BY BRUCE JENKINS
Vol. 47, No. 2, October 2008, pp. 85-88
BRUCE CONNER'S DEATH this past summer was not his first. Back in 1972, in an attempt to stanch annual solicitations for inclusion in Who's Who in America, he wrote to inform the publisher of his death, only to find himself an entry in Who Was Who in America the following year. A more conceptual loss, of his artistic persona, took place in February 1973, when a long planned exhibition titled "The Complete Dennis Hopper One Man Show" finally opened at James Willis Gallery in San Francisco. Originally proposed in the mid-1960s at a time when Conner had completed two dozen or so Ernst-like collages utilizing fragments of nineteenth-century engravings, the show was named so as to cede authorship of the work to the actor Dennis Hopper, a friend of the artist's. Conner's Los Angeles dealer at the time, Nicholas Wilder, was concerned about Hopper's non-participation in the project and refused to mount the exhibition, and the material, which Conner later made into new etchings, was not seen in it's entirety until the San Francisco show nearly a decade later.
Threatening Conner was the specter of a mass media that had reduced the world to images and transformed society into a nation of passive spectators. Extreme action was necessary he thought: "I couldn't kill my TV just by kicking it; I had to use a hammer."
These are but two episodes in what curator Joan Rothfuss has called Conner's career as an "escape artist." A year or so before the Hopper exhibition was conceived, Conner had approached his New York dealer, Charles Alan, with a plan for a two-person show that would pair him with Marcel Duchamp, one of the key influences on West Coast artists of his generation. As Conner later described the project to the gallerist Michael Kohn, "Duchamp would exhibit objects in the gallery that he personally did not create... [and] I would paint the sculpture stands and walls of the gallery where the works would be displayed." Conner wanted Duchamp to sign the appropriated work, while his own efforts in repainting the gallery its original color would go unsigned. Alan declined.
These conceptual acts, routinely rejected by gallerists, were part of a larger enterprise that sprang from the firm desire to opt out of the marketplace and the burgeoning museumization of contemporary art. They equally represented Conner's omnivorous cultural appetite and capacity to the work across media. For he was, if not exactly a Renaissance man, nonetheless an artist who was as deeply engaged by music (soul and blues as well as classical and the experimentations of John Cage and Terry Riley) as by literature, politics, and the visual arts. He could ply his craft in total solitude, drawing for hours on end without lifting the point of his felt-tip pen from the sheet of paper until it was entirely out of ink, or work with six other artists in the frenetic control booth at the San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom to produce real-time moving-image and light-show accompaniments for rock and jazz concerts. Over the course of his career, Conner would create work in almost every form of the fine arts (painting and drawing, sculpture and assemblage, collage and prints) as well as several of the camera arts, from film installations and multiscreen projections to life-size photograms.
Film seemed to offer the artist a particularly resonant arena in which to combine his visual talents and his engagement with music, Conner drew inspiration from a lifelong affection for American genre films as well as his quasi-Dadaist reading of the "coming attraction" movie trailer as a legitimate mode in its own right. The films he made in the late '50s and '60s vividly combined appropriated imagery with his own footage and sound tracks borrowed from Ray Charles, Toni Basil, the Beatles, and Miles Davis, among others.
They were embraced in such diverse quarters as Madison Avenue, which valued the highly condensed form he had devised, and the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, which recognized in Conner a rather singular mix of formal innovation and political engagement. And although Conner threatened a paternity suit, his films were frequently credited with spawning the music video format. His mastery of editing sound and image was matched by the exuberance of his cinematography and the lyricism of his densely layered imagery. Conner would continue working with moving images for half a century, frequently revisiting earlier films and radically decelerating them to reveal complex rhythmic patterns and visual depths.
The legacy that Bruce Conner has bequeathed us will take time to fully sort through, a process made all the more challenging by the pleasure the artist seems to have taken in placing obstacles in the path of such critical assessment. The large-scale monographic exhibition mounted in 1999 by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, for example, was titled to suggest a different date of presentation (2000) and, more puzzlingly, was subtitled "The Bruce Conner Story Part Two." When the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago placed the "2000 BC" exhibition catalogue on its sales counter, it felt compelled to post a sign stating, THERE IS NO PART ONE. Adding to the confusion about the scope of this large show, Conner insisted that the front endpaper of the catalogue bear an embossed seal declaring (not just once, but twice) NOT A RETROSPECTIVE.
The show launched a significant critical reevaluation of Conner and his art that has been started by his inclusion in the Whitney Museum's "Beat Culture and the New America, 1950-1965" exhibition in New York in 1995. The attention did not go unnoticed by its subject, and Conner began to chronicle the coverage, from which he assembled a condensation of key words and phrases:
I am an artist, an anti-artist, no shrinking ego, modest, a feminist, a profound misogynist, a romantic, a realist, a surrealist, a funk artist, conceptual artist, minimalist, postmodernist, beatnik, hippie, punk, subtle, confrontational, believable, paranoiac, courteous, difficult, forthright, impossible to work with, accessible, obscure, precise, calm, contrary, elusive, spiritual, profane, a Renaissance man of contemporary art and one of the most important artists in the world. My work is described as beautiful, horrible, hogwash, genius, maundering, precise, quaint, avant-garde, historical, hackneyed, masterful, trivial, intense, mystical, virtuosic, bewildering, absorbing, concise, absurd, amusing, innovative, nostalgic, contemporary, iconoclastic, sophisticated, trash, masterpieces, etc.
He and his art were perhaps all this and more.
In the New York Times obituary, curator and Conner specialist Peter Boswell (who indeed served for a time as Conner's own Boswell) astutely claimed that the artist should be viewed as the equal of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. But in actuality Conner may have been more of an anti-Warhol. In a letter to Rothfuss quoted in the Walker exhibition catalogue, Conner described a central contrast between Duchamp and himself that could as easily serve to mark out what distinguished him from his Pop art contemporary; "By placing his name on something, [Duchamp] immediately created the assumption that it was ART. My view was almost the opposite... if my name was on something I did not consider it art." This disdain for signing his artwork, a source of continuing chagrin for his gallerists, was of a piece with the artist's condemnation of the mass media, with the signature functioning for him "as a form of advertising, like flashing a Coca-Cola sign." In an era when Pop became the ascendant American genre, Conner was resolutely plumbing other, often darker, social and cultural depth of the American ethos.
Conner's decision to contest the protocols of the marketplace and to challenge the authority of dealers, curators, and collectors (to say nothing of his systematic rejection of funding for the arts by federal agencies and their nonprofit subsidiaries, and of academia's embrace of the avant-garde) came at a cost: relative obscurity. Yet his art, which in the increasingly commodified realm of the art world made him appear the consummate iconoclast, had a Cassandra-like aspect that would vindicate his positions in later years. His first film, the highly influential A Movie (1958), was assembled out of fragments from B Movies, countdown leader, and newsreels to presciently ponder the way the military-industrial complex and the American love of speed and violence were taking the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation (a situation that led Conner to sell off all his possessions in 1961 and decamp to rural Mexico for a year). No less threatening to the artist was the specter of a mass media that had effectively reduced the world to a series of images and in the process transformed society into a nation of passive spectators. (Again extreme action was necessary. As Conner told film historian Scott MacDonald, "I couldn't kill my TV set just by kicking it; I had to use a hammer.")
These life-and-death issues and the dread they might engender were always balanced in Conner's work by a mastery of the materials he deployed, an unerring feeling for rhythm and visual modulation, and an astounding capacity to tie together the most disparate of media and ideas. And then there was the humor. One of the prime examples of the artist's acerbic, sometimes slapstick predilections appears in print more than four decades ago. "Bruce Conner Makes a Sandwich" was originally intended for publication in Art News, which for years ran a regular series of profiles of artists at work in their studios, replete with photographs and always titled with the artist's signature. Conner's idea of a visit to his atelier, however, turned out to be a sit-down at the kitchen table in his walk-up apartment in Brookline, Massachusetts, and his work a culinary creation assembled from some of the staples of the era (Skippy peanut butter, Miracle Whip). The magazine declined to make the visit part of the series, but the parody surfaced two years later in the pages of Artforum.
The breadth and enormity of Conner's sensibility and vision emerged in a telling aside that comes midway though an extended interview with Michael Kohn, who queries the artist about the title of his 1966 engraving collage A Vision (For W.B.). Conner's response seems to tap a lifetime of engagement with the meaning of art and of life: "How many 'W.B.'s' can you think of?" the artist asks rhetorically, and then supplies a list: "W.B. Yeats, Wallace Berman, William Blake, Wallace Beery – any of the above who have passed on to the perfect enlightenment."
Bruce Conner has departed our sphere for good now, but even during his lifetime, contact with him could be complicated. He had forbidden anyone to take his picture for years, which allowed him to occasionally send surrogates to give lectures, show films, and sit on panels as "Bruce Conner." He never fully embraced the computer or digital technology, so the telephone and its cousin, the facsimile transmission, became important channels of exchange. Sending him detailed information always required the latter mode of communication, with its oddly resonant concluding gesture of pressing the star button twice. Alas, even that technology will no longer suffice to reach the artist, who, having now made the passage to the perfect enlightenment, presumably resides in the other realm among a company of distinguished peers.
BRUCE JENKINS IS A PROFESSOR OF FILM, VIDEO, AND NEW MEDIA AT THE SCHOOL OF THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO.