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Bruce Conner, the greatest artist you don't know, uses our Peter Byrne for image-honing purposes. We use Conner to get you to pick up the paper.

Wednesday, Sep 13 2000
Dennis Hopper, the movie star, tells me emphatically that Bruce Conner is one of the best artists in America, period. He says Conner's experimental films were a major influence on the editing of the '60s motorcycle movie classic, Easy Rider. He credits Conner with single-handedly inventing the music video genre. He raves about the garage full of Conner sculptures he owned before the IRS seized them one foul day.

Then Hopper trashes Pablo Picasso.

Picasso's most famous painting is, perhaps, Guernica, a modernist rendition of the destruction of a small Spanish city by Fascist bombs in 1937. Hopper faults Guernica as "aesthetically pleasing." How, he asks, can the horrors of war be truly depicted by such a gentle aesthetic?

In contrast to the Picasso painting, Hopper talks glowingly about Conner's anti-war sculpture BOX (1960), which is the figure of a charred child inside a burned box shrouded in nylon stockings. Hopper prefers Conner's vision of despair over Picasso's because Conner's is not cloaked in pleasing forms. BOX is actually quite horrible to look at -- fascinatingly so.

Talking about one of his repeated visits to Conner's recent one-man show at the de Young Museum, "2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II," Hopper mentioned his special fondness for BLACK DAHLIA, an "assemblage" inspired by a famously unsolved 1950s sex-murder case in Los Angeles. The repelling, yet oddly attractive, work is concocted from nylon stockings, a picture of a naked woman with a nail driven through her buttock, feathers, sequins, rubber hose, and string. Hopper calls it "a great sensual, sexual, macabre, questioning piece."

Then he trashes the art world.

For more than 40 years, Hopper says, Conner's eclectic body of work, which includes film, sculpture, painting, drawing, and collage, has drawn critical fire from a "snub-nosed elite based in New York City."

As a matter of career choice, Conner has perpetually inhabited the underground of the art world. He was a player in the beatnik scene, the hippie acid test, the punk rock explosion. Pick a rebel art movement in Cold War America, and Conner was there. And not as a dilettante, either. His art resides in the permanent collections of the world's great art museums, yet his name is barely known outside circles of art connoisseurs. "He is one of the most important artists in the world," says Peter Selz, a former chief curator for the Museum of Modern Art in New York who has been championing Conner's work since 1960.

The key to understanding why the talented Conner is not as rich or famous as contemporaries like Andy Warhol or Robert Rauschenberg lies in politics. Much of his multimedia work is a scathing critique of American society, and the nuclear terror that, in his view, pulses at the heart of the system.

"Conner's aesthetic is deadly," Hopper says. "It's really strong stuff."

Then he sighs, and adds, "Over time, it may lose its original meaning and become more acceptable, easier to digest."

Indeed, Conner's works of the last decade or so are much more introspective and subdued than the hellish objects that once adorned the beautifully repulsive things he made. Conner is doing his damndest, however, to make sure that his story -- the how and why of Bruce Conner -- survives conscious and unconscious sabotage by art world critics and curators. He does this by methodically cultivating his well-established art-world-renegade image, even as he accepts support from institutions he considers to be -- as a group -- the enemy of art. In short, Conner is wont to bite the hand that sometimes feeds but (he feels) always exploits him.

And so the hand has never fed him very well.

I hadn't heard of Bruce Conner until I saw a newspaper advertisement for "2000 BC" this summer. The ad featured BOMBHEAD (1989), a collage depicting an atomic bomb's mushroom cloud as the head of a military officer. Things atomic are something of a Conner fixation, but the exhibit is a sample of the incredible range of Conner's work, rather than a themed retrospective. ("I am not ready for my funeral yet," quoth the artist.) The traveling show -- which is on the way to an Oct. 8 opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles -- features 150 works, on loan from private collectors, museums, and Conner. They include sculptures assembled from trash and underwear; delicately inked drawings of galaxies and yin-yanging mandalas; space-time-bending collages made from 19th-century wood engravings; rows of tiny, quasi-human inkblots; and the mini-films that brought Conner fame, if not fortune.

Conner lives in a brown bungalow near Glen Park with his wife, Jean, an officer of the local garden club. Jean, who is an artist too, has strewn the front yard with moss and baby tears. The Conners, in fact, seem quite domesticated, hardly a threat to the social order. Conner, who is 67, spends his days making art and organizing his career. For the past 15 years, however, his time has been severely circumscribed; he suffers from a liver disease that could kill him at any moment. He does not, therefore, suffer fools gladly.

At our first interview, he is still peeved at questions posed the day before by a New York Times reporter. The writer, Conner surmises, is premising her story on the theory that his career has suffered because he is "difficult" to work with. Conner is angry because the reporter will not tell him who the accusers are.

Conner has been wrestling with the press for many years, and is more than practiced at giving an interview. His interview technique is to answer direct questions indirectly, with anecdotes, stories, metaphors. It makes sense: Conner is using reporters -- as he uses art -- to mirror himself.

"I'd like to create a perceived reality of Bruce Conner," he smiles.

Certain facts are, more or less, well-established.

Conner grew up in Wichita, Kan. As a teenager, he hung out with Michael McClure, a poet and playwright who later joined the orbit of the beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Conner went to art school in Nebraska and met Jean Sandstedt, also an art student, on a blind date. They married in 1957. At McClure's urging, they moved to San Francisco trying to escape the "horrible 1950s environment where anybody who was not mainstream was considered a communist, insane, queer." Jean and Bruce melded with the iconoclastic artists whom history has labeled the beatniks. Conner became known for assembling sculptures -- "My jewels," he grins -- from pieces of junk he found at construction sites.

In 1958, Conner assembled a 12-minute apocalyptic action movie -- A MOVIE -- from bits and pieces of stock footage. (Conner is very specific about requiring the names of his artworks to be spelled in all capital letters.) The film, a montage of disaster scenes from old newsreels and movies, evokes, at first, laughter, which quickly turns to despair, leavened, at the end, by the barest flicker of hope that man will somehow survive the technology of the atom bomb. A MOVIE was widely heralded as the work of a genius when it was released, guaranteeing Conner a permanent niche in the pantheon of experimental filmmakers.

Bruce Jenkins, director of the Harvard Film Archive, who curated the film exhibits in "2000 BC," writes, "What the Cubists wreaked on painting ... Conner inflicted on cinema itself." Many of the 27 short films Conner crafted became instant classics because he constantly broke new ground, both as a social critic and as an artist. Above all, his films engross viewers because they are, in a sense, beautiful paintings that move.

In his movies, Conner captures the vital signs of the last half of the previous century: atomic bomb explosions (CROSSROADS, 1976), the murder of President John F. Kennedy (REPORT, 1963-67), women's liberation (BREAKAWAY, 1966), psychedelic drugs (LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS, 1961-67), the punk rock critique of corporate banality (MONGOLOID, 1977).

Combining a flair for self-promotion with a streak of nihilism, Conner habitually messed with the minds of his fans and collectors. When he became famous for his sculptures, he set them on fire, and then stopped making them entirely. Sometimes, though, his public expressions of disdain for the art world seemed more like performance art than a serious desire to commit career suicide.

When he became well known as a filmmaker, for instance, Conner says, "I deliberately set out to destroy my reputation." At the first showing of LEADER, he brags, the audience noisily recoiled against being held captive to 30 minutes of blank leader tape accompanied by an endlessly repeated line from a television sitcom about ... being held prisoner.

Conner's reputation as a bad boy was, of course, not destroyed, but enhanced.

Conner used peyote, tripping alone in Golden Gate Park long before Charles Manson bum-rapped the Summer of Love. During one trip, Conner suddenly recalled a vision from his youth.

"I was 11. It was late afternoon and the sun was shining on the rug and I was doing my homework when things started changing. I went into this strange world and began evolving into countless different creatures and people, until finally I was very tired and very old. It seemed to last an eternity, and when it stopped I could hardly remember how I'd been when I started out. I felt so old I thought I'd crack and break if I moved."

Conner considers this one-with-the-universe experience as the guiding vision of his life. An equally pervasive influence on Conner, however, seems to be the absolute terror with which he regards the possibility of nuclear war.

In 1962, the Conners moved to Mexico -- the land of the magic mushroom -- where Jean gave birth to a son, Robert. Conner says he moved there to escape the death by nuclear fire that he just knew was coming his way. Unfortunately, he did not speak Spanish. He could not find a job. He learned, to his horror, that Mexican culture celebrates death.

When a Mexican art critic insulted his sculptures as "a dalliance with garbage and filth," Conner had had enough of the brave new world of Mexico City. He came north, crossing into Texas -- just in time for the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Eventually, the Conners returned to San Francisco, where, at least, they would be vaporized among friends. When free love, pot, and acid took center stage in the mid-1960s, Conner was in the thick of it, churning out psychedelic drawings that became museum pieces. When punk rock became the rage in the 1970s, Conner frequented San Francisco's Mabuhay Gardens club, drank heavily, and art-photographed the rockers for Search & Destroy magazine. (Earlier this year, some of these photographs were exhibited at the Curt Marcus Gallery in New York City as "Dead Punks and Ashes.")

By the late '70s, Conner had publicly retired from the underground several times; run a spoof political campaign for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors; spliced together two dozen tiny films; created reams of black-and-white drawings; developed an ulcer; and made only small amounts of money.

To supplement his meager art income, Conner worked in a succession of dead-end jobs, such as movie theater usher, light show technician at the Avalon Ballroom, Hollywood film producer, film art teacher, and liquor store clerk.

Along the way, Conner accepted financial support from an array of government and corporate institutions, such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ford Foundation, even though he has loudly polemicized against government and corporate funding of the arts. When asked about this apparent contradiction, Conner explains that it is almost impossible for a working artist to avoid art world patronage.

If Conner has accepted gratuities from the art world, he has mostly made his own way. His grants add up to only a few tens of thousands of dollars during a 40-year period, and, he says, most of that money was spent on art materials. The museums showing "2000 BC," however, are funded by Fortune 500 companies and various levels of government. And in no small irony, Conner's show got a big chunk of money from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

In 1959, Conner was trying to cast a metal sculpture inspired by Caryl Chessman, a convicted robber-rapist who was about to be gassed by the state of California. But Conner's waxen mold of Chessman kept failing; the liquid bronze turned to shapeless slag. Finally, Conner decided that the wax model itself would become CHILD, a protest against the death penalty and social injustice.

He added bits of nylon and twine to the blackened wax homunculus -- about the size of a real child -- and strapped it into a high chair with a leather belt. When the sculpture was exhibited at the de Young, the art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle howled, "It's something a ghoul would steal from a graveyard."

A newspaper columnist named Herb Caen led a chorus of public derision, but the de Young's director refused to shut down the show, saying that, "CHILD is done with considerable skill. At the same time, it is not a pleasing subject."

What the opinion mavens for the family newspapers did not mention in their published critiques, however, is that CHILD sports a set of adult male genitalia, which Conner saw as symboliz- ing "Chessman as simultaneously a prisoner of his own uncontrollable impulses and of society's own need for order and control."

Which is not to say that Conner is, or was, in favor of sexual violence. As is typical of him, however, he took a highly controversial image and turned it into an archetype. Conner has always understood the value of controversy in propagating a mass message. According to the Chronicle, "Despite its repulsive-ness, CHILD has consistently been attracting more interest than anything else in the show."

Today, Conner says that CHILD transcended Chessman and became "an analogy to show that society creates repercussions on the child, if the child does not revoke and deny a child's point of view." In other words, a sculpture created in opposition to capital punishment evolved into a comment on the plight of all children confronted with adult sexuality, and adult values and pressures to conform to a social system.

The continuing saga of CHILD mirrors Conner's personal story: his struggle to come to terms with the adults who control society (and the sale of art).

In the late 1960s, a wealthy art collector purchased CHILD for $350 and gave it to the Museum of Modern Art because the New York museum refused to buy the sculpture outright, saying it was too emotional. Gradually, through manhandling and neglect, the fragile piece deteriorated.

In 1995, the Whitney Museum of American Art displayed the sculpture; when Conner saw the collapsed condition of CHILD, he asked for it to be withdrawn from the exhibition and restored by the Museum of Modern Art.

Two years later, curators at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center, which originated "2000 BC," were eager to borrow CHILD. Administrators at the Museum of Modern Art refused to let the curators see it. They had, it seems, consigned it to "inaccessible storage."

In the spring of 1998, Conner was finally allowed to visit CHILD, which had been partially restored. He was not, however, able to come to an agreement with the museum about how to continue fixing it.

Conner wrote to the museum's chief curator, Kirk Varnedoe, that "CHILD is in a destroyed state which I do not consider reparable without my input. I have revised the documentation to delete reference to the Museum of Modern Art and added the information "No longer extant.'"

Varnedoe later agreed with Conner to resume restoring CHILD; but Conner has not heard from the administrator for nearly a year, despite repeated letters and phone calls.

In response to an inquiry from SF Weekly, the Museum of Modern Art issued a statement (in which it repeatedly misspelled Conner's name as "Connor") acknowledging the "importance" and "value" of CHILD.

"We are genuinely pained that the process [of restoring it] has not been more successful, but we have not abandoned hope that, with Mr. Connor's [sic] ongoing cooperation, it may yet be fully restored."

Conner believes the museum is patiently waiting for the situation to resolve itself through his death. In the meantime, he says, he considers CHILD to be in lockup, similar to what Chessman experienced on death row, before he was executed.

During his long career, Conner has had several run-ins with art dealers and museum bureaucrats. He sued a local art dealer for nonpayment and, as a result, he believes, was blacklisted from showing in San Francisco for 10 years. Another time, Conner demanded that the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art pay him a percentage of the gate for showing his films. He was not amused when the museum director replied, "I didn't think you were in this for the money."

These business dealings may have earned him a reputation in art world circles as "difficult." Conner, naturally, does not consider himself to be difficult; he simply wants respect.

"I am a small businessman," says the artist. "I conceive and create my product, and personally make it entirely by hand. I present it, and market it, and make my living doing this."

Conner makes an uneven living from selling his art. Today the resale of a sculpture can bring up to $100,000, maybe more; prints run from $150 to $20,000. But Conner does not own much of his work anymore. (He is entitled to 5 percent of resale profits.) Ultimately, the price of an artwork depends upon how much the art world values the artist. Conner aficionados say that his work would be worth more if he had not refused to "mass produce" aesthetically pleasing objects, as many pop artists do.

"The museums and dealers want to be in control of the artist, not vice versa," says Conner's agent, Paula Z. Kirkeby.

While Conner praises the particular art dealers and curators who collaborate with him, he has unkind words for art administrators in general. He says, "They treat the artists as idiot savants who cannot understand what they are doing."

Conner, though no idiot, might be a savant. He is perfectly capable of analyzing his own work.

"A long time ago," he says, "I started thinking about social structures. They always have a center and a perimeter. This relationship is continuously repeated.

"Children in all cultures go through similar stages in creating an image or a symbol. The first thing they do is smear. They make an indefinite, but big, smear. If they have a tool, like a stick, or a pencil, they make a lot of marks. Then they decide to control it. They make a dot. This is the first sign of organization. Then they move the dot and make a line.

"But they can't get away from the dot. It's the essence, the center, repeated over and over again.

"I study fundamentally repetitive structures that happen over time. I am interested in how messages are conveyed by people; how they are organized; how they screen through the chaos."

Conner is -- for Conner -- the dot at the center of the beautiful, terrible world he ceaselessly organizes.

On the day of our last visit he told me a final story.

"I went back to the de Young yesterday. The sign for "2000 BC' is still up at the end of the hallway. One of those temporary walls with a paragraph about me being a shadowy figure is still there; but all the artwork is gone, and where it was nailed to the gray walls there are little white patches. Everywhere is dust and debris.

"And there is an empty frame on a floor stand. A vertical bar and a rectangular frame which used to hold a sign that said, "No cameras allowed in this area.' The sign is gone, and the frame is empty. It's like the whole show is still there, but it's the empty frame. It's like another exhibition.

"I told Jean maybe I would come back and spend a morning there in that room and if somebody came in I could tell them stories. There is all that space, and it's all lit up, and it's all the empty frame and the empty hall and the empty space ... all that's left is the story."

Although he has not made a lot of money, Bruce Conner has made a great success of his career as an outsider. Since 1960, he has had nearly 100 solo exhibits. His works have appeared in dozens of group shows in museums and galleries around the world (SFMOMA owns 20 Conner works). And in "2000 BC," for the first time selections of his work in multiple mediums were gathered into a single space, where the perceived realities of the Conner mind were open to public view.

Conner is transfixed by archetypes -- the patterns and models underlying things -- and obsessed with the nature of structure itself, the rules of symmetry and repetition, the possibility of tapping secret codes, the connectedness of everything.

"At age 16, Bruce had the most highly developed sense of beauty I have ever seen," Michael McClure remembers. "His teenage work was sought after by his friends. Later he made CHILD. It was intensely, socially conscious; it was critical awareness fused with terrible beauty."

It is this terrible beauty that distinguishes Conner from millionaire pop artists such as Warhol, Jeff Koons, or Keith Haring. Even as Warhol was gently enshrining soup cans and celebrities, Conner was scandalizing the public with representations of sad, forlorn, murdered figures, that appear to be, it must be said, archetypal representations of Conner himself.

Who, to this day, lives in fear (or is it anticipation?) of incineration.

"There used to be much more fear about the bomb," he told me during one of our interviews at his extremely orderly Glen Park home. "Now it's a part of daily life. Atomic weapons can be made by a couple of fairly intelligent people. Anyone could dump a bomb in the bay and -- POOF! -- it'll look like hell everywhere, and no one will know who did it. Say the Chinese do it and blame it on the Iraqis -- soon everybody will be killing everybody, and the people who started it all, and thought they were going to survive, will find the skin falling off their bodies.

"It's inevitable."

About The Author

Peter Byrne


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