BY STEVEN WINN
He made an art film about the Kennedy assassination and delicate, meditative paintings based on inkblots and autumn leaves. His haunting assemblages, like those of a viscerally rotting “COUCH” or a mutilated and gauze-shrouded “CHILD” bound in a high chair, hold an undimmed charge more than a half century after they were made. So do his photographs of San Francisco’s burgeoning punk rock scene of the 1970s and ’80s. Female nudes proliferate in his art. Mushroom clouds of nuclear bombs are forever blooming — one from the neck of a headless man in a collage.
He was political and impudent, restless and instinctual — “one of the great outliers of American art,” said Roberta Smith in the New York Times. J. Hoberman, writing in the New York Review of Books, declared him “too anarchic and contrarian a personality to be easily assimilated into the art world.” Former Chronicle art critic Kenneth Bakerwrote that his “work is distinguished by a nearly unique combination of visual and emotional impact and artistic disguise.”
Like the capital letters he favored in naming his work, everything was writ large for Bruce Conner.
In a major retrospective that may be an inherently quixotic undertaking for an artist so hard to categorize and contain, “Bruce Conner: It’s All True” opens Saturday, Oct. 29, and continues through Jan. 22 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
The show, which was initiated and organized by SFMOMA, contains some 250 works in multiple media. It arrives here after a critically celebrated engagement at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “It’s all True” is the first substantial Conner show in 16 years, and probably the most comprehensive ever.
Deeply identified with San Francisco, where he spent most of his adult life, Conner lived for more than three decades in a modest wood-frame house on a winding hillside street in the Glen Park neighborhood. His widow, Jean, welcomed a visitor at the door of what remains her residence eight years after Bruce Conner’s death at age 74 in 2008.
A distinctive and touching feature of the house are the 163 brass handles Conner installed to help him navigate after a liver disease, first diagnosed in the 1980s, severely restricted his mobility. The handles are everywhere — near chairs and lamps, in the bathroom and closets and kitchen. Practical and essential as they were, the brass accents are so rhythmically deployed from room to room that they seem to constitute a kind of installation piece. A new book about the handles sat on a coffee table in the compact, art-filled living room.
Born in McPherson, Kan., and raised in Wichita, where he met the future Beat poet Michael McClure and other like-minded souls in high school, Conner and his coterie got up to art-world mischief early on when they staged a mock heist of an Albert Pinkham Ryder painting from a local museum.
Conner was 20 when he went to New York for the first time, found the painter Robert Motherwell’s name in the phone book and wrangled an invitation to Motherwell’s apartment for conversation and a glass of wine.
“Bruce was involved in art all the time,” Jean said. “He tended not to attend classes. He was always in the art building, drawing and making prints.”
The couple married in 1957 and moved to the Bay Area, where McClure and some friends from Lincoln were already living. “I thought it would be an adventure,” said Jean of the West Coast.
They both worked various jobs to sustain themselves as artists — he as a teacher, janitor and manager of an Indian imports shop on Haight Street, she as movie usher and hospital clerk. Each had a studio but rarely shared what they were doing.
“Bruce believed that if you were an artist, you should know if it was good or not,” Jean said.
Although Conner may have been solitary in his work habits, he pursued an active and engaged life in the Bay Area’s fast-changing art scene. He was a co-founder (with Jay DeFeo, Wallace Berman, Joan Brown and others) of the Rat Bastard Protective Association. He helped get the Batman Gallery going and started making experimental films in the late 1950s.
One of them, the found-footage collage “A Movie,” set to a lush Ottorino Respighi score, remains one of his most enduring works.
The Conners, who had one son, moved to Mexico and Massachusetts, the latter for a somewhat ill-starred alliance with Timothy Leary and a quasi-commune in which the women had no voting rights. They always found their way back to San Francisco.
Jean ticked off some of the artists Bruce loved: Rembrandt, Rodin, the pre-Raphaelites, Kurt Schwitters, Max Ernst. His musical tastes were similarly broad — chamber music, gospel, punk. Of those bands he photographed at the Mabuhay Gardens and other San Francisco punk clubs, Jean said with a smile, “Bruce liked them best before they got famous.”
“The personality of the artist is a limiting factor,” Conner once said, and often toyed with his own identity. He credited one show of his to “the late Bruce Conner” and tried to attribute another to his friend Dennis Hopper. When he did sign his own work, he often did so on the back of a piece or in a script so small that it could barely be read.
Conner continued making art, even as his physical restrictions mounted. Jean recalled him toiling on a collage on the living room floor, directing herself and several of their artist friends where exactly he wanted things to be.
“When it was finished,” she said, “he had all of us sign it.”
Steven Winn is The San Francisco Chronicle’s former arts and culture critic.