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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
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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.

About The Author

Peter Byrne

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