On the occasion of “Bruce Conner: It’s All True” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (through October 2), we are presenting an article from our June 2000 issue. Written by Michael Duncan—a critic, independent curator, and corresponding editor at A.i.A.—the piece reviews “2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II,” a traveling retrospective of the artist's work at its originating venue, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. –Eds.
Bruce Conner has long seemed the consummate cult artist, quietly accumulating supporters over the past 45 years for his various films, assemblages, drawings, paintings, collages, photographs and occasional conceptual stunts. With his artistic restlessness and ornery integrity, Conner has found little time for the hype machine of the art world, scorning its emphasis on signature styles and artists' biographies. At the same time, he has repeatedly explored themes and techniques that other artists have come to later.
Although still best known as an assemblage artist, he decided—as he puts it—to stop gluing the world down in 1964, when he felt that he was becoming overly identified with the technique. He has tweaked the contemporary emphasis on the personality of the artist by not allowing photographs of himself to be published and by refusing to sign some of his works. In 1967, he sought to exhibit a series of collages under the name of his actor-artist friend Dennis Hopper. As a prank, Conner submitted a notice of his own death to Who's Who in America and one of his earliest solo shows was billed as "Works by the Late Bruce Conner." In today's art world of overnight sensations and Vanity Fair profiles, it's no wonder Conner's work has been a well-kept secret.
But it's a secret that may no longer be safe. An epically scaled museum survey, comically titled "2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II," lays out the interlocking aspects of the artist's quirky, wide-ranging sensibility, making a strong case for him as one of the great innovators of his generation. Bringing together seemingly disparate bodies of work in all mediums, the exhibition, curated by Peter Boswell, Bruce Jenkins and Joan Rothfuss for the Walker Art Center, presents Conner as a Renaissance man of contemporary art, brilliantly performing in an astonishing variety of modes.
At the Walker, the Conner exhibition was hung in loose chronological order, tracing the development of various bodies of work. Separate viewing rooms for three films were strategically placed at intervals. Since the films are short and of a staggeringly high quality, the viewing rooms acted as revitalization stations, providing subtle counterpoints for the rest of the show. Thankfully, the films were also properly projected as 16mm loops rather than as the grainy video images so common in museum exhibitions.
Conner's interest in examining the underbelly of conventional notions about beauty and morality was established by the first piece in the show, an untitled, double-sided assemblage dated 1954-1961. From one side, the work appears to be an assembly of raw wood, metal and cardboard scraps à la Kurt Schwitters or Alberto Burri. But on the flip side of this restrained, richly patined arrangement of rough-hewn geometric shapes is a funky array of clipped-out photos of female pin-ups and B-movie starlets, postcards of old masters, pictures of exotic animals and anatomical diagrams. Mixed into this jumble of art faves and cheesecake babes are portraits of James Joyce and Marcel Duchamp—as well as a "Fragile" postal label, a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, a sticker promoting Ezra Pound for president and Conner's Selective Service order to report to his local draft board. Exposing material usually excluded from abstract art, Conner's collage seems a fascinating antecedent for the work of Mike Kelley, specifically Kelley's 1987 series of sculptures in which sexually explicit magazine clippings are glued onto the undersides of bedroom dressers. In addition, the way Conner milks his off-kilter juxtapositions for psychologically evocative effects presages John Baldessari's work of the 1980s.
Conner fully explores the narrative and emotional ramifications of the collage esthetic in his subtly affecting masterpiece, A Movie (1958), a 16mm film spliced together from leftover footage bought in a local camera store. It includes clips from newsreels of stunts and disasters, blue movies, a Hopalong Cassidy western, a German propaganda film and a compilation film of racing-car accidents, as well as various styles of film leader. In 12 fast-paced minutes Conner runs through an amazing variety of structural and conceptual gambits, each of which has subsequently been belabored by so many media artists. His zippy editing style, predicated on surreal juxtapositions, also anticipates the entire output of MTV and countless TV commercials.1
Playing off the solemnity of conventional films, the opening credits deliberately hold on Conner's name for too long, include bits of leader and repeat the title, A Movie, an absurd number of times. Then, through furious, witty editing, he quickens the montage effects first explored by Kuleshov, Vertov and Eisenstein. (Conner himself credits Méliès, Hollywood movie trailers and the Marx Brothers' film Duck Soup as influences.) A typically hilarious sequence cuts from footage of a submarine captain looking through a periscope, to a shot of a seductive beauty lounging in high heels, to footage of a phallic torpedo blasting underwater. Through visual puns, slapstick connections and metaphor-based editing, Conner gets at the essence of the narrative impulse. Successive chase scenes (Indians after a wagon train, a fire engine on call, a meandering tank, a speeding race car) create a perpetual suspense that is never released, while a series of crashes—from a bicycle falling over to airplane explosions—conjures the imminent possibilities for unexpected, disastrous denouements. Gravity and motion seem properties of Thanatos, confirming the sense of dread inherent in watching any action sequence or in following a plot.
The film's sense of fragmentation is modified by the romanticism of the orchestral soundtrack: Respighi's gorgeous The Pines of Rome. Accompanied by this lush music, shots of mass destruction (a burning zeppelin, a bridge buckling and giving way, a firing squad, an atomic blast) establish a kind of free-floating aura of impending tragedy that subsumes the comedy of Conner's visual puns and surreal juxtapositions.
"I intended it as an anti-movie," he explains, "but I compromised and made a real movie."2 Presumably, the "real movie" component includes Conner's evocation of classic American themes of Manifest Destiny, individualism and "can-do" daredevilry through clips from Westerns and footage of Teddy Roosevelt. Conner stockpiles key narrative moments into a cinematic assemblage that in many ways seems the ultimate film—not A Movie but The Movie.
Although sex and romance are alluded to in A Movie, their darker side animates Conner's assemblages of the early 1960s, which are among the most intense, haunted art works of the past half-century. Contemporaneous with the powerful early assemblages of Edward Kienholz, Conner's works are more lyrical and erotic. Frequently, these kinky conglomerations of feathers, fabric, jewelry, wallpaper swatches and bits of fur, usually encased in skeins of nylon stockings, suggest narratives of violence and unrequited desire. In Black Dahlia (1960), a compact 2-foot-high assemblage, Conner wraps a full-length photo of a topless model in a shroud of torn, flesh-colored nylon, evoking a real-life 1940s sex crime that inspired a host of film noirs and lurid paperbacks. Nailed into place, this body bag is stuffed with fragments of fabric, tobacco, string, feathers and a wadded-up page of Sunday comics—seemingly evidence from a crime scene. In this vignette of perverse victimization and sadistic exploitation, Conner melds the tough-guy world of detective fiction with the fetishistic trappings of, say, Hans Bellmer or Pierre Molinier.
Partially held together with garter belts, Spider Lady (1959) contains an entire bicycle wheel, the spokes of which play off the crisscross skeins of nylon and string that keep the gothic piece in a kind of bondage. In Homage to Jay De Feo (1958), Conner attaches a zipper-adorned, phallic-shaped dangle to an assemblage made from flowered fabric, a tap-dancing instructional diagram and a smiling nudie photo wrapped in nylon.
Conner says he got the idea for the pendulous shapes of many of his assemblages from the burlap sacks used at the time by a San Francisco garbage collection service called the Scavengers Protective Association. "When the truck was full," he has recalled, "they would hang them on the sides like big lumpy testicles. So they were using all the remnants, refuse, and outcasts of our society. The people themselves who were doing this were considered the lowest people employed in society. . . . I decided, we'll have the RAT-BASTARD PROTECTIVE ASSOCIATION: people who were making things with the detritus of society, who themselves were ostracized or alienated from full involvement with the society."3
Conner is a key figure in the remarkable and still underrated group of San Francisco artists who came of age in the early 1960s. After following poet Michael McClure, a childhood friend from Wichita, to the Bay Area in 1957, Conner and his artist wife, Jean, fell in with a stellar group of young painters and writers that included Jay De Feo, Wally Hedrick, Joan Brown, Manuel Neri, Wallace Berman, George Herms, Jess and Robert Duncan.
For Conner's artist friends, the Rat-Bastard Protective Association was a counterculture version of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, celebrating their distance from mainstream values.4 Although they embraced even the trashiest elements of mass culture, these so-called Beat artists were also inheritors of the introspection of Abstract Expressionism and engaged in a search for meaning beyond the scope of mainstream Eisenhower America. Their underlying earnestness contrasts vividly with the cynicism of Pop art, the other, more celebrated movement of the time. As Conner makes the distinction, "We were interested in a spiritual quest. It was a time when people would die or go to jail for their art. . . . I get impassioned and that's not cool and cool was what pop art was all about."5
Conner's dissatisfaction with the conventions of American society led him on a two-year sojourn in Mexico. That country's distinctive culture, with its omnipresent Catholic and pre-Columbian imagery, broadened the spiritual base of his work. The "Hecho en Mexico" assemblages reflect a period of introspection, intensified by Conner's experiments with peyote and psychedelic mushrooms.6 Cross (1962) is a crucifix of homely scrap wood adorned with a small pre-Columbian mask, a newspaper effigy and a crown of thorns. In La Virgen (1962), cheaply printed religious etchings are swathed in lace, fur and nylon, and strewn with beaded necklaces. The assemblage seems blessed by a small pair of tin retablo eyes.
In Mexico, Conner began to make meandering drawings. Loosely penciled sketches of embryonic forms, a patterned mushroom and an organically blossoming map hint at the intensity of his later efforts. One side of Conner's foam-filled Pillow (1961-64) is painted with loopy forms and lines in predominant earth tones so as to resemble a kind of psychedelic topography. Clippings of starlets and nude models glued on to the other side of the pillow jokingly reveal the source of the reverie.
The obsessive patterning of the Mexican works is taken to the limit in Conner's later, tightly packed, allover ink drawings. The drawings of the "Mandala" series (1965) consist of labyrinthine lines grouped to create an overall design of targetlike concentric circles, often within rectangular frames. The intricate drawings and their submerged geometric forms invite close scrutiny and intimate contemplation. A related body of work, "Book Pages" (1967), are sets of two 8½ by 5½ inch sheets almost completely covered with continuous, meandering ink lines, sometimes revealing faint geometric forms in negative space.
The allover drawings can be considered records of obsessive performances. Conner used Pentel felt-tip watercolor pens that allowed him to keep drawing for hours without lifting pen from paper. Tonal variations from black to gray result from a pen gradually running out of ink. The tones and chance waverings of lines create textures whose irregular effects are somewhat like those of the weathered patinas of the antique objects used in the assemblages.
The results of Conner's trancelike actions are metaphorically rich. Twisted, improvisational pathways seem like representations of fate or charts of mood swings. The groups of lines also resemble fingerprint striations, suggesting similarly random, chaotic indexes of identity. In some of the drawings, the irregular, undulating shapes formed by the tonal variations suggest topographical maps, magnetic fields, rock formations, liquid stains or amoebic forms.
After his return from Mexico, Conner went into a kind of internal artistic exile. From 1967 to 1971, he ceased exhibiting art, teaching it or even reading about it. While supporting himself in San Francisco as a janitor, a salesman in a knickknack shop and a ticket seller at a movie theater, he continued to make art, but solely for himself, storing it in his garage rather than seeking exhibition venues.
Despite their small scale, Conner's "Mandala" drawings address the formal and metaphysical ramifications of symmetry and pattern in a way that makes, say, Jasper Johns's Target paintings seem simplistic. The symmetry of the mandalas seems mysteriously to emerge from the unpredictable mazes of ink. Conner orchestrates this miracle by overlaying the gnarly demarcations with geometric forms, thereby presenting the dialectical relationship of chaos and order.
Conner's drawings explore what might be called the drift of chaos toward order—as manifested in humankind's penchant for seeing recognizable shapes in irregular objects like clouds and wood grain. As Conner puts it, "The mystery of symmetry appears to be a universal one. Perhaps this is a characteristic of our consciousness, looking at ourselves; of choosing between symmetry, balance or centering, and asymmetrical eccentricity. The gratuitous environment of a smooth surface of water or mirror surface takes an image that may be chaotic and organizes it. This is a personal experience, but I also think it is the inherent and genetic character of people."7
The inkblot drawings Conner has made over the past 20 years similarly explore the conflation of symmetry and chance. The artist has developed a process in which he can masterfully layer or overlap inkblots in vertical or horizontal rows conforming to the accordionlike folds of the sheets of paper he works on. Through practice, he has achieved an astonishing variety of effects. The feathery, insectlike shapes of Sampler (Feb. 20, 1991) and the dense, floral configurations of Inkblot Drawing (Apr. 30, 1995), for example, demonstrate a sovereignty over seemingly uncontrollable ink spills. Blots are tamed into complexly structured shapes and assembled into orderly rows. As Conner has noted, the inkblot drawings relate less to Rorschach blots than to the symmetrical forms found in wood grain, traditional ornamentation and natural objects like snowflakes and crystals. They invite close inspection of their seemingly endless variation and inspire a kind of marvel at their individual nature. Like inscrutable characters on a page from some unknown language, the blots seem ready to be translated and their mysteries revealed.
In "Angels," Conner's stunning 1974-75 series of photograms, it is the mystery of form and the physical representation of the human spirit that is manifested. To make these works, Conner would assume a pose in front of a long piece of photosensitive paper and, with the help of photographer Edmund Shea, experiment with different exposures. The resultant black-and-white photograms appear as photographic negatives with sections blocked by Conner's image appearing in white. In Sound of Two Hand Angel, a misty full-length silhouette is punctuated by two clearly distinguished handprints. In Night Angel, a bright orb shines in the midst of Conner's crouching figure. Angel Kiss and Angel register only the slightest suggestion of a figure, marked by a few flamelike sparks of light.
The mystical nature of light is subtly treated in the series of untitled Star drawings from 1974. Conner nearly covers sheets of paper with dense ink markings, leaving only scattered, starlike points of white negative space. The dark tones of the ink create a kind of patina, indicating the varying density of Conner's mark-making. His seemingly nihilistic efforts to black out entire pages are mitigated by the careful inclusions of the tiny points of light. The tension of this drift toward blackness gives the drawings a kind of metaphysical drama.
The life-enhancing appeal of light is raucously celebrated in the five minute black-and-white film Breakaway (1966), which was featured at the Walker in the exhibition's second viewing station. To the soundtrack of a Phil Spectorish pop single by Toni Basil, Conner edited footage of the singer-choreographer executing mod gyrations in a variety of outfits and states of undress.8 After a sequence of long shots of Basil striking modelish poses against a black background, Conner builds to a staccato rhythm of close-ups with body parts blurred in frenzied motion. The quick cuts transform Basil's image into swaths of moving light, conforming to the kind of liberation hoped for in the song's lyrics.
As Boswell describes it in his eloquent catalogue essay, "These lyrics might refer to breaking away from convention and point to the personal and sexual freedom of the 1960s. But when they occur in conjunction with the blurred, ghostlike images mentioned above, the lyrics suddenly seem to imply a more radical breaking away: from the chains of this mortal coil." With frenzied, unexpected grace, the film elevates a go-go dance into a Dionysian celebration of life and spirit.
Then, unexpectedly, when the 2½ minute song is over, the film and soundtrack are reversed. The backward motion swoops and sucks Basil and the song back in time. As we experience what we've just seen in reverse, the record of Basil's youth, beauty and spontaneity seems transformed into a kind of memory loop. The cyclical form subverts the film's narrative thrust, in a sense taking Basil's dance out of time. With its effectively choreographed style of editing, the film describes a breakaway from ordinary life, time and motion that is transcendental and downright psychedelic. It is one of the great lesser-known art works of the 1960s, capturing the era's spiritual yearning and utopian vision.
But Conner's idealism is accompanied by extreme political skepticism. Television Assassination (1963-64/1995), a 14 minute black-and-white 8mm film projected onto a blank television screen (set up at the Walker as an installation), deconstructs footage of the Kennedy assassination through use of slow-motion detail, repetition and reediting. Conner mixes and repeats footage of the Dallas motorcade, a police detective's presentation of Oswald's rifle, Oswald's assassination and JFK's funeral. Through stutterlike editing of these key sequences, Conner creates a disturbing, numbing account of the traumatic event—and the media's crass collusion in the madness.
In the collages Conner has made from old engravings, Christian imagery and other, more esoteric material are transformed into strange allegories. While clearly reminiscent of Max Ernst's collages, Conner's cobbled-together compositions are more densely layered and narratively oblique than those of his Surrealist predecessor. The "Christ" series (1987) warps New Testament incidents with absurdly placed tools, machines and scientific devices. Deus Ex Machina equips Christ with start and stop buttons. In Blindman's Bluff the resurrected Christ seems to be doubted by a disciple who is literally ham-headed. For Christ Casting Out the Legions of Devils, Jesus rebuffs a group of aggressive, cylindrical machine parts.
Conner's surreal approach refurbishes the shopworn biblical scenes, heightening their mystery. Christianity appeals to Conner as an elaborate mystery. As he puts it, "There is always a conundrum, a mystery and hocus-pocus in an established religion. Is it much different watching a professional magician as opposed to a priest presenting the Host, and saying 'This is the flesh of Christ and blood of Christ . . . EAT AND DRINK IT?’”9
A series of landscape and seascape collages is more contemplative. In Becalmed (1994), rectangular grids of empty seas and skies surround two adjacent triangles that seem to be floating in the void. In an untitled oval landscape dated Oct. 22, 1981, three sky-filled orbs float above a migrating flock of birds. At the Edge of the World (1995) includes a section of a "Star" drawing and a fanciful collage landscape featuring a Blake-like wanderer. In a more upbeat mode, Psychedelicatessen Owner (1990) presents a paisley-clad, flower-holding man whose face consists solely of bejeweled and filigreed ornament.
The collages of the 1990s share the lyrical, abstract quality of the five minute 16mm film, Take the 5:10 to Dreamland (1977). Shown in the Walker's last exhibition viewing room, the film conjures up a dreamlike vision of Conner's Wichita childhood. Enhanced by a moody electronic score composed by Patrick Gleeson, the film mixes found footage of plainspoken natural scenes and low-tech science experiments. Conner here slows down the pace of his editing, allowing the strangeness of the odd film snippets to sink in.
In Conner's work, the spiritual and the conceptual come together in completely unexpected ways. In 1964, he became upset about lack of public access to a tactile assemblage of his on display at the San Francisco Museum of Art. The museum had placed a "Do not touch" warning sign next to it—the only work in the museum so marked. In response, he made Touch/Do Not Touch (1964), a work consisting of twelve 40 by 30 inch primed canvases, blank except for small transfer letters spelling "do not touch" applied at their centers by an artist friend. On a thirteenth canvas, Conner himself added the word "touch." All the works are framed, but the last canvas is the only one covered with Plexiglas. Besides addressing how museums tend to ossify the art object, Touch/Do Not Touch sends up, as well, the notion of denial and austerity implicit in the minimalist esthetic.
Conner has pointed the way to deeper meanings of the work. In interviews he has compared the relationship of parts within Touch/Do Not Touch with that of a holy object and its congregation, Christ and his 12 disciples, and religious experience and peripheral dogma.10 A dialectic of presence and absence is established through the convention of the glassed picture frame, allowing Conner to slyly present the central paradox that seems at the root of both spiritual and esthetic quests: the unknowable, unobtainable, untouchable nature of truth and art.
Besides resonating with the work of his West Coast peers, Conner's multiplicitous art forecasts a sweeping variety of contemporary concepts and ideas. Again and again in the exhibition, one feels that Conner not only got there first but did so with welcome concision, intensity and forthrightness. His films, for instance, make the slow-motion effects, trick editing and use of repetition in recent works by Douglas Gordon, Mark Lewis and Stan Douglas seem simplistic and ponderous. Contemporary works that have used reversed motion à la Breakaway include Gary Hill's 1984 tour de force Why Do Things Get in a Muddle? (Come on Petunia) and Sam Durant's installation Altamont (1999), which includes reversed footage of the Maysles Brothers documentary of the infamous Rolling Stones concert. For their part, Conner's ink drawings have an intensity and conceptual rigor that one misses in recent, formally similar efforts by Jacob El Hanani and James Siena. Touch/Do Not Touch succinctly covers similar terrain to a slew of later projects that comment on the sanctified notion of the art object by artists such as Joseph Kosuth, Stephen Prina and Christopher Williams. The limitless experimentation evident in so much of Conner's work is today almost unimaginable. The contrast between the exuberant Breakaway and Gillian Wearing's Dancing in Peckham (1994)—an unedited, single-shot video of the artist dancing alone in a shopping mall—speaks volumes about the contemporary narrowing of esthetic, social and sexual possibilities.
Conner's romantic faith in the pursuit of artistic truth has led him through a dizzying variety of forms and mediums. His stubborn integrity has made him a consistently interesting and evolving artist and a role model for a more ideal art world. Light on his feet, Conner has tempered the grand aspirations and heavy themes of his work with humor, iconoclasm and a healthy love for the absurd. He bypasses the pieties of postmodern thinking, and instead, with extraordinary subtlety and sophistication, rekindles old-fashioned mysteries.