BY JOHN YAU
Bruce Conner (1933–2008) was a protean artist, who achieved something that is unlikely to be equaled anytime soon: he reinvented himself in every medium he took up, while remaining true to his perfectionist impulses. Restless and open to experiment, his diverse oeuvre includes film; photography; assemblage and sculpture; painting; printmaking; drawing and collage. In each of these mediums he utilized very different methods, from taking photographs, for example, to making photograms, that resulted in discrete bodies of work, quite a few of which have yet to see the light of day.
Whoever decides to organize Conner’s long-overdue retrospective will have their hands full. But if it is done right — and there is no guarantee that it will — the extensiveness and visual intensity of his work will give viewers a revelatory, eye-opening, mind-bending experience that will challenge canonical thinking, as did the resplendently diverse work of his friend Jay DeFeo when we finally saw what she accomplished across a variety of mediums. And for many of us, Conner’s seven-minute film, THE WHITE ROSE (1967), was all we knew of DeFeo’s legendary painting, “The Rose” (1958–66), which was stored behind a wall in the San Francisco Art Institute for twenty-five years, until the Whitney Museum of American Art purchased, restored and exhibited it. For this alone he deserves our gratitude.
On the evidence of the current exhibition at Paula Cooper (April 30–June 26, 2015), a first-time viewer might be tempted to conclude that “Bruce Conner” is really a collective of five or six artists working in different mediums. He is the wild card in postwar American art, the anarchic prankster (or wise fool) who wanted neither to fit in nor assimilate, which makes him the opposite of Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons. He refused to define an artist as a surrogate for a dependable machine, like Roy Lichtenstein or Kenneth Noland. For him, art was not synonymous with reliable production, and he seemed to get bored and move on just as something he was making got attention. More importantly, he used modest and inexpensive materials throughout his career: pen and pencil on paper; assemblages made out of detritus; movies shot on inexpensive cameras or spliced together from found footage. These materials and methods take us back to childhood and our first experience of art (paper, pen, pencil, scissors and glue), as well as implicitly condemn America’s obsession with material wealth.
This is one of Conner’s many legacies. His work reminds us that great art need not be the product of outsourcing and expensive production, that it is not about spending money to make money, and doesn’t have to be an esthetic celebration of capitalism and greed. Someone sitting in a small room using pen and paper can make art. And drawing is one of the driving impulses in Conner’s work. You don’t have to go to art school to begin drawing. In this, Conner’s art is democratic and accessible, which should not be confused with being superior and hip. This is one of the dividing lines in art that few dare to address. Does art need to cost a lot of money to make? Does it need to be big? Aren’t works that fit these criteria ultimately elitist paeans to capitalism? Conner’s work exposes the exclusivity that is synonymous with a lot of celebrated art, no matter how populist or democratic its maker claims it to be.
One of the surprises of the exhibition is a group of drawings done in pen, ink and white pen on small sheets of paper, around 8 x 8 inches, all of which were done in the summer of 1955. At the time, the artist was twenty-one and a student at Nebraska University, where he received his B.F.A. in 1956. Titled “GERYON” the drawings depict the mythical Greek monster who is described variously as having three heads and one body, three heads and three bodies, and in some accounts is winged. The choice of this subject seems to indicate an early interest in multiple identities and physical transformations, a subject Conner would explore for the rest of his life.
In some of the drawings, the winged creature, which resembles a scorpion with a human face, is barely discernible from the welter of lines in which it is embedded. One exception is “GERYON, JULY 31, 1955” (1955) in which we see the creature suspended before us, an overt apparition. It would seem from these drawings that Conner was interested in the spectral territory explored by Alfred Kubin and Odilon Redon.
By the early 1960s, in the graphite drawing, “EMBRYO, APRIL 29, 1962” (1962), Conner has completely changed his approach, making short, faint curving lines on cream-colored paper to articulate a barely perceptible image. Here, the parts maintain their abstract identity while merging into a highly developed form — in this case an embryo nestled within a womb. The faint lines underscore the fragile vulnerability of the subject and remind us of how much of the world around us cannot be seen.
These two groups of drawings, neither of which are well known, are in the first room of the exhibition. There are three other rooms where the viewer will encounter engraving collages; a drawing in ink on paper (“HEAD OF A GIRL,” 1958); an assemblage made of two shoes, both which have been painted; photograms; an early painting; twenty-seven photographs of punk bands that Conner took in 1978 at the punk club Mabuhay Gardens, some of which he published in the punk magazine,Search and Destroy; and the film VIVIAN (1964).
Except for the assemblage, everything is in black-and-white, though this is a bit like saying that Robert Ryman uses only white. I am not the first to think that for Conner black and white are equivalents for dark and light, and that he was a postmodern Manichean. Something that he once said to Greil Marcus about his punk photographs gained new meaning: “They’re floating in the air, part of this suspended sphere, and they’ve got these beatific looks on their faces, they’re in anguish. Or combat photography…”
More than twenty years before he photographed the punk scene, Conner captured some of that beatific anguish in “GERYON, JULY 31, 1955.”
More than anyone else of his generation, Conner seemed to get right to the heart of the American psyche, and its otherworldly dance of innocence and torment.