American Sculptor, Painter, Photographer, and Filmmaker
San Francisco, California
Summary of Bruce Conner
Defining himself as a critical opponent of mainstream American society, Conner was a versatile, restless artist who played a major part in the San Francisco Bay Area Beat scene in the late 1950s. Having made his early reputation on the West Coast for his monstrous sculptures, he became associated with the rise of Neo-Dadaism. The art critic Alex Greenberger described Conner's sculptures, however, as much more than simple "Robert Rauschenberg knockoffs". Indeed, Greenberger observed that his works, which represent America as a "wreckage of a bombed-out society", were generally "much darker" than the Neo-Dadaists "combines".
Conner turned subsequently to filmmaking and is credited with inventing the new genre of "film assemblage". On the back of his breakthrough 12 minute film, A Movie (1958), he came into the 1960s as a major avant-garde filmmaker, and, as a self-proclaimed "thief", his films were constructed from a complex montage of original and found materials drawn from sources as wide ranging as war documentaries, soft-Porn, Hollywood westerns, and disaster footage. A diverse oeuvre, tied together by the themes of political disillusionment, consciousness and spirituality, his other key works include a series of intricate mandala drawings, photograms (of his own body), ink-blot drawings, and photo-collages.
- Conner was a key player in helping transform mainstream culture into something political and anti-authoritarian, an attitude that give rise to the full-blown counterculture movement of the 1960s. Though he distanced himself from the idea that he had self-consciously attached to any particular movement ("absolutely nobody had heard of Dada in Wichita, Kansas" he mused), his early assemblages have been widely discussed as Neo-Dadaist works (that is an "anti-aesthetic" process of collage, assemblage and found materials) that conveyed a sense of anger and foreboding at the anxieties of the uncertain Cold War times in which they were produced.
- As the inventor of "film assemblage", Conner took over the mantle as America's First avant-garde filmmaker from Maya Deren. His dynamic arrangement - assemblage - of shots, many drawn from the well of popular culture, brought an energetic, free-wheeling, spirit to the filmic avant-garde that would have a profound impact of the subversive American Underground scene (which attracted the likes of Andy Warhol) of the early-mid 1960s. Many observers cite Conner in fact the first pioneer of the MTV music video generation.
- During a period of retreat in Mexico, Conner produced a series of patterned sketches. On his return to the United States, Conner took these sketches and turned them into mandalas (concentric and geometric shapes that contained allusions to the spiritual world). His mandalas series, produced around the mid-1960s, were emblematic of the religious and spiritual aspects of Bay Area psychedelia that would be taken up as the aesthetic of choice for the nascent international counterculture movement.
- Conner has cited the Surrealist Max Ernst as one of the major influences on his assemblages. Like Ernst, he made picture collages based on incredulous juxtapositions including machinery, and plant, animal and human life. These works stood on their own terms but Conner brought them together (in what might be justifiably considered a Dadaist gesture) in a series which he insisted should be attributed to artist/actor Dennis Hopper. Conner was asking his audience to ponder the complex philosophical issue of authenticity and authorship thus bringing a further conceptual dimension to inform on his work.
Progression of Art
Drawing on the aesthetic of American artist Joseph Cornell, (who created melancholy assemblages from antique Victorian wooden boxes, trinkets, and toys), Conner imbued his own morbid assemblages with a dark style that conveyed a sense of violence and dread, mirroring the Cold War-era atmosphere in which it was produced. Art critic Kristine McKenna notes that, in many of his assemblages (including Child, as well as The Bride (1960), and Looking Glass (1964)), the use of wax and nylon stockings as binding agents "lent the pieces the quality of being ensnared in webs of death".
In this work, the grotesque, human form throws its head backwards as if howling in excruciating pain while the black wax used to create the figure gives it the appearance of a burns victim. Although references to several contemporary issues are woven into this work (including the nuclear weapons, childhood innocence, and the Vietnam war), Conner's primary message is his disgust for capital punishment, and in particular, the widely-publicized case of inmate Caryl Chessman who was incarcerated and later executed in a gas chamber, for the kidnapping and sexual molestation of a woman in Los Angeles.
Thomas H. Garver, Assistant Director of the Rose Art Museum in Waltham, Massachusetts, asserts that "Conner's assemblages sweep together a motley assortment of human detritus apparently without selection [and that] he synthesizes new objects from the flimsy and garish items which appear through one another like half-thought ideas". Here, however, the use of nylon stockings (as with other assemblages) allude to female sexuality and vulnerability, a common theme running through Conner's oeuvre. Indeed, several of his films use pre-existing soft-core pornographic footage of women seductively removing their stockings. Film critic Amy Taubin notes that in his film assemblages Conner uses "women's stockings that had been worn to death", thereby adding violence against women to the various other political themes taken up by him in his work.
Wax, nylon, cloth, metal, twine, and high chair - MoMA New York
Looking For Mushrooms
This short film by Conner marked his first attempt at creating a film out of original footage (rather than using stock footage as he had done in earlier films, like A Movie (1958)) and multiple exposures. It was also his first color film. Indeed, all of Conner's works became more vivid while living in Mexico. This was due largely to the more vibrant character of the scavenged objects he encountered there. The footage used in Looking For Mushrooms was shot by Conner during his excursions with psychologist Timothy Leary into the countryside to hunt for psychedelic mushrooms (psilocybin). The film uses rapid editing to present hypnotic, abstracted imagery of rural Mexico combined with shots of the urban centre of San Francisco. The film also introduced imagery from the natural world and religious/spiritual imagery.
Thematically, this film represents Conner's disillusionment with Cold War-era politics, and his fascination with counterculture, consciousness, and spiritual experience (particularly those afforded by psychedelic drugs). The multiple, quickly shifting images represent the sorts of visual changes that occur when under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. In one version of this film, Conner paired these visuals with the Beatles' song "Tomorrow Never Knows" from their 1966 album Revolver (which contained lyrics by John Lennon that were inspired by Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert's 1964 book The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead). By pairing visuals with popular music, Conner in fact anticipated many of the common features of contemporary music video production. Garver asserts that, "This kinetic technique, most highly developed in [Conners's] movies, is very much against the idea of an aesthetic 'grand manner,' for any major compositional-visual theme is mitigated by many other elements introduced as decoys, thus preventing the work from becoming too simply composed and too easily understood".
16mm to 35mm optical blow-up - MoMA New York
While living in Mexico in the early 1960s, Conner began experimenting with meandering and patterned sketches. After returning to the United States, he developed these drawings into meditative mandalas, which featured multiple and/or concentric circles within rectangular frames, and all of which foreground an interest in symmetry and pattern. Critical Studies professor John Yau sees Conner's mandalas as studies on the "struggle between dark and light, materiality and immateriality" and symbols of "the search for completeness".
Conner experimented with intricate geometric drawings throughout his life, as in his Book Pages series (1967) which present sheets of paper almost entirely filled with continuous, wandering lines, as well as in his Rorschach-like inkblot drawings of the 1990s and 2000s. Art critic and curator Michael Smith understands Conner's mandalas and other drawings not only as visual products, but as "records of obsessive performances", during which Conner immersed himself in the process of drawing for hours on end (the shift in tone from black to grey indicate moments when his pens began to run out of ink).
Conner once stated that "Rather than being esoteric, I see the circle as a common, universal, ordering structure, one of the most fundamental in the world [...] when I was doing these drawings I'd keep seeing these organized forms. Of course, your consciousness and your mind start restructuring the world according to whatever values are already there [but 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".
Pentel felt-tip pen on paper - The Morgan Library and Museum, New York
Dennis Hopper One Man Show, Volume III, Image IV
This work comes from a series, begun by Conner in the late 1950s, that transformed fragments of nineteenth-century engraved illustrations into bizarre, hallucinatory images, and directly inspired by the works of the Surrealist Max Ernst. In this image Conner's method of re-configuring pre-existing images mirrors his approach to working in other media, such as his sculptural assemblages, which juxtaposed recycled objects, and as his films, were made by editing together original and stock footage.
The hypnagogic landscape pictured here, complete with bizarre, even physically impossible artificial structures, recalls similar scenes painted by Ernst, such as Solitary and Conjugal Trees (1940), Napoleon in the WIlderness (1941), and War of Two Roses (1955). Other works produced by Conner for this series include images of plants, animals, machine parts, and human figures.
As many scholars and critics (such as Charles Desmarais) have asserted, by insisting that this body of work only be exhibited if attributed to the artist and actor Dennis Hopper, Conner expanded the series from the purely visual into the realm of Conceptual Art. In fact, critiquing authorship was a significant conceptual interest for Conner throughout his career. He often signed his works with a fingerprint or alias, exhibited under pseudonyms (like "Anonymous," "Anonymouse," "Justin Kase" and "Emily Feather"), passed out pins that read "I am Bruce Conner" at gallery events, and mailed pins reading "I am not Bruce Conner" to other men with the same name. One sees in this strategy a clear lineage back to Marcel Duchamp's Dadaist Conceptual "statement" whereby he appropriated a Readymade (urinal), presented it in a public gallery as art and then signed it under a playful, and blatantly false, pseudonym.
Roz of Negative Trend: Suspended Animation (from Mabuhay Gardens Punk Photos)
In 1977, Conner, who had long been interested in the rebellious countercultural movements, began regularly attending punk rock shows at the San Francisco music club Mabuhay Gardens. At forty-four years old, he participated in dancing and "moshing" with the revelers. After a chance meeting with V. Vale, owner of several counterculture publications, Vale invited Conner to shoot photographs for his zine Search and Destroy, which documented the local punk community. Vale believed that "punk represented the need for freedom, both socially and artistically". A like-minded Conner saw his gritty concert photography as being akin to "combat photography", once stating, "I had always liked the idea of action photos [...] They're floating in the air, part of this suspended sphere, and they've got these beatific looks on their faces, they're in anguish".
Conner's action shots of bands like Crime, the Mutants, and the Avengers, captured the aggressive energy of the events and the intensity of the performer. For instance, in the image shown here musician Roz of Negative Trend is photographed in medium close-up. His sweat covered body and swollen veins capture the sense of human dynamism. This urgency is emphasized through the anonymous hand that enters the frame from the left, tugging at the singers already ripped shirt, as a bottle of beer, having just slipped from his hand, sprays its contents as it slips from the Roz's grip.
It was evident to all who saw him in action that Conner found in the 1970s punk scene the same sense of enthusiasm and camaraderie as he had found in the 1950s Beat community. As artist Emma Hart writes, "Conner's photographs live in the interstice between an historical record and an art image, capturing the spirit of the place and activity in space and time". Conner brought his filmmaking talents to the punk scene too, collaborating with new wave band Devo on a music video for their song "Mongoloid" (1978). As with his other film projects, Conner montaged found footage, including 1950s television advertisements and industrial film footage, into an aggressive, chaotic video that synchronized perfectly with the music.
Gelatin silver print - Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
Conner's artworks can be grouped as countercultural statements of rebellion and resistance against the dominant late-twentieth century image culture. He had become somewhat transfixed throughout his career by the destructive power of atomic bombs. As Critical Studies professor John Yau explained, "For Conner, death and hell were not abstractions but physical states; in the late 1950s, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, amid the tensions of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race between the USSR and the United States, he felt as if they were all around him, that he was just a step away from being consumed by the fires of Hell (the atom bomb)".
Conner produced several works that dealt with this topic, including his film Crossroads (1976), which looped images of mushroom clouds and explosions (including footage of the U.S. nuclear bomb test on Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific in 1946) for thirty-six minutes. Many of his other prints and collages feature smoke and mushroom clouds, too, including Puff (2003), and Baker Day: July 25, 1946 (2003). Arts writer Charles Schultz asserts that Bombhead is "comical and disturbing in equal measures [...] evoking the notion that aggression is an ultimately consuming and senseless force". But by replacing the male figure's head with a mushroom cloud, Conner not only dehumanizes the figure by obscuring his identity through an allusion to violence, he also serves to posit the wider conceptual question about how images are regurgitated and transformed through modern media systems.
Cut-and-pasted printed paper on printed paper - MoMA New York
Biography of Bruce Conner
Bruce Conner, the eldest of three children (a brother and sister), was born in McPherson, Kansas. When he was four years old, the Conner family moved to Wichita where his well-to-do middle-class family settled into an affluent neighborhood. Conner would reflect on growing up in Kansas, calling it "a place to be from"; by which he meant that there was little opportunity to grow and flourish artistically. He has also described Wichita as "a repressive place [and] the kind of town where anybody who deviated from the norm was ostracized".
Conner's mother was supportive of her son's interest in art and while still at grade school he attended drawing classes at the Wichita Art Association (WAA). He recalls his time at the WAA with some scorn: "All I can remember was getting dirty charcoal all over my fingers and not liking what they wanted us to draw and getting kicked out of the class for doing something wrong like throwing water at somebody". Around the age of eight or nine, however, he took private drawing classes with an art teacher who lived three blocks from his home. As he later recalled, "she came over to show me how to draw a tree which she drew on the paper. I was watching her and was really disgusted with her tree. I did my tree on the other side and she came around and looked at it and admired it and told the other students that I had drawn a better tree than she had".
In a high school crafts class, Conner was assigned to create a mosaic, which he found boring. Taking matters into his own hands, he layered different found images on top of one another to create a collage. His teacher was, in his words, "really pissed off" and complained to the department head that Connor had not learned to follow instructions. However, the head described his collage as "very good", leaving the rebellious pupil to conclude: "What was the point of doing a bad mosaic when you were working with something and it turned out to be a good collage?". One of Conner's most important childhood memories was of experiencing an altered state of consciousness while lying down and watching the sun through a window. It proved to be a moment of epiphany for the budding artist who would explore the nature of consciousness throughout his artistic career.
Education and Early Training
Conner attended several post-secondary institutions (he later admitted that he aimed to be constantly enrolled in school in order to avoid being drafted for army service) at which he studied art and English literature. He first attended Wichita University, before transferring to the University of Nebraska, from where he graduated with a BFA in 1956. He then studied briefly at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, though his recollections of this period were not positive: "I hated New York. I couldn't stand it", he said. "My six months here and all the other times I have been here has been just miserable. I was hungry and I did not know very many people. It did not seem to be a friendly place and I felt claustrophobic after living in Kansas where you can look out the window and see the horizon line". From New York he moved to the University of Colorado where he "flunked out of the program" after only a year. However, while enrolled he founded a group called the Experimental Cinema Group of which he said: "Four hundred and fifty people joined the group for three dollars. The films were experimental film, old avant-garde films, historical films, silent films, foreign films, etc. At that time there were no film classes anywhere in the United States".
Conner returned to New York in the hope of finding a gallery to show his work. He recalls, "I went around with slides, photographs and paintings, portfolio. I went to twenty galleries, being rejected one right after another. Nobody was really interested". Finally, he showed his slides to Bertha Schaeffer, who had a gallery on 57th Street, and who told him "this is interesting work but I can't handle it here in my gallery. It doesn't fit what I have, but why don't you go to Charles Alan". Art dealer Alan responded positively to Conner's work and purchased three pieces. Conner said, "That was absolutely amazing to me after all this rejection. That is why I never got another gallery in New York. I figured that anybody that would do that, notwithstanding whatever kind of economic advantages, that was the person to stay with".
Conner returned to Wichita and worked for a while to save up some money. In September 1957 he married the artist Jean Conner (née Sandstedt) whom he had met at the University of Colorado. Immediately after the ceremony, the couple flew to San Francisco, because, as Conner reasoned, "Where the hell else would I go?". In San Francisco, the newlyweds moved into an apartment on Jackson Street, just around the corner from where artists Sonia Gechtoff, Jay DeFeo, Joan Brown. Wally Hedrick, meanwhile, lived on Fillmore Street. This tight-knit group of artists, along with poets Michael McClure (whom Conner had known since grade school) and Allen Ginsberg, came to be known as the Beat Generation.
Beat artists rejected materialism, consumer culture, and standard narrative values, and embraced and explored spirituality through a range of Western and Eastern religions. They experimented too with psychedelic drugs and sexual liberation. Conner later noted that "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".
Conner preferred San Francisco to New York because (amongst other things) "there was no established market and galleries were fluid sites that were largely community nexus points for artists, rather than venues to sell work to collectors". Connor held three early solo shows in San Francisco. At one of these shows, at the Designer's Gallery, Conner's painting Venus, which included a nude figure in a clamshell-like form, was displayed in the gallery window. A local policeman ordered the gallery owners to remove the painting, as "children in the neighborhood might see the painting". However, the American Civil Liberties Union supported the gallery's right to display the work and it remained in place. In 1959, Conner founded the Rat Bastard Protective Association - for "people who were making things with the detritus of society, who themselves were ostracized or alienated from full involvement with society" - whose members included DeFeo, McClure, Brown, Berman, and Herms, as well as artists Manuel Neri, Wally Hedrick, and Jess Collins.
In 1961 the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles purchased some of Conner's collages, earning him about seven thousand dollars. Conner had heard, mistakenly as it turned out, that the cost of living was cheap in Mexico so, in 1962, he took his earnings and moved there to focus on producing new works. Conner's son Robert was born in Mexico in 1963. While in Mexico, Conner spent time with American psychologist Timothy Leary, whom he'd met in New York. Conner and Leary made excursions to look for psychedelic mushrooms, and Conner made a film about those experiences, called Looking For Mushrooms. Years later, Conner and Leary had a falling out regarding their differing perspectives on the proper way to use LSD.
After about a year in Mexico, Conner returned to the United States. He recalled that "Nobody bought my work when I wasn't in the neighborhood anymore. I was totally penniless. Didn't have any money at all". Forced to move back to Wichita, he lived for six months in an apartment that his parents helped him pay for.
On Leary's recommendation, Conner undertook a ten-day trip to Massachusetts around the Christmas of 1963. He recalled "liked all the people [and] liked the place" and the following spring he drove back to Boston with the intention of staying for a while. However, he stated that "When I arrived I found out that everybody had gone to Mexico and that everything was closing up". Nevertheless, the family stayed and Conner helped produce light shows for the British band Family Dog at the music venue Avalon Ballroom. Later in 1964, Conner received a Ford Foundation grant noting that "all of a sudden instead of being an artist that had made a couple of short films, I became a filmmaker who dabbled in the arts". Around the same time, he decided to stop creating assemblages, even though that was the type of work for which he had made his reputation.
In 1965, Conner and his wife moved back to San Francisco, where they lived in the Haight-Ashbury district. For the next half decade or so Conner withdrew somewhat from the art world. He worked as a janitor, a salesman in a knick-knack shop, and a ticket vendor at a movie theater, all the while producing art for his own pleasure in his garage. In the late 1960s, Conner taught evening classes at the Art Institute of San Francisco. One of his students was Natasha Nicholson, who would also become famous for her assemblages. Nicholson enrolled in Conner's class titled "For Women Only". She recalls that in the first session, Conner locked the door and told his students: "we're staying here all night. If anyone is uncomfortable, you can leave now". Nicholson was one of the women who chose to stay in the class, and she now considers Conner to be one of the most remarkable artists, teachers, and people that she has ever known, calling him "mentally demanding", and able to "get you to go somewhere you had no intention of going ... powerfully but quietly ... into an unfamiliar realm". She also recalls that "he had an enormous capacity for caring about people".
Conner's widely varied body of work stemmed from a fear of being "pinned down" by a single style. Throughout the 1960s, he had focused on producing mostly on film, but in the 1970s he shifted his focus onto drawing and photography, particularly using his camera to document the West Coast punk rock scene (the punks being seen as the natural heirs to the counterculture generation). Conner's work of the 1980s and 1990s included many more collages (several with religious imagery), as well as a number of complex inkblot drawings. The inkblot drawings saw the artist draw on many sources including the Rorschach inkblot testing method used by psychologists, Japanese calligraphy and Egyptian hieroglyphs.
During the last ten years of his life, Conner lived in San Francisco with his wife, and produced several editioned prints and tapestries using digital technologies. He developed a rare liver disease, had severely limited mobility for the last five years of his life and hardly ever left the house. In order to help himself get around the home, he worked with assistants to install 163 brass handles around every room of the house, for instance, around the stove, and down the stairwell. It was the last artistic gesture by Conner who passed away on July 7, 2008.
The Legacy of Bruce Conner
Conner was part of an American postwar generation including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha, Eva Hesse, Andy Warhol and Edward Kienholz. Like these artists, his work found its place in the spaces between the high emotion of Abstract Expressionism and the mordant political outlook of Dada. Thomas H. Garver, Assistant Director of the Rose Art Museum in Waltham, Massachusetts, adds that "Conner has been of substantial generative influence on the increasing number of artists who work with assemblage or in an object-oriented direction". His influence, both in terms of form and content, is most strongly observed in the gritty, "Cabinets of Curiosities" assemblages by his former student, Natasha Nicholson and in the sculptural collages of Win McCarthy and Robert Bittenbender.
Conner also worked to import photographic practice into assemblage and collage. According to art historian Maika Pollack, Conner's oeuvre suggests that "while photography has long generated new images, an equally important role has been to replicate and reuse extant ones. His images and films transform pop culture [...] and propose that art is located in countercultural gestures of rebellion and resistance to the dominant image culture". She adds that Conner saw photography as "A way to play with the simultaneous presence and absence of the artist in an artwork".
Conner was amongst the foremost pioneers in American avant-garde filmmaking, and developed a unique kinetic editing method which he used to combine found footage with material he shot himself. The frenetic pace of his editing directly influenced several films that came later, such as Douglas Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho (1993) and Christian Marclay's The Clock (2010). Conner's unique editing style also had a significant influence on contemporary music video artists, such as Dara Birnbaum and Ryan Trecartin.
As in his other art, his films dealt with pressing contemporary issues (for instance, consumer culture, violence against and objectification of women, and threat of nuclear holocaust), often presenting disturbing subjects in an innovative and dynamic manner. Curator Stuart Comer asserts that Conner's foray into filmmaking "really was a watershed moment in cinema. He took editing to a different level. His appropriation of media imagery was absolutely in sync with the reality of that moment, and he uses it to capture this idea of excess and violence that was so central to American society".