A softer sort of avant-garde

The most celebrated abstract painters of the 1950s were admired for inventing a personal brush stroke or even, in the case of Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, a new way of applying paint. The function of American avant-garde art seemed to be innovation itself, and - above all - erecting barriers between the lofty aspirations of art and the less-lofty images of everyday life in the United States.

By 1961, when Joe Brainard moved from Oklahoma to New York, that set of ideas had worn out its welcome, but the most fashionable art remained confrontational.

It could hardly be said, for example, that Jasper Johns's American flags were expressions of simple patriotism. Andy Warhol's harshly colored flower prints challenged ordinary ideas of beauty. That people could call such things "art" was generally thought to be outrageous.

By contrast, Brainard was a charmer. His flower paintings (although their form suggested playful allusions to Jackson Pollock's drip paintings) were beautiful in a way that might have pleased his aunts and uncles, which is very far from the usual intention of avant-garde art. His witty collages are sometimes subversive, but almost always pleasant.

His painting of a 7-Up logo expresses high-spirited enjoyment rather than irony or criticism, very much as Braque and Picasso, working 50 years earlier, had borrowed the visual pleasure of wine labels and newspaper headlines by incorporating them in paintings.

As a designer and illustrator, often working with distinguished poets, Brainard became one of the central figures of the New York avant-garde from the early 1960s to the end of the 1970s, when he stopped making art for exhibition.

By the time he died, in 1994, Brainard's charm and undoubted talent for design seemed more worthy of celebration by museums than they had in the 1960s and 1970s, when American art was still overshadowed by the heroic ambitions of Pollock and De Kooning.

"Joe Brainard: a Retrospective," the artist's first major retrospective exhibition, was organized by the University of California, Berkeley, Museum. It is on view in Berkeley through May 27. It will travel to the Boulder [Colo.] Museum of Contemporary Art, and New York's P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center later this year.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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