Kiran’s MetaPrimer #2 — L is for Life by Joe Brainard.

| May 12, 2014

L is for Life by Joe Brainard. Joe Brainard is one of my favorite poets.  I appreciate the general style of his writing—simple, honest, and candid.  While I also appreciate poetic forms, Brainard’s poetry works alone and unstructured.  Life is one of my favorite of Brainard’s poems.  I find it especially poignant because Brainard died at the age of 53 from AIDS related complications.  I do not know if Brainard was aware that he was HIV positive when he composed this poem, but regardless, it is quite haunting.

Life by Joe Brainard

When I stop and think about what it’s all about I do come up with some answers, but they don’t help very much.

I think it is safe to say that life is pretty mysterious. And hard.

Life is short. I know that much. That life is short. And that it’s important to keep reminding oneself of it. That life is short. Just because it is. I suspect that each of us is going to wake up some morning to suddenly find ourselves old men (or women) without knowing how we got that way. Wondering where it all went. Regretting all the things we didn’t do. So I think that the sooner we realize that life is short the better off we are.

Now, to get down to the basics. There are 24 hours a day. There is you and there are other people. The idea is to fill these 24 hours as best one can. With love and fun. Or things that are interesting. Or what have you. Other people are most important. Art is rewarding. Books and movies are good fillers, and the most reliable.

Now you know that life is not so simple as I am making it sound. We are all a bit f*cked up, and here lies the problem. To try and get rid of the f*cked up parts, so we can just relax and be ourselves. For what time we have left.



To make sense of “Life”, we need to know more about Joe Brainard.  To do this, we can look at Brainard’s art, journaling, unique poems, and background.  Brainard truly lived the life of an artist.

“His early paintings and assemblages showed the influence of Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Joseph Cornell, but Joe’s work soon distinguished itself by its lyricism, wit, warmth, and generosity, combined with his penchant for making art that was unabashedly beautiful.”


Though often noted for his writing, Brainard was also a visual artist.  In both his writing and artwork, he seems to take pleasure in the “everyday”.  Perhaps what I admire so much about his work is the way that he was able to find beauty in moments and objects that are often considered to be mundane.  I also appreciate the subtle humor and irony he brought to much of his work.  While, like many other artists, he painted flowers–he painted them in a way I have never seen before.  Most of his artwork was mixed media collage (what is referred to on his website as ‘his most productive medium’), but he also used oil, pencil, graphite, and ink as well as enamel and gouache paint.  Additionally, he put together objects into assemblage art.  Brainard often used various mediums in conjunction.  He regularly utilized elements from comics in his artwork.  His work exhibits elements of Pop Art, but does not definitively fit the genre.  Wholly original, Joe Brainard’s written and visual art cannot be categorized.


‘Untitled, 1976, Mixed media collage’


‘Whippoorwill, 1974, Oil on canvas’


‘7 Up, 1962, Enamel on canvas’


‘Blossom, 1977, Mixed media collage’


‘Untitled, 1964, Assemblage’


‘Ultra-New Realism Self Portrait, 1972, Collage with graphite on paper’

“The new flower paintings. A painter said, “He just puts down a color, and it’s right.” The scale may appear to be the size of the stroke (at least in the small ones) but this is not the case. In the all-over ones he calls Gardens (like that on the cover [of this issue]) the scale is the size of a petal, or its color. Or, the scale is the size of a color area, and only sometimes is the fact of the stroke left to see. Nor is scale realistic. A white Oriental poppy is smaller than a morning glory, Johnny-jump-ups are huge because life-size. Parts of this fiction are nearer than others, although distance has been suppressed, or rather, not called into being. The risk of making just decoration—a pattern that seems to flow beyond the edges, like wallpaper skipping over a door—was very great, and to have attempted it and won, to make color and its size securely hold, gives a quiver to the achieved tension. The flowers are pretty and they are not alive; the pure compacted colors interlace and lock livingly together. It is the pictures that are beautiful.”

–from a review by James Schuyler, Art News (April 1967)

Joe Brainard’s ability to locate beauty in ordinary places is especially evident in his journaling, which reads much like his poetry.  While his journaling isn’t readily available, it can be found in The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard, which was put together by his close friend and biographer Ron Padgett.  I appreciate the soothing and slightly naive honesty of these journal entries.

“March 10th

Tomorrow is my birthday.  I’ll be twenty-six.  I have nothing against growing old that I can put my finger on except that I just don’t want to.  No peacocks again this morning.  Elizabeth is better.  Jane and Kenward have trouble sleeping at night.  I am outside sunbathing.  I want a good tan to show for my trip.  Sometimes I have the feeling that I’m not really a very good artist.  Most of the time, I admit, I paint to keep busy.  I hope that in the future I will rely more upon inspiration.  Perhaps I’ve been swamping it.”

–Excerpt from Jamaica 1968 Journal Entry

“Minute Observation

Out sunning on the lounge chair in a black bathing suit, with one leg up on the knee of the other—through the triangle of space between my legs—I spy a butterfly in the process of eating up some invisible specks of God only knows what, right there down by my foot.  Now let me fill you in on the details: a long black tongue, as thin as a thread, emerges out of what I assume to be a mouth, and rapidly scans the woven plastic strips of this “Grand Union” lounge chair, in the dart-like motions of anteaters in cartoons.  His wings are brown and black with lesser specks of orange and white, though by no means at random of course (. . . Z-Z-Z . . .).  Well all I can think of to say is that we probably learn something new every day, even if we can’t always put our fingers on it.”

–Excerpt from Nothing to Write Home About


Sitting out here in the sun today in a black nylon bathing suit covered with cocoa butter in a lounge chair with clip-board in lap I have a very clear vision of myself on this area of green around me called land.  The exact amount of space I am taking up.  And how I would look pretty strange to “something” that didn’t know what I was.  So different I feel from nature.  Like art in a big white gallery.”

–Excerpt from Vermont Journal: 1971

Brainard’s most well known work is his poetic memoir, entitled ‘I Remember’.  ‘I Remember’ was the first memoir of its kind.  In the work, Brainard began each line with the phrase “I Remember”, and continued as a memory from his childhood growing up in the 1940s and 1950s.  Some memories were intense and monumental, while others were commonplace and everyday.  By juxtaposing these memories, Brainard crafted a striking portrait of himself as an artist and as a human being.  The simplicity and candor exhibited within ‘I Remember’ speaks to every reader on some level.

Excerpts from I Remember

“I remember the first time I saw television.  Lucille Ball was taking ballet lessons.

I remember when I wanted to be rich and famous.  (And I still do!)

I remember drinking fountains that start out real low and when you put your face down they spurt way up into your nose.

I remember never winning at bingo, though I’m sure I must have.

I remember (too much wine) trying to leave a restaurant gracefully.  Which is to say, in a series of relatively straight lines.

I remember (from lake life) mosquitos.

I remember mosquito spray.  Mosquito bites.  And mosquito bite medicine.

I remember the little “thuds” of bugs bumping against the screens at night.

I remember cold mud between your toes, under warm brown water.

I remember trying to put on a not quite dry bathing suit. (Ugh.)

I remember in very scary movies, and in very sad movies, having to keep reminding myself that “it’s only a movie.”

I remember in speech class each fall having to give a speech about “what I did this summer.”  I remember usually saying that I swam a lot (a lie) and painted a lot (true) and did a lot of reading (not true) and that the summer went very fast (true).  They always have, and they still do.  Or so it seems once summer is over.

I remember looking forward to a certain thing or event that is going to happen, and trying to visualize its actually happening and not understanding “time” one bit.  (Frustrating.)  Frustrating because, at times, one can almost grab it.  But then you realize it’s too slippery, and just too complicated, so you lose your footing, totally back to nowhere.  (Frustrating.)  Still believing that a certain kind of understanding is somehow possible, if approached delicately enough, from just the right angle.”

Read the entire work here:

I will end this post with a bit of Brainard’s poetry.  The following are a few of my favorite Joe Brainard poems, in no particular order.  Just like in his journal entries, he continues to remain open, honest, and frank, while simultaneously maintaining a level of childlike playfulness.  Through his visual and literary artwork, Joe Brainard inspires me to approach life in the same sincere and spirited way.


Have you ever stopped to wonder what the world would be life without any trees? Just a big brown ball.
Do you know how many trees there are in the world? Nobody does.
There is nothing I love more than trees. Except people and flowers. (Some people, and some flowers.) Of course, not all trees are perfect either.

Van Gogh

Who is Van Gogh?
Van Gogh is a famous painter whose paintings are full of inner turmoil and bright colors.
Perhaps Van Gosh’s most famous painting is “Starry Night”: a landscape painting full of inner turmoil and bright colors.
There are many different sides to Van Gogh, the man.
When Van Gogh fell in love with a girl who didn’t return his love he cut off his ear and gave it to her as a present. It isn’t hard to imagine her reaction.
Van Gogh’s portrait of a mailman with a red beard is probably one of the most sensitive paintings of a mailman ever painted.
It is interesting to note that Van Gogh himself had a red beard.
When Van Gogh was alive nobody liked his paintings except his brother Theo.Today people flock to see his exhibitions.
Van Gogh once said of himself: “There is something inside of me — what is it?”

Short Story

Ten years ago I left home to go to the city and strike it big. But the only thing that was striking was the clock as it quickly ticked away my life.