Bruce Conner was such a quirky artist that reference books and museum guides sputter in their attempts to define him. He was “a master of the macabre” expressing “profound pessimism,” a “defiant Bay Area individualist.”
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is determined to uplift Conner’s stature with an authoritative new exhibit. It includes more than 200 works covering a 50-year career as a painter, collage creator, sculptor, filmmaker and art world prankster. Titled “It’s All True,” a riff on the many responses to Conner’s work, it runs through Jan. 22.
Conner (1933-2008) spent most of his creative years in San Francisco and seemed determined to expand and explode the art world from within, punching and kicking.
Lyon (born in 1942 in New York) probes the margins to explore social and political issues. When this exhibit opened last summer in New York, one reviewer said Lyon’s achievement was “to depict outsiders from within their own world.”
“It’s All True,” created with New York’s Museum of Modern Art, offers gallery after gallery displaying what SFMOMA director Neal Benezra calls the “utter originality” of Bruce Conner’s work. The goal is to establish him as a major voice in American art in the decades after World War II.
And it’s all here. The exhibit begins with a sampling “to unlock the mind of Bruce Conner.” Out pops everything from his most famous image, an atomic bomb exploding from a man’s collar as if it were his head, to the artist’s mock election campaign for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
I first encountered Conner as a filmmaker, and the exhibit immediately sweeps visitors into a showing of “A Movie,” Conner’s 1958 compilation of clips from disaster film footage, from water skiers tumbling head over heels to gruesome battlefields to the crashing and burning of the Hindenburg.
The exhibit takes a chronological path, beginning with Conner’s spooky-looking assemblages from the 1950s and 1960s, made from what he called “the detritus of society.” “Dark Sculptures” from that era are more grim. Black wax is the primary medium for a tortured figure tied to a highchair (a protest against the death penalty) and skeletal remains of a body sinking into a rotting chaise longue.
But then, around the corner, are the Paint-by-Numbers version of “The Last Supper” that Conner completed, fanciful inkblot drawings and collages assembled from old engravings, a project that offered Conner “constant entertainment,” he said.
Bruce Conner and Edmund Shea’s “Sound of Two Hand Angel” (1974). (© 2016 Conner Family Trust, San Francisco/Artists Rights Society, New York)
Back on the dark side are drawings Conner made when he discovered felt-tip pens; he could nearly fill a sheet of paper without lifting his hand from the surface. Fascinating and mysterious are the “photograms,” life-size silhouettes of Conner that he made with photographer Edmund Shea in the 1970s.
This vast collection of Conner’s drawings, photographs, collages, assemblages and ephemera (even his birth certificate) may become a blur to museum visitors. It’s like a tour of an art factory. But Conner’s films and videos — 10 of them on view — are stunning and indelible. They’re a brilliant facet of his originality.
“Report” (13 minutes, 1963-67) is a riveting, agonizing document about President Kennedy’s assassination. “Crossroads” (37 minutes, 1976) brings Conner’s apocalyptic vision to a climax with film from 700 cameras that recorded the U.S. nuclear bomb test on Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific in 1946. Awe-inspiring, it continues to convey Conner’s horror and fascination with the nuclear bomb.