinating and substantial survey show at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, arrives right on time. It coincides with the publication of a new monograph on the artist by the critic John Yau, as well as with the much-praised Alex Katz retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, in which Brainard happens to materialize as an unmistakable portrait subject. There he stands on the Guggenheim ramps, in two painted sculptures from 1966, a rangy, slightly nerdy young man with curly brown hair, tortoiseshell glasses and an oversized shirt collar jutting from his V-neck sweater.