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Bruce Conner

American Sculptor, Painter, Photographer, and Filmmaker

Born: November 18, 1933 - McPherson, Kansas
Died: July 7, 2008 - San Francisco, California
Bruce Conner Timeline
The artist has the role in our society that the madman had, that the fool had, that the prophet had ... he's a protected fool. The fool with his bells says foolish, stupid things, but every once in a while he also comes out with the truth.
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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 avant-garde 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.

Accomplishments

  • 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.

Biography of Bruce Conner

Bruce Conner Photo

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".

Important Art by Bruce Conner

Child (1959-1960)

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.

Looking For Mushrooms (1959-1967)

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".

Untitled (1965)

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".

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Bruce Conner
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Jay DeFeo
    Jay DeFeo
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    Jean Conner
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    Michael McClure
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    Joan Brown
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    George Herms
Artists
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Jay DeFeo
    Jay DeFeo
  • No image available
    Jean Conner
  • No image available
    Michael McClure
  • No image available
    Joan Brown
  • No image available
    George Herms
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Bruce Conner Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 27 Mar 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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