BY GARRETT CAPLES
As has often happened in my encounters with great artists, I had no idea who Bruce Conner was the first time I met him in the mid-’90s. I’d driven an art critic I knew to Conner’s house in the Glen Park neighborhood of San Francisco for an interview and just ran the tape recorder while Conner told stories stretching back to the first mystical vision he’d had as a child in Wichita. That one afternoon was an education in itself, a glimpse into the world of the “longhair,” as Conner characterized the pre-hippie counterculture of late ’50s/early ’60s San Francisco. The story that stuck out most vividly concerned his transformation of the faded white letters “SLOW” on the street next to an intersection into “LOVE,” followed by his anonymous ongoing battle with the city, which had never bothered to repaint the tire-worn road-marker until Conner’s interventions. As I recall, there were several rounds of this battle before he and his wife Jean moved to Mexico in 1961. The story is representative of various aspects of Conner’s art, particularly his interrogation of artistic authorship—at times he would not sign his work, or do so only with a thumbprint—as well as the transformative or even destructive role of a given environment on a work of art, for even without the city’s intervention, LOVE was a painting destined to be destroyed, or at least, driven over and walked upon.
All told, I might have had a half-dozen or so encounters with Conner, always tagging along rather than seeking him out myself. I wouldn’t have dared. He seemed like a strange mixture of the laidback and the volatile. I remember, for example, hearing him tell a story with much delight about a madman snatching one of his works off the wall at a show at the De Young, running outside, and hurling it into a reflecting pool. Where most artists would, I think, be aghast at this treatment of one of their creations, Conner was clearly delighted, as if the effects of this extreme but inchoate gesture completed the work, the way Duchamp found the cracks in the Large Glass completed it. Yet woe be unto you if you undertook to reproduce one of Conner’s works. You were going to fuck it up and he was going to be pissed. He had endless stories on this theme. I remember him handing me an album cover with what looked like a beautiful reproduction of one of his collages on it. “Look at that!” he said, proceeding to excoriate the manufacturer and pointing out numerous flaws invisible to any eye but his own. For a long time, I found this aspect of his personality puzzling. On the one hand, Conner is unquestionably among Duchamp’s chief artistic inheritors in the latter half of the 20th Century, but on the other, his obsession with absolute fidelity in reproduction seemed so at odds with the devil-may-care insouciance of the inventor of the readymade. More recently, however, I’ve begun to see this attitude as simply another manifestation of the impulse that caused him not to sign work, or to stop making assemblages after they’d made his reputation: an uncompromising critique of the entire professional apparatus surrounding art. It didn’t matter who you were, friend or stranger, he was going to be difficult, in the name of art itself.
Against this backdrop of professional difficulty stands what may be a final work-in-progress by Bruce Conner. The story, as I have it from S.F.—a longtime friend and collector of Conner who wishes to remain anonymous—begins in late 2007. At the time, Conner had a show up at his San Francisco dealer, Gallery Paule Anglim, simply called Works: 1961-2002, for which I wrote a capsule review in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Through S.F., I learned Conner was mildly exasperated with me for writing that “Clearly Conner curated this show” because the pieces “suggest[ed] no obvious relationship among themselves.” He’d seemed to me way too meticulous about his presentation to permit so disparate a grouping without some inscrutable logic of his own, but it was, in fact, random, composed from works the gallery had on hand at the time, an assemblage, some drawings, some inkblots, and even some large acrylic on canvas paintings from the early ’90s. Among the latter was a 9-foot-tall number called HOMAGE TO JAY DE FEO (1991), credited not to Bruce but to “Anonymous,” one of several attributions he used with increasing frequency following his massive, career-spanning exhibition 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II (1999-2001). If you’re familiar with Jay De Feo’s The Rose (1958-1966)—the dense, one-ton magnum opus whose removal from her apartment, requiring a forklift and partial destruction of an exterior wall, Conner had filmed under the title THE WHITE ROSE (1965)—then the resemblance of his painting to hers is apparent at once, even as he substitutes an embryonic swirl for her severely geometric central motif.
If I recall correctly, the large HOMAGE was priced somewhere above the mid-five figures. As the exhibition neared its end, however, S.F. received a call from Conner, stating that he had told the gallery to sell the painting to the first person not a dealer to offer $2000 for it. Exactly what he was up to here I can’t say, but it seems he intended to circulate this information among a few of his longtime collectors. Within a day or so, S.F. received another call from Conner, who was livid: despite having said he did not want the painting sold to a dealer, the gallery itself had offered to buy it. Having had enough, Conner declared he did not want to sell the painting, but loan it to S.F.
There was one problem, however. A native San Francisco Sicilian American, S.F. lives in what used to be his grandparents’ home, of modest, working-class dimensions, although the neighborhood, Noe Valley, is no longer working-class. As such, the house lacks an unbroken stretch of interior wall large enough to accommodate HOMAGE, a fact he regretfully reported back to Bruce. “The only place it’ll fit,” S.F. offhandedly remarked, “is on the side of the house or the fence in the backyard.”
This was apparently all Conner needed to hear, for in short order, he decided the backyard fence was exactly the spot where HOMAGE needed to hang. Accordingly, when the exhibition ended, he had the painting crated up and delivered to S.F., who installed it in its floating frame on the fence, a setting that suits its dimensions with almost disconcerting exactness. The backyard is a characteristically San Franciscan Italian garden, with a main pathway that now ends directly at the foot of Conner’s painting, as though it were preordained to reside there. The fact that De Feo’s Rose dictates the structure of the painting makes its habitation in a garden all the more appropriate.
Following its installation, Conner visited the painting, and then expressed his approval in a December 2, 2007 letter memorializing the arrangement. In the letter, he confirms that S.F. “will assume only the discreet responsibilities of being sure that no untoward damage or loss will happen to the painting beyond the effect that keeping it outdoors in the sun, heat, cold, rain and other elements of San Francisco weather along with the expected and various incursions of natural plants and animals.” He also discloses an additional motivation for his choice of venue:
I visited Jay De Feo when she was living in a two room house among the redwood trees in Mill Valley. Some of her large paintings were stored in the shed that was connected to the house. It was open to the elements on one side. I saw the rain as it blew in the entryway and soaked the canvases that were partially exposed to the elements. Jay accepted this since it was her only option after THE ROSE was taken from her studio in San Francisco.
Beyond the conceptual connection between Rose and garden, Conner’s exposure of the painting to the “elements of San Francisco weather” thus reflects De Feo’s own biographical circumstances. The exposure embodies a literal detail from her personal struggle to survive as an artist—one who devoted years of her life to the impractical labor of painting a single painting—even as the transformation of HOMAGE through the decomposition of its materials stands in an analogical relationship to the transformations of The Rose over the lengthy process of its composition. Close inspection reveals the ravages of the three and half years HOMAGE has thus far spent outside: the bottom has rotted away, a greenish mold creeps across its surface, an almost cartoonish rip runs down its right side, as if planned, between the two black shapes that dominate the canvas. Unlike The Rose, which, after twenty years of storage in less than ideal conditions, was purchased by the Whitney and, with Conner’s help, restored, HOMAGE seems destined for annihilation in the manner of Duchamp’s Unhappy Readymade (1919), an open geometry textbook hung from a balcony until it disintegrated.
Do these facts justify considering this process—the natural destruction of a painting, itself completed twenty years ago, as specified and memorialized by the 12/2/07 letter—a final work-in-progress by Bruce Conner? Certainly he had no sense at the time that he would die seven months later, on July 7, 2008. That said, the entire time we were acquainted, he was seriously ill, suffering from a bile duct disease, and he was in his 70s, so I imagine mortality crossed his mind on occasion. I’m told he completed at least two films in the months before he died and I can well imagine him—an artist who’d announced his own demise at least twice—cheating death like this, by continuing to make art. It’s a temporary victory, for the process will eventually conclude, and the final sentence concerning De Feo’s acceptance of “her only option” perhaps acknowledges this.
But what inclines me most of all to consider the process in terms of a last work-in-progress is the signature on the letter, which, in light of his ongoing interrogation of the signature’s role in the art world, is absurdly oversized. The “B” in “Bruce” is almost two inches tall. Having driven dealers to distraction with his signature shenanigans, he here voluntarily surrenders the mother of all autographs. He does so, perhaps, because the signature here sheds its commodity-conferring status in favor of its more natural role of bearing witness to the truth of a statement. A full signature here is necessary, given the unorthodox scheme it endorses, and its size stresses its deliberateness, even while elevating it to a metaphysical level, as if to sign his entire body of work on a separate sheet of paper. The fact that you could restore the signature’s commodity power by selling this paper I’m sure wasn’t lost on Conner, but S.F. is highly unlikely to sell it. And while you could in this case sell the signature, the very nature of the work-in-progress precludes its sale, placing it permanently beyond the borders of the professional art world.
As I type these words it begins to rain.