Joe Brainard, "The Nancys," Apr. 10-May 17, 2008, at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10019.
Cheerfully transgressive, Joe Brainardís "The Nancys," mixes up Ernie Bushmillerís classic comic figure, frizzy-haired Nancy, with pornography, art-world parody and visual puns.
Joe Brainard (1942-1994), a New York School poet and artist, made over 100 works, mostly small mixed-media drawings and collages, with the appropriated image of Nancy. A group of 20 pieces from his "If Nancy Was a. . . ," now in the collection of Colby College Art Museum in Maine, plus seven other Nancy works, including an oil and one etching from private collections, illustrate his affection for this can-do gal.
In If Nancy Was President Rosevelt [sic], Brainard has inserted an inked face of Nancy into a photogravure of Mount Rushmore where Theodore Rooseveltís is usually seen. In If Nancy Was a Building in New York City, her frizzy head is seen among the skyscrapers in a back-lit skyline executed in black gouache.
Brainard, who was gay, probably came to know the term "Nancy-boy" after moving to New York from Oklahoma to hone his already-recognized artistic talent. Both Nancy and "pansy" were frequent motifs in his many collages and small drawings, transformed by him into terms of acceptance and endearment. (Many of his flower drawings remind me instantly of Fantin-Latourís).
If Nancy Was a Boy shows a grinning Nancy lifting her skirt to show off her penis. If Nancy Was a Sailorís Basket has our heroine peeping from a sailorís pants, the sailor being an appropriated photo shown without his head. Nancy smiles and waves. These works have such an insouciant charm, I suspect even the Pope would chuckle if he saw them.
Brainard knew many artists and used Nancy to parody their work. The results are less satire than homage. A particular favorite was Willem de Kooning, who appears in several Nancys. Larry Rivers and Picasso get the Nancy treatment, too.
"The Nancys" has been organized in celebration of a new book of more than 50 of "The Nancys" being published by the Siglio Press with essays by poets Ron Padgett, who is also from Oklahoma and one of Brainardís many friends, and Anne Lauterbach, who met him when he was working in collaboration with many of the poets and artists of the New York School.
Poetry lovers probably already know Brainardís list poem, I Remember, which riffs on his memories as a young boy in Tulsa, Okla., in the 1940s and 1950s. Each line starts with "I remember," and it runs to over 100 pages of calculated nostalgia that is both campy and poignant. Itís one of the few successful long poems of the 20th century and one of the great autobiographies from that period.
A reading of Joe Brainard texts is planned at the gallery on May 1, 2008.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.