BY NADIAH FELLAH
On view at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York is a large selection of pen and ink-blot drawings by the artist Bruce Conner (1933-2008). Spanning the period of 1962-2000, the drawings vary from postcard size to medium-scale works, and are all black-and-white. Also on view is a 2008 film by the artist titled EASTER MORNING, done in collaboration with the musician Terry Riley.
Conner has spoken of the influence he initially drew from San Francisco poet Michael McClure, whom he collaborated with on a book of poetry and drawings in 1964. In a 1973 interview, he recalled, “The drawings all had large, central mandala shapes with circles in the corners… I related to them a kind of writing like the symmetry of the image.” However, what began as a project inspired by poetry evolved into a consistent exercise that took place throughout the remainder of the artist’s career. Indulging his fondness for abstract imagery and experimental processes, the drawings on view offer a rare glimpse into a more contemplative side of Conner’s artistic practice.
Many of the Rorschach test-like ink drawings may also have begun as a reaction against popular tendencies to diagnose those who acted outside of societal norms. Conner himself was famous for eccentric antics, like painting an elephant in psychedelic patterns outside the Samuel Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood, and running for public office in San Francisco, then reading a list of desserts as his policy speech.
However, over the course of the nearly four decades that the drawings span, it is evident that the medium became a kind of meditative exercise within his practice, and one that was remarkable distinct from his paintings, sculptures and films.
Unlike Conner’s assemblage sculptures, largely made in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and which were made with a forceful and chaotic aesthetic, his drawings induce a more introspective and quiet viewing experience. Some are made with an almost childlike curiosity, paper folded accordion-style, and splotches of ink pressed between them to create miniature mirror-image patterns. Rather than display the impression of self-assurance seen in so many of Conner’s larger works, the works here are almost timid, their surfaces smooth and neat, yet retaining a quality of complexity.
In some instances the small ink-blot drawings are shown silhouetted in circular matting, making them appear as faint imprints of insect or butterfly specimens, preserved behind glass for scientific posterity. Other drawings are similar to scorched or volcanic landscapes, laden with swirling and expanding masses of black forms.
A departure from the drawings on view, and fitting more definitively with Conner’s chaotic visual style, is a film titled EASTER MORNING, from 2008. Employing footage the artist originally shot in 1966 on a spring morning in San Francisco, the film is a ten-minute montage of abstract and incoherent images that defy any narrative or logical progression. Channeling the energy of what he often deemed a “fundamentally disordered society,” the film also adheres to the artist’s goal to create work that defied any legible critique—it is perhaps for this reason that he declared it “a perfect movie.” It is also the last major work the artist completed before his death in 2008.
The sense of optical overload generated by the film stands in stark contrast to the discreet drawings hung in the gallery, yet the abstract nature of both mediums unites their aesthetic qualities. Like in many of his most well-known works, the pieces on view here eschew literal representation to reveal an internal mood or attitude that transcends imagery—a quality that characterizes the better part of the Conner’s work.
Bruce Conner was born in 1933 in Wichita, Kansas, and received a BFA from Nebraska University 1956. After living briefly in New York and Colorado, he settled in San Francisco with his wife, Jean Conner, also an artist. The two were part of burgeoning art scene growing in SF at the time, and included fellow artists Jay DeFeo, Wally Hedrick, Manuel Neri, and Joan Brown. The artist and his family moved to Mexico for a short time in the 1960s, before moving back to SF, where he worked and lived until his death in 2008.
Bruce Conner is on view at Paula Cooper Gallery through June 21st.
Nadiah Fellah is a graduate student of Art History at The Graduate Center, CUNY in New York.