The art world is widely regarded as a free zone, a place where anything goes and revolution rules the day; in fact, it’s a rigidly structured fiefdom governed by a strict code of unwritten rules. Multimedia artist Bruce Conner is an anarchist to the soul, and he’s never been able to resist messing with those rules.
“The idea behind the story of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ is central to my sense of aesthetics,” says the 56-year-old artist during a conversation at his home in the suburb of Daly City. “I’ve seen foolishness all my life, yet for some reason we all agree not to mention it. It amazes me how either through pure repetition or coercion by power, a view of what life is like is imposed on what life is like. I find it difficult to stand by and not speak of what’s obviously going on, and this has been considered extremely bad behavior on my part.”
Conner has indeed paid a price for his breaches of cultural etiquette. Acknowledged by art-world insiders as having played a significant role in helping break the stranglehold Abstract Expressionism had on art during the 1950s, Conner has been turning out critically acclaimed work for more than three decades, yet he’s hardly a household name. Here are a few reasons why:
The art world went wild over his assemblages of the early ‘60s, so in 1964 he decided to never make another one (his assemblages are still considered his most important work). Hailed as a gifted experimental filmmaker, he made 20 short films and established powerful ties within the movie world of the ‘60s. Then, rather than graduate to a feature-length film as he easily could have done, he gave his camera away in 1973 and abandoned the form. For several years he refused to sign any of his work, short-circuiting the issue of authenticity central to the market for artists’ work.
When “Who’s Who in American Art” sent him a form requesting biographical information for a listing, he returned the form stamped “deceased”; he’s now listed in “Who Was Who” as a dead artist. In a market where artists are rewarded for staking out a bit of turf, establishing a recognizable style and cranking out product, he bounced from one style to the next, giving no thought as to whether anyone else could make these stylistic leaps with him. He took long hiatuses, producing no work whatsoever for several years at a time. And, whenever he got the chance, he spoke his highly opinionated mind about all that he found idiotic in the art world.
Compulsively antagonistic toward the status quo, Conner might be dismissed as an eccentric crank but for the fact that much of his work is undeniably brilliant.
One of the founding fathers of the school known as Bay Area Funk, Conner took the Victorian memory box aesthetic of Joseph Cornell (a melancholy sculptural style involving antique trinkets and toys lovingly arranged in weathered wooden boxes) and updated it, investing it with the mood of dread and paranoia that hung like a poisoned fog over over the bomb-obsessed ‘50s. Essentially a neo-Dadaist style rooted in an awareness of the absurdity that permeates life, Funk is an improvisatory street style that arose from the Bohemian underground, and the hat it wears is one of freewheeling experimentation.
Conner, however, twisted the style into something dark, Gothic and brutal. Rife with Freudian symbols, his assemblages reek of a nasty, predatory sexuality and are ripe with the stench of decay and death. Alarmingly morbid in the early years of his career, Conner turned out work during the ‘50s and ‘60s that pulsates with futility and a sense of entrapment evocative of the writings of Samuel Beckett.
Conner’s groundbreaking assemblages are but one manifestation of his multifaceted sensibility. An accomplished draftsman, filmmaker, painter and photographer, he was a Conceptualist long before that was recognized as legitimate art form and was presenting performance art as far back as the early ‘50s. Inspired by mysticism, jazz, poetry, Dada, Oriental philosophy and Existentialism, he’s turned out a body of work that’s remarkably coherent in light of its wide diversity.
Currently the subject of a retrospective exhibition opening this Saturday at the Michael Kohn Gallery in Santa Monica, Conner hasn’t been seen hereabouts since a 1972 show at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery, though he’s shown sporadically at the Smith Anderson Gallery in Palo Alto for the past decade. A central player in three major cultural movements--the Beats of the ‘50s, the Love Generation of the ‘60s, and ‘70s punk--he’s maintained a low profile for the last 20 years. Notoriously illusive, he’s periodically dropped out of sight throughout his career, and his productivity came to a complete halt four years ago when he contracted a rare liver disease.
Conner the man is hardly what you’d expect in light of his work. Meeting with him at his exceptionally orderly house, one encounters a neat, soft-spoken gent who obviously quenches his thirst for chaos and grunge in his work.
“I’ve descended into this private hell of being an artist who’s thought of as dead, but, in fact, I’m still living,” he says with a laugh. “I am, however, retired. It’s been two years since I did a drawing, and prior to that I hadn’t done much else for several years. Contracting a fatal illness is a wonderful device for helping you be aware of things in a different way, and I’ve simplified my life quite a bit in the past few years. I’m on a restricted diet and I’ve learned to pace myself. Most people with this illness don’t survive more than three years and I was diagnosed four years ago, so I’m living on free time. I’m quite happy to be here too.”
Born in McPherson, Kan. in 1933, Conner was raised in Wichita, which he describes as “a repressive place. It was the kind of town where anybody who deviated from the norm was ostracized, and culturally it was pretty isolated, so I had to educate myself.
“There was a collection of paintings and sculpture at the Wichita Museum,” he recalls, “and some of that work made a big impression on me. William Harnett has been an important influence on all my work, and I first encountered his art at that museum. Harnett uses objects compositionally and tells stories with the objects he uses, so I learned a lot from him. They also had work by Albert Pinkham Ryder and George Gros that I liked quite a bit. I worked there as a museum guard for a while, so I got to know the work pretty well.
“As to the environment at home, my mother encouraged me to be creative but my father wanted me to be a businessman like him. He was disappointed in me for a long spell, but once I started selling work and being written about in magazines he decided I was a prize,” he says with a laugh.
Routine though Conner’s childhood was, the doors of perception began opening early for him. As a young boy, he recalls hours spent contemplating the uncountable blades of grass in his lawn, and saw terrifying faces in the wood-grain pattern of his grandmother’s dresser. At age 11 he had his first mystical experience.
“It was late afternoon and the sun was shining on the rug and I was lying there doing my homework when things started changing,” he recalls. “I went into this strange world and began evolving into countless different creatures and people, until finally I was very tired and very old. It seemed to last an eternity, and when it stopped I could hardly remember how I’d been when I started out. I felt so old I thought I’d crack and break if I moved. Then I looked at my hand and saw it wasn’t old, and looked at the clock and it was 20 minutes later.”
His prepubescent mind blown, he nonetheless forged ahead like a normal American boy. Art studies at Wichita University were followed by a degree from the University of Nebraska in 1956, and a scholarship to the Brooklyn Art Museum. While in New York he fell in with a group of people investigating Tibetan religion, the Tarot and the cabala, and those things continued to fascinate him for several years. In 1957 he left New York for the University of Colorado, met his future wife, Jean, whom he married that year, then drifted farther west.
“I went to high school with Michael McClure (a Beat poet), and after he moved to San Francisco in 1954 he called and said I should come out too,” Conner says. “So in 1957 my wife and I flew here the day we were married and found an apartment far outside of North Beach. Five months later Wallace Berman moved in a few doors down from my place, and, after Wallace came up, all these people from L.A. came up too. It was a pretty exciting time to be in San Francisco. I remember taking peyote for the first time in 1958 and walking through the park wondering if anyone in the Bay Area could possibly be experiencing the same thing I was. I painted the windows of my house, made assemblages that I put out on the street, and did performances. My wife worked as a secretary at a clinic, and that’s how we paid the bills.”
Though Conner was making art from the time he arrived in San Francisco, his assemblage style didn’t coalesce until 1959-61. Sinister, fetishistic reflections on consumerism and the destructive powers of time, this work incorporated decorative fragments, tattered scraps of memorabilia, mass-produced goods and erotic imagery. The binding agents he favored were wax and nylon stockings, which lent the pieces the quality of being ensnared in webs of death. A work from 1959 titled “Child” involves a charred, vaguely human form covered with wax and roughly strapped into a high chair; “Bride” from 1961 finds a figure ensnared in cobwebby nylon. His final assemblage “Looking Glass,” completed in 1964, is a bleak reflection on feminine vanity. These pieces are widely regarded as Conner’s greatest work, but he feels ambivalent about them and has disavowed them completely on several occasions.
“When I made those pieces I never conceived of any of them as finished,” he explains. “I put a date and title on them when I first hung them on the wall, but the process wasn’t finished for me at that point because one of my intentions was to create works that could evolve. I always expected my hand to be involved with the pieces again, and I sometimes sold them with the stipulation that I be allowed to rework them if I wanted to. Nonetheless, I lost control of most of them over the years. Maybe the original owner died or sold the piece or gave it to a museum--a lot of things happened.
“Consequently, there are a number of works of mine in museums that have been radically altered since I made them,” he continues. “Conservators have their own sense of aesthetics and many of them have tampered with my work a lot. Maybe the piece had a nylon stocking in it with a hole in it-- they’ll repair the hole. Or, a piece designed to move a bit will be mounted on a board and framed in a box. Maybe they won’t like the angle of an object in the piece so they’ll straighten it as though it were a picture on a wall. I have a real problem with the older work because much of it is not the way it’s supposed to be.”
Five years after moving to the Bay Area, Conner was getting a lot of positive feedback for these pieces, but by 1961 he was convinced the bomb was going to drop, so he moved to the mountains of Mexico to hide out. He found it hard to do work there, however, as there’s no trash. “No one throws anything away there because people are very poor and they use every thing,” he recalls.
After the birth of his son, Conner returned to the United States in 1962, first spending six months with his family in Wichita, then moving to Massachusetts at the invitation of Timothy Leary. He returned to San Francisco in 1965, and he’s been there ever since, but for the occasional stint in Los Angeles to work on films.
Conner made his first film, “A Movie,” in 1958. A startling bombardment of rapidly edited images, this, like all his films, is devoid of linear narrative and is designed to be understood on a subliminal level. As with his assemblages, he pieced his films together out of scavenged materials, and many of his movies explore the intermingling of sex, death and violence he sees as being central to American culture.
“Bruce’s movies changed my entire concept of editing,” says longtime friend Dennis Hopper, who contributed an essay to the catalogue for Conner’s current show. “In fact, much of the editing of ‘Easy Rider’ came directly from watching Bruce’s films, and, when I look at MTV, it seems they all must’ve been students of his.”
Pals with a Hollywood contingent that included Hopper, Dean Stockwell, Warren Oates and Peter Fonda, Conner did pre-production work on Fonda’s 1970 film “The Hired Hand” and briefly returned to filmmaking to do rock videos for Devo and David Byrne during the heyday of punk. He also has a partially completed documentary on the gospel group the Soul Stirrers that he hopes to finish, but he’s washed his hands of the medium for the most part.
“I can’t think of anything more devastating than working on a major commercial film,” he says. “I spent several months in Hollywood during the early ‘70s working as an associate producer, and while I was there I saw all kinds of aggressive and self-destructive behavior. Plus, I saw what Dennis went through in the early ‘70s with ‘Easy Rider,’ and that was enough to stop me in my tracks. The hazards of fame are extreme.”
Equally as hazardous for Conner are the dangers of art making.
“During the ‘60s I’d get up in the morning and work on projects all day long and well into the night,” he recalls. “Films, collages, drawings, music--there was a lot going on. By the end of the ‘60s I’d developed so many dimensions of myself that I had 15 different personalities at war trying to dominate this body. One guy was a filmmaker and wanted to make his movies, another guy did drawings, another did assemblage and so on. I couldn’t turn any of them off, and it became difficult for me to walk out the door and look at a plant without my consciousness warring as to how the plant was going to be looked at and used. I didn’t want to be obsessed with how to use the world, and that’s part of my ambivalence towards my art work. I finally managed to shut the voices up, mostly by ignoring them. I basically stopped doing art work, and when I felt the urge to make a piece I just waited until the feeling went away.”
Though the assemblages stopped in 1964 and Conner officially withdrew from “public art” in 1966, he has continued to do drawings throughout his career. The most overtly mystical of his work, his drawings offer a fascinating peek at the obsessive side of his nature. Often based on mandalas, his drawings frequently involve manic patterning so dense as to approximate volcanic slag. Rooted in psychedelia and the art of India and the East, Conner’s drawings ricochet from the microcosm to the macrocosm. He’s also continued to work on collage engravings made from imagery snipped from turn of the century periodicals. (A selection of recently completed previously unexhibited engravings are included in the Kohn exhibition.)
Conner’s last burst of intense art activity came in 1978 when he became involved in the San Francisco punk scene as a staff photographer for fanzine Search and Destroy. A corrosive aesthetic of outraged idealism that Conner had anticipated by decades, punk was tailor-made to his sensibility, and he spent most of 1978 at a punk club called the Mabuhay.
“I lost a lot of brain cells at the Mabuhay,” he laughs. “During that year I had a press card so I got in free, and I’d go four or five nights a week. What are you gonna do listening to hours of incomprehensible rock ‘n’ roll but drink? I became an alcoholic, and it took me a few years to deal with that.
“Many of the punk pictures look carefully composed, but I didn’t futz around with the images after I shot them, and if they didn’t work out perfectly I threw them away,” he adds. “There aren’t many that I saved. A lot of people seem to feel that these photographs have nothing to do with the rest of my work, but if I hadn’t done the collages and assemblage I never could’ve spontaneously composed these photographs as I did. But, people’s reluctance to accept this work as fine art is very much in keeping with art world thinking.
“Being an artist is like being a medieval craftsman,” he continues. “You’re expected to do one thing only, and many artists function like someone producing a line of cars. They stick with one style, and while next year’s model will be a bit different, it won’t differ too much from the original prototype. But I couldn’t conceive of restricting myself to one medium because the medium dictates how you see things. A sculptor, for instance, sees the world in terms of three-dimensional forms. This is one of the limitations of consciousness, and my way of getting around it was to develop different media almost as if I were another artist. This confused a lot of people, and they couldn’t see any connection between the various bodies of work I’ve done. For me, however, there’s a clear relationship between all these forms.
“I used to be concerned that people didn’t understand my work as I did, and I worked hard to land a major museum exhibition in hopes that would clarify things a bit. But I found museum people to be so bound by the requirements of curatorship that they couldn’t deal with my work. Their attitude is: ‘We want to show every last assemblage you did before 1964 and maybe we’ll put in a few drawings, but we’re not interested in the rest of your work.’ ”
Highly ambivalent about the museum system and how art history comes to be written, Conner is even more ambivalent about artworks themselves.
“I’ve always been uneasy about being identified with the art I’ve made,” he concludes. “Art takes on a power all its own and it’s frightening to have objects floating around the world with my name on them that people are free to interpret and use however they choose. Beyond that, I’ve seen many cases where artists have been defeated because the objects they made came to be perceived as being more important then they themselves were. De Chirico struggled to develop a new style of painting, but nobody was interested--they only wanted to show his own work. This is something I’ve experienced myself, and it’s a highly unbalanced situation because essentially the artist is denied a voice about the course of his own life and work. This is something I wrestled with for years, and I finally decided I wasn’t interested in fighting with my own work anymore.”