by Mark Van Proyen
In December 1962, Artforum editor Philip Lieder wrote an article about the work of a young 29 year-old West Coast artist titled “Bruce Conner: A New Sensibility,” calling him a “Dachau Playboy” after noting the frightening and morbid tone of the artist’s assemblage works. The new sensibility Lieder was referring to had to do with Conner’s translation of “found objects” into “lost objects” where “pity, terror and outrage is not hidden,” thereby creating a “tone of total helplessness.” There were the distinctive attributes that made Conner’s work stand out a year earlier in an exhibition organized by William Seitz at the Museum of Modern Art titled The Art of Assemblage, which also included the work of Kurt Schwitters and Robert Rauschenberg among many others. This year, almost five and half decades later, the same museum hosted a comprehensive retrospective of Conner’s work titled It’s All True. That exhibition, which I saw in New York this past summer, reopens October 29 at SFMOMA, and it allows us to unpack what Lieder’s curious moniker can still be taken to mean. On the face of it, it suggests the adoption of a supercilious, devil-may-care attitude toward the suddenly all-too-imaginable horrors of nuclear annilahation and runaway social degradation. In that Cuban Missile Crisis moment, the specter of impending death was every bit as present as were any of the horrors of the recent World War (II) past. At long last, we can see just how prophetic Lieder’s ascription truly was, because throughout Conner’s long and multi-faceted career as an artist, the two most salient and recurring themes that appear and re-appear in a maddeningly varied set of guises are death, dissolution and pornographic eroticism, sometimes showing themselves to be one-and-the-same things.
At the entrance to the exhibition, the viewer reads a long epigraphic statement penned by Conner in 2000, “I am an artist, an anti-artist, a romantic, a realist, a post-modernist, a beatnik, subtle, confrontational, obscene” (und so weiter), concluding with the confession that “it is all true,” hence the title of the exhibition, which is far more complete than the survey of his work organized in 2000 by the Walker Art Center titled 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story (Part II) and the works-on-paper show, Somebody Else's Prints, mounted by the Ulrich Museum of Art in Wichita and seen locally at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art in 2015. Although It's All True opened at MOMA, it was originally organized by Rudolf Frieling and Gary Garrels of SFMOMA (along with MOMA curators Stuart Comer and Laura Hoptman), where it runs through January 22. (It includes 90 more works than the version of the show that debuted in New York.) One amusing and even perverse thought that crosses my mind is the irony residing in fact of the curators simultaneously working on the Conner exhibition while also putting together the SFMOMA’s celebration of the Donald and Doris Fischer collection that opened the new building this past spring. On one hand, we have a vision of the museum given
over as a trophy hall celebrating the perspicacity of an internationally focused art collector, while on the other we have an in-depth look at the work of a San Francisco artist who was about as renegade as any successful artist could hope to be. And like Conner’s long list of personal and artistic dichotomies, the contradiction between these two visions is also true.
If you entered the exhibition without any prior information, you could be forgiven for thinking that you had stumbled across a group exhibition featuring ten or so artists working at divergent purposes in diverse media. Each phase of Conner’s work was given its own semi-enclosed, compartmentalized space, with an additional seven devoted to dark not-quite-soundproof rooms containing projections of some of his films. The net effect of this approach looked like a curated cluster of diverse solo exhibitions, casting Conner’s multi-faceted career as a kind of one-man biennial. The exhibition’s handsome catalog confirms this view, containing 25 rather short (compartmentalized?) essays that attend to specific aspects of Conner’s career, oftentimes reading like the gropings of a hydra-headed elephant. But the actual exhibition shows Conner single-handedly fashioning multiple practices as a Chinese menu of mix-and-match possibilities, initiating an exploration of the outer limits of authorial incongruity while Martin Kippenberger was still in diapers.
Of course, other artists of Conner’s generation did much the same thing. Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol were both famous for doing so, and it was fairly common in the 1960s to read that Conner was proclaimed to be a kind of West Coast Rauschenberg. This appreciation had some superficial truth to it, but it collapses when the differences between the work of the two artists are highlighted. Rauschenberg was the first American artist who seriously reflected on the triumph of the mass media, while Conner’s great subject lied in revealing the many layers and variations of psychic devastation that churned in the wake of that triumph. His was a very different tack that stepped much further away from the hopeful cult of Modernist utopia that was so powerfully registered in the work of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, whose own stunning retrospective simultaneously presented at the nearby Guggenheim museum made for yet another stark contrast to It’s All True. As was the case with both Conner and Rauschenberg, Maholy-Nagy also worked in a dizzying variety of media, but his Bauhaus/ Constructivist esthetic was unambivalent about a future that would inevitably be redeemed by technology, industry, and the alleged inevitability of world revolution. In contrast, Conner’s work reveled not only in its own uncertainty; it also captured and highlighted the anxieties and pitched ambivalence of a Cold War era that Maholy-Nagy did not live long enough to see.
In addition to the seven films set in black-box projection rooms on the 5th floor, there were three viewing stations set up near the ground floor elevators, where three more of Conner’s films were displayed on video monitors with headphones. The earliest of these was a collaboration with the rock band Devo titled Mongoloid (1978), which is still widely assumed to be the first Rock video ever made, and one that became the prototype for pretty much everything that was ever broadcast on MTV. Of course, this is not really true—one only has to think about the Richard Lester/Beatles film titled Hard Days Night (1964)—but there is still something to
be said for how Mongoloid’s extreme jump-cut juxtapositions updated Sergei Eisenstein’s idea of montage in a way that is now a ubiquitous earmark of feature films and television commercials. That editing style stems from the earliest of Conner’s films, simply titled A Movie (by Bruce Conner) (1958), which is entirely composed out of streams of found footage that were pieced together to form a grand cavalcade of everyday horrors, sub-divided into meditations on disasters connected to the elements of earth, air, water and fire, all set to the triumphal arpeggios of Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome. Here, in accord with Conner’s wishes, the projection mechanism is that of the clattering 16 MM type, emphasizing the rough texture of film’s cut-and-tape editing technique that so perfectly compliments its abrupt changes of scene and pace.
The editing technique featured in A Movie was a natural outgrowth from the collage and assemblage works had Conner had begun to work on on for the previous year, commencing soon after his arrival in San Francisco in 1957. The earliest works in this group are two pieces respectively titled Rat Bastard and Rat Bastard II, both fairly small, both from 1958, and both
featuring juxtapositions of found imagery on both their front and back sides. Both works have the look of fetishistic medicine pouches, and are related to the paintings that Conner had been doing prior to that point, five of which are included in It’s All True. The Rat Bastard pieces also featured straps from which they could be hung so that the viewer had a choice about which side to display, while also making them look a bit like ladies’ handbags. It is worth noting that, in those early days of the San Francisco beatnik subculture, it was common to throw parties that required the contribution of a small work of art as a kind of entrance fee, so Conner’s strategy of hanging such works from straps can be seen as a perverse contribution to the idea of ultra-portable art objects. It is also worth noting that the title of these two pieces formed the basis of Conner’s founding of a group of about half a dozen artists known as the Rat Bastard Protective Association (including Fred Martin, Carlos Villa, Jay DeFeo and Joan Brown), some of whom were associated with the same Six Gallery where Allan Ginsberg first read his controversial and ground-breaking poem Howl in 1955.
From that point until the end of 1964, Conner executed dozens of assemblage works, most of which were small in scale. It’s All True contains about 35 of those
works, including the controversial Black Dahlia (1960),
which reflects on the sensationalized and gruesome 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short by showing an enlarged crime scene photograph veiled in ornamental feathers and translucent nylon. The piece had been thought to be lost for many years, but it surfaced some years ago when Walter Hopps finally revealed that he had kept it in a closet for four decades out of fear that someone would see it and think the lesser of him for owning it.
These works are hard to take. Some recent commentators have remarked that they look dated, as if that should be a problem for 50-year-old art objects displayed in a museum. In general, they are all meditations on the decay-of-the-not-yet-completely-decayed, dangerous looking Pandora pouches of oft-times bitter pathos. Indeed, in many cases they do look like props from a particularly imaginative haunted house, but the real question is, do these objects still register to the contemporary viewer as being uncanny? Conner’s consistent device of shrouding many of those objects with nylon stockings as a way of alluding to
cobwebs occasionally comes across as being bit gimmicky, but on balance, most of the works still carry a powerfully haunted impact, evoking the return of repressed traumas. As such, they seem a poor fit for residence in the techno-bureaucratic interior of any kind of modern or contemporary art museum that so subtly seeks to erase historical resonances, which explains why the MOMA’s installation of Conner’s early assemblage works looks so much like a collection of neutralized specimens, muffling whatever uncanny power that might still emanate from the objects.
But that much said, there is another question that comes to mind, pertaining to the extent to which the collage and assemblage art of the northern California beatnik scene owed to the earlier Surrealist practices of exhibiting objets trouvés (i.e. juxtapositions of found objects), which also sought to register the “uncanny” effects of shock and surprise. I often go back and forth on this point, and I often times find myself thinking that, in general, the Beats were overly given over to nostalgic reenactments of well-established Surrealist object-poetics, getting away with it because so few on the West Coast were fully aware of those earlier precedents.
I would never say that about Conner’s work, because it does do something that veers sharply away from the “marvelousness” of Surrealism. That something lies in the way that they relish their own grim morbidity, and in so doing, reverse the radical escapism of the surrealist project in favor of archeologically uncovering the anguished child buried under heaps of over-decorated adult hypocrisy and pretense, the very same anguished child whose Cold War destiny was to be constantly negotiating the conflict between truth and loyalty in a world governed by manipulative illusions.
But the principle of never say never also applies. Conner continued making cut paper collages after 1964, and in fact he made several series of them over the years, including a group of photo etchings called The Dennis Hopper One Man Show, Volumes I, II and III (1971, '72 and '73), issued by Crown Point Press, 13 of which are on view at CCP through January 28. But in contrast to the earlier works, these were all on flat paper and usually quite small, with the seams between the images rendered invisible, all undeniably charming in keeping with Surrealist models such as those represented by Max Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonte works from the early 1930s. In the main, Conner’s collages were made from neatly grafted fragments of antique book illustrations, recasting their intaglio line art as playful disruptions of various pastoral fantasies that bespoke a less morbid fantasy system than the one revealed in the earlier works. Around the same time, Conner also embarked on a vast series of ink drawings on
paper that were executed in several sub-groupings. Many of these were flowing configurations of dots and crosshatchings that look like hallucinatory variations on finger prints, while a great many others are careful manipulations of diluted ink pressed into Rorschach-ink blot configurations that are repeated dozens and even hundreds of times on single pages. A look at the dates on these works tells us that Conner would execute them in clusters, punctuated by time spent on other projects, returning later and continuing to add further variations to the ongoing series. We might also want to take note of the fact that, in the year prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, an overly anxious Conner
fled to Mexico, where he began using peyote and (I suspect), san pedro cactus extract, both of which tend to cause the kind of elaborately patterned hallucinations that so-often found their way into his subsequent work.
In addition to the drawings, hallucinatory patterns also were revealed in several of Conner’s films. One such example was the film Crossroads (1976), which took multi-perspectival film footage of the 1946 atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll and stitched it together so that the explosion repeats over and over to form an almost worshipful exercise in thanto-graphic imagery that was revealed in two parts. The first of these used a synthesized replication of the thunderous roar of the explosion as a soundtrack, while the second used blissful music composed by Terry Riley to give cosmic rationalization to the film’s inescapable image of nuclear annihilation. Granted, in our own time where terrorist attacks, toddlers packing heat, other crazed gunman, viral
pandemics and cyber-warfare loom larger as existential threats than does the real possibility of a strategic nuclear exchange, there is more than a whiff of bygone nostalgia to be found in Crossroads, and it might be worth mentioning that it was made during the years of post-Vietnam détente, that being the first moment of strategic arms limitation negotiations that eventually led to the drawdown of nuclear stockpiles. This leads me to think that we should read the film as a sardonic farewell to the slowly diminishing prospect of global nuclear obliteration, rather than as a fatalistic confrontation with its sublime inescapabilty.
An earlier 5-minute film titled Breakaway (1966) features a syncopated succession of quick-cuts of the singer/dancer Toni Basil gyrating to the sound of her own rendition of Ed Cobb’s song Breakaway. Some interesting backstory here: Conner shot the film’s black-and-white source footage on a merry-go-round at the end of Santa Monica pier, with Dennis Hopper and Dean
Stockwell holding, or rather, moving the lights that illuminated Basil against a black backdrop. Obviously, there were many takes, as Basil is pictured in varying states of undress, and with a sometimes oblivious and sometimes come-hither expression on her face. The movement of the merry-go-round, the music, the lights-in-motion, Basil’s dancing and Conner’s meticulous editing all come together to form a hypnotic experience that doubles as a meditation on the ecstasy of dancing, and its connection to and disconnection from the objectifying domain of the implicitly male gaze.
I am sure that Breakaway could engender volumes of writing penned by first, second and third wave feminists on the subject sexual objectification vs. sexual liberation, and any broaching of that subject would necessarily face a very long path to its potential closure. The shortcut version of that debate would simply remind us that Conner and Basil’s cinematic dance-of-a-thousand veils was very much in keeping with the spirit of its own time, and it is worth noting that Basil also played opposite Karen Black in the acid trip sequence near the end of Hopper’s 1967 film Easy Rider. But there are other resonances in Breakaway that require additional consideration. One of the most consistent themes in Conner’s work is the evocation of the Femme Fatal, which is of course the binary opposite of the Femme Vital that lurks at the foundation of almost all traditional religions. Here, the key point is not to valorize one against the other, but to illuminate the abrupt split between the two, which bespeaks the psychological defense mechanism of splitting (and compartmentalization) that Freud tentatively broached at the very end of his life. There are many ways to approach the idea of psychological splitting, ranging from the postulation of so-called borderline personality disorders advanced by Otto Kernberg in the late 1960s to the notion of a vertically split Self forwarded by Heinz Kohut in the 1970s. But the most useful key to it can be found in Herbert Marcuse’s postulation of the phenomena of repressive desublimation, which is not as contradictory as it might seem to be.
We all know how Freud’s account of repressive psychological states push the individual subject toward a sublimation of instinctual urges into socially acceptable vectors of fulfillment—the very idea of dream interpretation is based on exactly that thesis. In his 1964 book One Dimensional Man, Marcuse reversed that thesis by suggesting that the process of desublimation can also serve repression through process of a deflection, compartmentalization and pseudo liberation that sustains its own psychological splits so as to serve more complex imperatives of social regulation. At its core, repressive de-sublimation makes a distinction between sexuality and eroticism, the former being a “specialized partial drive,” while the later pertains to the needs of the entire organism.
As Marcuse wrote: “The Pleasure Principle absorbs the Reality Principle; sexuality is liberated (or rather liberalized) in socially constructive forms. This notion implies that there are repressive modes of desublimation, compared with which the sublimated drives and objectives contain more deviation, more freedom, and more refusal to heed social taboos. It appears that much repressive desublimation is indeed operative in the sexual sphere, and here, as in the desublimation of higher culture, it operates as the by-product of the social controls of technological reality, which extend liberty while intensifying domination…Thus diminishing erotic and intensifying sexual energy, technological reality limits the scope of sublimation. It also reduces the need for sublimation.”
This might be an overly elaborated way of suggesting that the sexuality that is so frequently revealed in Conner’s work is trapped in an adolescent understanding of the mechanisms of desire, but that too comes part-and-parcel with those post-birth control and pre-AIDS years of alleged sexual liberation. Again: those were the times.
For many years, Conner was a strident diehard when it came to the esthetic virtues of hand-cut celluloid film over digital editing and projection, but when he finally immersed himself in the later, the result was nothing short of a tour de force. Three Screen Ray (2006), is a precisely coordinated three-screen projection of high-resolution digital image sequences, the central one being a restoration and digitalization of his 1961 film titled Cosmic Ray. The Ray in question is of course Ray Charles, whose 1959 song titled What I’d Say supplies the soundtrack for both films. Working with digital film editor Michelle Silva, Conner was able to speed up and multiply the flow of three different sets of juxtaposed images, perfectly synching their bursts of light and imagery with the song into an exhilarating experience of cinematic delirium, making it the best work in any medium that Conner ever did. It is a truly dazzling work, in part for its incredible complexity that invites multiple viewings and endless possibilities for interpretation. One of these might point to the affinity that Three Screen Ray has to the ideas of the Italian Futurists, particularly the one that proclaims velocity-for-the-sake-of-velocity to be the greatest of the 20th century’s great subjects for artistic exploration.
For many years, you could encounter people who were familiar with Conner’s collage and assemblage works who were unaware of his filmmaking practice, and on other occasions you could run into an equal number people who were familiar with his films who knew nothing of his production of gallery objects. But it was also rare to find members of either group who were also aware of his achievements in the area of still photography, which were manifested in three
additional bodies of works included in It’s All True. One of these lies in a series of self-satirizing promotional materials that celebrated his stature as a kind of pseudo-celebrity given over to public pranks, including posters pointing to his unsuccessful 1967 bid to win a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Others are wry collaborations with Dennis Hopper, three of which reference an exhibition where he and Conner temporarily exchanged identities in 1971, 72 and 73.
Also included in It’s All True is a selection of eight of the 20 or so large photograms that Conner made in collaboration with Edmund Shea in 1974 and 1975. This group was collectively titled Angels, all full figure life-sized photograms of Conner’s body captured in stark, highly solarized black-and-white images that convey a compelling ghost-like quality. They look like spirit dancers reaching toward the viewer from a dark and shadowy nether realm, which is an effect that is enhanced by the way that the works were sequestered in a darkened room that also has a sound element — the low volume chirping of crickets. The light/dark figure-ground character of these works makes them seem like still photographic cousins to Breakaway, but their contemplative character is very different from the ecstatic dancing celebrated in the earlier film.
Near the end of the 1970s, Conner experienced several years of what appeared to be artistic inactivity, represented in It’s All True by a single Bruce Nauman-esque piece titled Ace Bandage Wrapped Brick (1979). But as it turned out, he was up to other things. The music video collaboration with Devo has already been noted, but its relationship to his new career as a band photographer working in high contrast black-and-white came as a surprise that flew under the art world’s radar for decades. In 1978, he began documenting the raucous punk rock scene at San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens nightclub, oftentimes publishing his images in a fanzine called Search and Destroy. At the time, almost everybody in the local art world had written Conner off, not realizing the degree to which his work was so far ahead of so many curves that had yet to reveal themselves. It might even be fair to think that Conner had written himself off for a few years during that time, but then, who really knows? In any event, the surprise is how good the Punk photographs really are, not just as telltale documents of the dissolute San Francisco Punk scene, but also as formally tight and technically accomplished examinations of the typical psychologies of the participating individuals who sport fractured social masks exaggerated by anxiety and duress. The analogy between the Beats of the late 1950s and the Punks of the late 1970s is the subject of a book that still needs to be written, and Conner’s band photographs could be the fulcrum point of that book’s story. Indeed, just as the Beats existed in a state of outrage over the conservatism of post-McCarthy America, so too were the Punks in a similar state of dissatisfaction over the onset of Thatcher-Reaganism, which ushered in a new age of fear. Conner was there to capture its effect on people who were two full decades younger than he was, revealing the anger and pathos that was at the core of their attempts at musical retaliation.
Yet another series of collages dating from the early 1990s relate to those photographs, those being harsh black-and-white works that adopt a look of fevered haste insofar as their own quick cut-and-paste construction was concerned. Here, the materials of choice were photocopies mixed with photographs and transparent plastic, morbidly echoing a hasty graphic look that was common in the early 1980s. These works functioned as memorials to some of the more flamboyant participants in the Punk scene who had died young, and one wonders in what way that Conner might have identified with their live-fast-and-die-young backstories. I say this because, around the time of his earlier Punk photographs, Conner himself had been diagnosed with a life-threatening liver ailment, and a decade later, the degenerative nature of his disease was taking its toll. He too was facing the prospect of having lived fast and possibly dying young, but as it turned out, he was able to successfully manage his medical situation for quite some time thereafter, finally passing away in 2008 at the age of 75.
Earlier in that final year, Conner finished a digitalized remake of a film that he had left incomplete many years earlier, titled Easter Morning (the earlier film was originally titled Easter Morning Raga from 1966). It is one of the very few of Conner’s films to use color, and the colors that it did use harked back to rusty browns and oranges that we might remember from his early
collage and assemblage works from the early 1960s. It is a beautiful candlelit meditation on self-reconciliation, spiritual fulfillment and solitude, featuring a nude woman sitting by a window watching the sunrise, kaleidoscopically intercut with evanescent fades to house plants and ornamental fabrics, soundtracked by a rendition of Terry Riley’s In C performed on antique Chinese musical instruments. Clearly, Easter Morning is Conner’s self-composed requiem, containing echoes and elements of all of his previous artistic preoccupations, but subordinating them into a grander vision of gratitude, redemption and finally, comforting dissolution.
And so, the final gripping question: for all of its meticulous gathering of Conner’s far flung artistic output, does It’s All True do full justice to Conner’s complex artistic legacy? Certainly some things were left out, like his early collaborations with Anna Halprin’s San Francisco Dancers Workshop, or his light show performances that he put on at rock concerts given at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom. But to fully answer that question, we might want to consider a few other things. At one point, during the early 1970s, Conner actually turned down a retrospective at the SFMOMA on a matter of principle. In those days, admission to the museum was free, but it charged a fee to visitors to see special exhibitions, and Conner felt that he was entitled to a cut of those proceeds. Needless to say, the museum did not agree with Conner on this point, so no retrospective for Bruce. Around that same time, he managed to get himself blackballed by the then semi-powerful San Francisco Art Dealers Association
(SFADA) over an alleged financial dispute with a gallery that went beyond the normal channels by which such things were handled. I also remember a time around 1980 when Conner had an exhibition at a tourist gallery near Fisherman’s Wharf, partly because he wanted to make a point about artistic freedom to the SFADA.
Indeed, Conner was always the most artful of artful dodgers, and in the ways that he became famous for dodging the mechanisms of art world fame, he also became a kind of counter-culture legend that cast him as the quintessential San Francisco artist, feverishly innovative and cantankerous in equal measure. Now, eight years after his passing, he at last has his retrospective, and it is the richly deserved cornucopia of perfervid possibilities that we all knew that it would be. But the sad irony is that the San Francisco that was once the natural habitat for artists of Conner’s searching disposition no longer is, and this change of scene makes It’s All True’s presentation of Conner’s work look like the extensive collection of well-preserved artifacts of some extinct tribe, rather than the barbed totems of the one-man insurrection that we oldsters would hope to uphold as his real legacy.
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Bruce Conner: “It’s All True” @ SFMOMA October 29, 2016 to January 22, 2017.
Other Conner events include an exhibition of tapestries, inkblot drawings and a wall assemblage @ Anglim Gilbert through December 3, and a show of photo etchings from the "Dennis Hopper One Man Show" series at Crown Point Press to January 28, 2017.
Images: Some (but not all) of the images are from the Conner Family Trust and SFMOMA,
About the Author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak's December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke Ass Stuart's Goddamn Website.