Bruce Conner (November 18, 1933 – July 7, 2008) was an American artist renowned for his work in assemblage, film, drawing, sculpture, painting, collage, and photography, among other disciplines.
Born in McPherson, Kansas, Conner was raised in Wichita, Kansas, attended Wichita University (now Wichita State), and received his B.F.A in Art at Nebraska University in 1956. Conner then received a scholarship to the Brooklyn Museum Art School, where he studied for a semester.
He then attended the University of Colorado on scholarship; also there was Jean Sandstedt, whom he had met at Nebraska and who would become his wife. On September 1, 1957, the two married and immediately flew to San Francisco. There, Conner quickly assimilated into the city’s famous Beat community.
Conner worked in a variety of mediums from an early age. His first solo gallery show in New York City took place in 1956 and featured paintings. His first solo shows in San Francisco, in 1958 and 1959, featured paintings, drawings, prints, collages, assemblages, and sculpture. The Designer’s Gallery in San Francisco held Bruce’s third solo show. The gallery featured black panels which set off his drawings. One of his paintings, “Venus” was displayed in the gallery window. The painting showed a nude inside a form representing a clam shell.
A local policeman confronted the gallery owners to get it removed, “as children in the neighborhood might see the painting.” The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union)stood behind the gallery’s right to display it, and the matter never became an issue.
Conner first attracted widespread attention with his moody, nylon-shrouded assemblages, complex amalgams of found objects such as women’s stockings, bicycle wheels, broken dolls, fur, fringe, costume jewelry, and candles, often combined with collaged or painted surfaces.
Erotically charged and tinged with echoes of both the Surrealist tradition and of San Francisco’s Victorian past, these works established Conner as a leading figure within the international assemblage “movement.” Generally, these works do not have precise meanings, but some of them suggest what Conner saw as the discarded beauty of modern America, the deforming impact of society on the individual, violence against women, and consumerism. Social commentary and dissension remained a common theme among his later works.
Conner also began making short movies in the late 1950s. Conner’s first and possibly most famous film was entitled A MOVIE (1958).
A MOVIE (Conner explicitly titles his movies in all capital letters) was a poverty film in that instead of shooting his own footage Conner used compilations of old newsreels and other old films.
He skillfully re-edited that footage, set the visuals to a recording of Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and created an entertaining and thought-provoking 12 minute film, that while non-narrative has things to say about the experience of watching a movie and the human condition. A MOVIE subsequently (in 1994) was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. Conner subsequently made nearly two dozen mostly non-narrative experimental films.
In 1959, Conner founded what he called the Rat Bastard Protective Association. Its members included Jay DeFeo, Michael McClure (with whom Conner attended school in Wichita), Manuel Neri, Joan Brown, Wally Hedrick, Wallace Berman, Jess Collins, and George Herms. Conner coined the name as a play on ‘Scavengers Protective Society’.
A 1959 exhibition at the Spatsa Gallery in San Francisco involved an early exploration by Conner into the notion of artistic identity. To publicize the show, the gallery printed up and distributed an exhibition announcement in the form of a small printed card with black borders (in the manner of a death announcement) with the text “Works by the Late Bruce Conner.”
A work of Conner’s titled CHILD—a small human figure sculpted in black wax, mouth agape as if in pain and partially wrapped in nylon stockings, seated in—and partly tied by the stockings to—a small, old wooden child’s high chair—literally made headlines when displayed at San Francisco’s De Young Museum in December 1959 and January 1960. A meditation or perhaps comment on the then pending Caryl Chessman execution, the work horrified many.
“It’s Not Murder, It’s Art,” the San Francisco Chronicle headlined; its competitor the News-Call Bulletin headlined its article, “The Unliked ‘Child'”. Today, this powerful sculpture no longer exists. It was in the collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art, which kept it in storage for many years. An attempt to conserve its very fragile wax elements resulted in its disintegration.
A New York City exhibition of assemblages and collage in late 1960 garnered favorable attention in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Art News, and other national publications.
Later that year Conner had the first exhibition at the Batman Gallery, in San Francisco; Ernest Burden, owner and designer of the Designer’s Gallery in San Francisco assisted Conner and the Batman owners and had the entire gallery painted black, similar to the last show at the Designer’s Gallery to showcase Bruce’s work, and the show received very favorable reviews locally.
Another exhibition in New York in 1961 again received positive notices.
In 1961, Conner completed his second film, COSMIC RAY, a 4-minute, 43 second black-and-white quick edit collage of found footage and film that Conner had shot himself, set to a soundtrack of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” The movie premiered in 1962; most suggest the film concerns sex and war.
Conner and his wife moved to Mexico c. 1962, despite the increasing popularity of his work. The two —along with their just born son, Robert— returned to USA and were living in Massachusetts in 1963, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Conner filmed the television coverage of the event and edited and re-edited the footage with stock footage into another meditation on violence which he titled REPORT.
The film was issued several times as it was re-edited.
In 1964, Conner had a show at the Batman Gallery in San Francisco that lasted just three days, with Conner never leaving the gallery.
The show was announced only via a small notice in the want ads of the Los Angeles Times. Part of the exhibition is documented in Conner’s film VIVIAN.
Also in 1964, Conner decided he would no longer make assemblages, even though it was precisely such work that had brought him the most attention.
According to Conner’s friend and fellow film-maker Stan Brakhage in his book Film at Wit’s End, Conner was signed into a New York gallery contract in the early 1960s, which stipulated stylistic and personal restraint beyond Conner’s freewheeling nature. It is unlikely that Conner would ever sign such a restrictive document.
Many send-ups of artistic authorship followed, including a five-page piece Conner had published in a major art publication in which Conner’s making of a peanut butter, banana, bacon, lettuce, and Swiss cheese sandwich was reported step-by-step in great detail, with numerous photographs, as though it were a work of art. Just before Conner moved to Mexico in 1961, he repainted a worn sign on a road surface so that it read “LOVE.”
Conner produced work in a variety of forms from the 1960s forward. He was an active force in the San Francisco counterculture of the mid-1960s as a collaborator in light shows at the legendary Family Dog at the Avalon Ballroom. He also made—using the new-at-the-the-time felt-tip pens—intricate black-and-white mandala-like drawings, many of which he subsequently (in the very early 1970s) lithographed into prints.
One of Conner’s drawings was used (in boldly colored variations) on the cover of the August, 1967 issue (#9) of the San Francisco Oracle. He also made collages made from 19th-century engraving images, which he first exhibited as THE DENNIS HOPPER ONE MAN SHOW.
He also completed a number of short films in the mid-1960s, in addition to REPORT and VIVIAN. these include TEN SECOND FILM (1965), an advertisement for the New York Film Festival which the Festival rejected as being “too fast,” BREAKAWAY (1966), featuring music sung by and danced to by Toni Basil), THE WHITE ROSE (1967), documenting the removal of fellow artist Jay DeFeo’s magnum opus from her San Francisco apartment, with Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain” as the soundtrack), and LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS (1967), a three-minute color wild ride with music by the Beatles.
During the 1970s Conner focused on drawing and photography, including many photos of the late 1970s West Coast punk rock scene. A 1978 film used Devo’s “Mongoloid” as a soundtrack. Conner in the 1970s also created along with photographer Edmund Shea a series of life-size photograms called ANGELS.
Conner would pose in front of large pieces of photo paper, which after being exposed to light and then developed produced images of Conner’s body in white against a dark background. Conner also began to draw elaborately-folded inkblots.
In the 1980s and 1990s Conner continued to work on collages, including ones using religious imagery, and inkblot drawings that have been shown in numerous exhibitions, including the 1997 Whitney Biennial. Throughout Conner’s entire body of work, the recurrence of religious imagery and symbology continues to underscore the essentially visionary nature of his work.
‘May the Heart of the Tin Woodsman be with You from 1981, in the collection of the Honolulu Museum of Art, is an example of the artist’s collages that are both mystical and symbolic. It is an engraving collage, with glue, melted plastic and charred wood.
In 1999, to accompany a traveling exhibition, a major monograph of his work was published by the Walker Art Center, titled 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story, Part II. The exhibition, which featured specially built in-gallery screening rooms for Conner’s films as well as selected assemblages, felt-tip pen and inkblot drawings, engraving collages, photograms, and conceptual pieces, was seen at the Walker, the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, the de Young in San Francisco, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
Conner announced his retirement at the time of the “2000 BC” exhibition, but in fact continued to make art until shortly before his death. However, much of this work, including in particular the many inkblot drawings he made, including a series responding to 9/11, were presented using pseudonyms or the name “Anonymous.” Conner also made collages from old engravings, and completed (depending on how they are counted) three or four experimental films.
He also used computer-based graphics programs to translate older engraving collages into large-sized woven tapestries, and made paper-based prints in that way as well.
Various other artistic projects were completed as well, including in the year of his death a large assemblage titled KING. Conner also in late 2007 directed and approved an outdoor installation of a large painting, resulting in what one observer suggested is a final work-in-progress.
His innovative technique of skillfully montaged shots from pre-existing borrowed or found footage can be seen in his first film A MOVIE (1958).
His subsequent films are most often fast-paced collages of found footage or of footage shot by Conner; however, he made numerous films, including most notably CROSSROADS, his 30 plus minute meditation on the atom bomb, that are almost achingly deliberate in their pace. Conner was among the first to use pop music for film sound tracks.
His films have inspired generations of filmmakers, and are now considered to be the precursors of the music video genre. When told of his impact on music videos and his status as “the Father of MTV,”, Conner would reply, “Not my fault.”
Conner’s works are often metamedia in nature, offering commentary and critque on the media — especially television and its advertisements — and its effect on American culture and society.
His film REPORT (1967) which features repetitive, found footage of the Kennedy assassination paired with a soundtrack of radio broadcasts of the event and consumerist and other imagery — including perhaps most notably the film’s final image of a close-up of a “SELL” button — may be the Conner film with the most visceral impact.
REPORT “perfectly captures Conner’s anger over the commercialization of Kennedy’s death” while also examining the media’s mythic construction of JFK and Jackie — a hunger for images that “guaranteed that they would be transformed into idols, myths, Gods.”
Conner’s collaborations with musicians include Devo (MONGOLOID), Terry Riley (LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS (long version) and EASTER MORNING), Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley (CROSSROADS), Brian Eno and David Byrne (AMERICA IS WAITING, MEA CULPA) and three more films with Gleeson (TAKE THE 5:10 TO DREAMLAND, TELEVISION ASSASSINATION, and LUKE). His film of dancer and choreographer Toni Basil, BREAKAWAY (1966), featured a song recorded by Basil.
Conner also continued to work on editioned prints and tapestries during the last 10 years of his life. These works often used digital technology to revisit earlier imagery and themes; for example, his Jacquard tapestry editions, created in collaboration with Donald Farnsworth of Magnolia Editions in Oakland, CA, were translated from digitally manipulated scans of small-scale paper collages, made in the 1990s from engraving illustrations from Bible stories.
Conner, who had twice announced his own death as a conceptual art event or prank, died on July 7, 2008, and was survived by his wife, American artist Jean Sandstedt Conner, and his son, Robert.