"In 1964 I filled out an application for a Ford Foundation grant and used it as a means of fantasizing about several films I might make. One idea was The Attack of the Giant Baby. Another was The Bruce Conner Story Starring Vincent Price. Vincent Price in his crazed-artist role. He would open the door and be very polite and nice and say, 'Welcome to my house.' On the surface, he'd be an elegant, considerate gentleman. But hidden in the basement would be all these hideous collages and sculptures that I was known for at the time."
BRUCE CONNER DESERVES more than one lifetime achievement award. He has crammed the accomplishments of a dozen renowned artists into his singular yet multifaceted life, excelling in every medium – including film, painting, photography, and sculpture – he's put in service of hand, heart, mind, and soul. Born in Wichita, Kan., Conner moved to San Francisco in 1957 with his wife, Jean. For almost half a century, Kansas's loss has been this city's gain – not to mention a poetically sharp stick in the eye of New York's mirror-gazing art and media nexus.
"It's always been a problem communicating what kind of work an artist does," Conner says. "Unless that person has chosen to do the same thing over and over for their entire life. Many people will develop a style of painting or subject matter or content that appears to be innovative, and their next solo exhibitions are made up of 20 works that are all the same, aside from tiny variations. I find that to be very boring. I also don't want to have that sort of thing around. If I can't sell it, I have to live with it, and I want variety on my walls."
The proof is in his surroundings. Interviewed at the kitchen table of the Glen Park home he shares with Jean, Conner – dapper in a black shirt with a subtle pattern that calls to mind the shades of darkness in his ink-on-paper works – sits in front of a portrait of his wife. Though it's a photograph, the lush depth and detailed color might lead one to mistake it for an oil painting. "I would work for two or three hours in one direction with an oil painting, until it became tiresome or there was a danger it might become a mess and I knew I should return to it later," he says, explaining his early working methods. "I'd move over to a drawing, and it would be like I'm starting all over – brand-new ideas, new concept. Then I might work on a film."
Conner's movie-making proves he's a seer. Dennis Hopper cites his editing as a formative influence on Easy Rider, and like fellow Canyon Cinema trailblazer Kenneth Anger, Conner can rightfully claim that music video directors owe their very existence to him – though the hordes who unknowingly followed in his wake usually confuse his pointed formal approach with mere style. Conner's BREAKAWAY (1966), featuring a pre-"Mickey" Toni Basil, flares with a kineticism that cannot be fully reproduced by video, and his COSMIC RAY (1961) conveys the searing spirit of Ray Charles with greater dynamism than any biopic. These films are potent visions of liberation, while his unblinking looks at destructive political forces – such as REPORT (1963-1967) and CROSSROADS (1976) – are more frighteningly relevant than ever.
A digital revision of Conner's 1966 film LUKE – shot on the set of Cool Hand Luke – recently played the New York Film Festival, and it will screen at the city's Barbara Gladstone Gallery in December. Though video suits a transfer of LUKE's sound and 8mm imagery, Conner remains rigorously critical of the format, likening its pre-progressive scan incarnations to a shade being drawn. "I directed my first videotape production in 1967 or 1968," he says. "I was the first person [in the Bay Area] outside the staff of KQED-TV that was allowed to do this. It's not that I'm old-fashioned – I was there before anyone else. I find so many people act like they're experiencing something new when all they're actually dealing with is a new toy. A kaleidoscope is now an old-fashioned thing, but it was a new technology at one time.
"Most of the technological changes that I see need to be tested as to what they mean. A lot of people are hired to write articles and essays touting how wonderful new technology is, and they'll lie like they've always lied – about the quality of CDs and how they'll last forever, or whatever. I go by the assumption that high-tech means low quality.
"I've generally limited myself to materials and concepts that existed at least 100 years ago. Pen and ink on paper, gluing things together, motion picture films. Many times I have no objection telling people exactly how I do things, because I don't believe they can do it. If they can do it, I don't have to."
Pioneering "assemblage" – an art-crit term he disdains – in pieces such as 1959's CHILD (currently held hostage by the Museum of Modern Art in New York), Conner revised Joseph Cornell's memory-box approach to reflect the macabre violence beneath '50s America's wholesome veneer. When art world forces tried to enshrine him, Conner decided he "didn't want to glue the world down anymore" and traveled onward – to the mystic interplay of light and shadow in his untitled drawings; the hallucinatory dimensions of his wood engraving collages, such as THE ARTIST (1990); and the amazing intricacy of his inkblot works ('70s to '90s), to cite but a few examples.
Today works by Conner are on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Oakland Museum of California; the superb monograph 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II stems from a traveling exhibition that had a stay at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum. Nonetheless, this artist, who considers himself "the epitome of a small businessman" (he's represented by Michael Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles and Gallery Paule Anglim in San Francisco), has fought against the repressive, controlling tendencies of the art world's big-money forces.
"If you start looking at what's on exhibit, the best thing is to think about who finances it," Conner says. "Corporate organizations support museums, and I believe what museums have is corporate art to show. They have an industrial way of presenting things, with architecture and lighting that copies and apes the character of corporate headquarters and Marriott hotels. They flood everything with light, which is to the detriment of art – it destroys materials.
"Corporate people like billboard-sized things; they've got billboards all over the place. They understand blue-chip value, so lots of blue chip is on the walls. They like entertainment, so they have a lot of superficial garbage that entertains them. They are always into advertising and publicity, so they like lots of words, and they like video – they like television."
In contrast, Conner has been at the heart of a number of countercultural and artistic movements, as a lifelong friend to the fellow Kansas transplants (Dave Haselwood, Michael McClure) who helped forge the San Francisco literary renaissance of the '50s, a participant in the Avalon Ballroom's '60s happenings, and a photo-documentarian of the '70s Mabuhay Gardens punk scene.
Conner knows what time it is: in the two decades I've been interviewing people, he's the only subject to ask if a cassette was about to run out precisely before it did. (He wasn't looking at a clock, a watch, or the tape recorder, either.) His eloquent experience-based wit makes it tempting to wish for a Conner on Conner book of auteurist observation. But, in fact, through a 1963 conceptualist collaboration with Marcel Duchamp and a variety of Zen Buddhist comic actions equal to those of the late Ray Johnson, he has frequently contested the burdensome value institutions place on his signature and name. In 1967 Conner ran for supervisor in San Francisco, penning one of the tastiest campaign speeches ever (a list of desserts); in 1972 he convinced the publishers of Who's Who in America that he'd died. Who is Bruce Conner? The best answers come from the lively artist himself.
"[Auerhahn Press publisher] Dave Haselwood, who is a Buddhist priest, asked me what I was up to, and I said, 'I have this lifetime achievement award coming up. I was hoping to have about two or three more in the future.' How many more lifetime achievements will I get? Unless I'm a mud puppy in the next generation." (Johnny Ray Huston)