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Artjournalism 

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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"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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