Over and over, the artist Joe Brainard painted Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy. Nancy as a transsexual, Nancy as toddler Breton, as the Manhattan skyline. In my favorite, she’s kidney disease. For Brainard, she was a passport.
He wound up in New York City in 1963. But he was born in Arkansas and reared in Tulsa, Oklahoma. That oil town, home of the Golden Driller and Oral Roberts University, had nowhere for a young man in love with art and gay besides. He left for good the same year the Star Trek architecture went up at ORU. I doubt it would have made him feel more at home. Another artist’s photo essay, Larry Clark’s Tulsa, might have reminded him why he left.
In New York, he mixed with artists and poets. First Frank O’Hara, Alex Katz, and Kenneth Koch, later Warhol, Johns, and Ashberry. Yet Brainard maintained a simple persona. And made art about Nancy. As Ann Lauterbach writes, “Nancy could travel with Joe from his humble roots in Tulsa to the bright complexity of New York City… Both the troubled, earnest pathos of the times and the overwhelming grandeur of ‘high art’ might be resisted, or converted, by Nancy’s ubiquitous smile.” The bumpkin takes the city, in other words.
In the 1960s and 70s, he made scores of works on Nancy, most collected now in The Nancy Book from Siglio Press. A glance through shows he’s no bumpkin. These witty, inventive brillo-haired jazz riffs put bland American identity through the wringer. “The Nancy Book,” a 27-page comic book done with poet Ron Padgett, mixes raw sex with mad formal play. Everything is up for grabs, even words: at one point, the word “sky” appears wherever the sky should be. Another work, cover art for the 1968 Art News Annual, views the avant-garde through a Nancy lens. The works always feel personal, as Brainard uses Nancy to explore his complex emotions. Somehow, she is a worthy muse.
No small credit must go to Bushmiller, whose cartooning was kind of brilliant. Nancy has proved a perennial muse for cartoonists, Mark Newgarden and Bill Griffith chief among them. As Lauterbach rightly notes, “the comic strip and the miniature are both economies of distillation,” and Bushmiller made a perfect miniature in each panel. It’s why Five-Card Nancy works, but Five-Card Prince Valiant doesn’t.
Brainard shared the flair for miniatures, and so found a perfect match in Bushmiller’s creation. Navigating the City, he found familiar comfort in Nancy. Much later, when he died of AIDS, he did not share the celebrity that engulfed some of his circle. Reading The Nancy Book, I wonder if he preferred it that way.
(The images come from JoeBrainard.org and are (C) the Estate of Joe Brainard. Top: “If Nancy Was an Ashtray,” 1972; Middle: “Nancy Diptych,” 1974; Bottom: “If Nancy Was a Painting by de Kooning,” 1975.)