BY JONATHON KEATS
When MTV launched in 1981, David Byrne and Brian Eno commissioned a couple music videos that would become benchmarks for the medium. Like Byrne and Eno’s experimental music, both videos used only repurposed materials, including footage from old sales training and science education films. None of the appropriation was authorized. The music videos were never aired.
It was typical Bruce Conner. From the fast cuts to the rebellion against authority, everything about Mia Culpa and America Is Waiting bears the mark of the artist and experimental filmmaker, whose extraordinary five-decade career is the subject of a spectacular retrospective currently at SFMOMA.
Conner’s work defies classification, simply because he did practically everything. Paintings led to wall reliefs which resulted in sculptural assemblages and film montages. At first, the term Funk seemed to apply since much of his early work used found junk, often stuffed in torn stockings. But the fast cuts that characterize many of his films (beginning with A Movie in 1958) also defined his quick switches between media and aesthetics as he relentlessly scrutinized contemporary American society.
His work challenged viewers, who were exposed to latent hypocrisies through jarring juxtapositions that anticipated and advanced Pop Art. Conner simultaneously challenged the institutions that exhibited him – sometimes by choosing materials that defied preservation – leveling an attack on commodification that anticipated and advanced Conceptualism.
Nevertheless, for all his apparent eclecticism, close viewing of Conner’s work reveals an internal coherence in terms of principles and methodology. The accumulation and juxtaposition of commonplace imagery gives force to both the funky wall reliefs and the punchy films as well as much that fell between.
Bruce Conner, SPIDER LADYNEST, 1959; Wood box with aluminum paint, spray paint, window shade, nylon, thread, fabric, fur, lead customs seal on string, pearl bead, cotton ball, feathers, tassels, and cardboard; 31 x 28 1/2 x 7 in. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut. Richard Brown Baker, BA 1935, Collection; © 2016 Conner Family Trust, San Francisco / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
In an essay for the exhibition catalog, David Byrne convincingly argues that Conner’s movies established “the default grammar of visual music” characteristic of music videos. “Eventually these techniques made their way into feature films as well.” Conner is ubiquitous today. Eight years after his death, his visual grammar surrounds us, and yet it’s seldom used with Conner’s cunning. The retrospective at SFMOMA is a benchmark for the future.