In his most autobiographical film, Conner re-creates his childhood Kansas of the 1940s as a dreamland, accompanied by the theme music from the radio program I Love a Mystery. This nostalgic work takes the viewer to a distant place, lost in time, where dark limousines file across a flooded road and a man and a boy burn leaves. Other sepia-toned sequences and images include a businessman at his desk and a photograph of a locomotive. Once again, no narrative emerges from the associative imaginary of this dreamer’s “valse triste.”

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SFMOMA | Bruce and I by Patrick Gleeson

After I moved to San Francisco in the 1960s to teach in the English Department at San Francisco State, I spent some time prowling the city’s art scene—SFMOMA (then the San Francisco Museum of Art), the de Young, and a few galleries. In general it was pretty plain that San Francisco was the sticks—that the big energy was still in New York.

Somewhere in the midst of the relative parochialism was a completely outrageous artifact—a life-size black wax baby, melted and burned, bound by a web of torched stockings into some cruel parody of a high chair. The artist was Bruce Conner. I’d never heard of him. But this wasn’t regional art, it was the real thing: relevant, burned alive, and disgusting. It didn’t need an overtly political title, like “Hiroshima.” It was just called CHILD.

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THE MERCURY NEWS | SFMOMA fetes category-defying Bay Area artist Bruce Conner

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.

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SFMOMA | Online Screening: Bruce Conner

Films by Bruce Conner are currently on view in SFMOMA’s galleries as part of Bruce Conner: It’s All True, including works shown in their original celluloid format—16mm film—as well as two works that have recently been digitally restored. As an extension of the exhibition, which continues through January 22, 2017, we have created an additional screening venue here. The four films selected for presentation include TEN SECOND FILM (1965), an homage to Conner's fascination with the trailer, AMERICA IS WAITING (1981), an example of Conner’s aesthetic of appropriation, and two works that are closer to what we might imagine to be “home movies” meditating on Conner’s upbringing in Kansas in the years before and after World War II: TAKE THE 5:10 TO DREAMLAND (1977) and VALSE TRISTE (1978).

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THE BAY AREA REPORTER | Bruce Conner's walk on the dark side

A retrospective has the ability to map the arc of an artist's career, its unifying and diverging themes, but it's unlikely that it's an artist's intention to have his or her life's work shown en masse. So does this mode of presentation enhance, skew or alter the perception of the work? That question arose recently when viewing Bruce Conner: It's All True,the first and certainly most multi-faceted, comprehensive survey of the prodigious 60-year output of this Bay Area iconoclast who, to paraphrase that old Sinatra standard, did it his way. 

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FORBES | See How Radical Artist Bruce Conner Set The Stage For MTV At This Blockbuster SFMOMA Retrospective

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.

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KQED ARTS | Cy and David’s Picks

The late Bruce Conner’s art was about everything from consumerism to nuclear apocalypse. He made photographs, movies, collages, sculptures, and obsessively intricate inkblot drawings. He lived in San Francisco in the 1950s (and founded the Rat Bastard Protective Association with his artist and poet friends including Jay DeFeo and Michael McClure), and then returned here at the end of his life. So Bruce Conner: It’s all True, with its 250 works, jointly curated by SFMOMA and the MoMA in New York, is a kind of homecoming.

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His tiny inkblot drawings are there. So are the huge tapestries populated with biblical figures and utterly strange heads. And so are his punk-rock photos, typewriter drawings, and the 1961 assemblage titled HUNK DING DONG JUNK YING YANK that incorporates everything from torn nylons to egg cartons and looks like a Pharaonic object meant to survive into the afterlife.

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SFGATE | The uncategorizable Bruce Conner @ SFMOMA

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.

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CRAVE | See the first complete retrospective of America’s premier avant-guardian, Bruce Conner

See the first complete retrospective of America’s premier avant-guardian, Bruce Conner.

“The artist has his role in our society that the madman had, that the fool had, that the prophet had …he’s a protected fool. The fool with his bells says foolish, stupid things, but every once in a while he also comes out with the truth,” American artist Bruce Conner (1933–2008) observed in an oral history interview for the Archives of American Art. “It’s a very dangerous job to be the fool. He’s got to eat at the king’s table and be part of the process. The king really wants him around because all the other people (who are real fools) wouldn’t say what they really meant.”

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