Collections> Browse Bruce Conner

Collections> Browse Bruce Conner

Bruce Conner
Holdings (63)
5 sculptures, 1 multimedium, 2 multiples, 2 photographs, 1 unique works on paper, 41 edition prints/proofs, 1 drawing, 4 books, 1 film, 3 posters, 2 videotapes/videodiscs

Wikipedia About Bruce Conner

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. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Bruce Conner, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Over the course of his fifty-year career, Bruce Conner has been something of an artistic chameleon, working in sculpture, film, collage, painting, photography, printmaking, performance, and conceptual art. He has courted diversity and unpredictability to the point where he has seemingly made an art out of elusiveness, abandoning a given type or style of work whenever he felt he was becoming too closely identified with it. As a result he has gained a fractured following. Devotees of his experimental films of the 1960s and 1970s might be totally unaware of the nylon-shrouded assemblages that were the springboard for his success in the art world in the 1950s and early 1960s, and vice versa. Younger viewers might be familiar only with the intricate Rorschach-like drawings of the 1980s and 1990s.

The Walker Art Center’s 1999 exhibition 2000 BC: THE BRUCE CONNER STORY PART II, which looked at Conner’s lifetime achievement through the lens of its relation to his films, did much to increase awareness of the full breadth of his accomplishment, though its protean diversity still resists easy understanding. Both in the course of organizing that show and in its wake, the Walker has assembled the largest and most significant grouping of Conner’s work outside of the artist’s own studio.

For all its diversity, there are several consistent threads that run through much of Conner’s work. The most important of these is the conception of the artwork as subject to renewal and redefinition each time it is viewed, almost as if it were a living being continually regenerating and metamorphosing. By and large, he achieves this through a kind of optical overload, a high-density presentation that results in a tug-of-war between the detail and the whole. No matter how many times one views a typical Conner work—be it an assemblage, drawing, movie, or collage—it typically resists full resolution. There is always something that changes—perhaps a detail never noticed before, perhaps a visual effect based on the optical phenomenon of “persistence of vision”—that keeps it uncertain and alive. In this sense, his individual artworks share something in common with his career as a whole.

Conner was born in McPherson, Kansas, in 1933, and grew up in Wichita. In 1957, shortly after graduating from the University of Nebraska, he moved to San Francisco at the urging of his high-school friend Michael McClure, who had moved there earlier in the decade and become a key figure in the celebrated San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. There Conner quickly fell in with a vibrant group of artists that included Wallace Berman, Joan Brown, Jay DeFeo, Wally Hedrick, George Herms, and Jess, many of whom worked or experimented in a mixed-media style that came to be called “assemblage.”1

Although he had worked in collage prior to his move, it was in San Francisco that Conner began working in the assemblage style that first brought him to national and international attention. The key work in this regard is his monumental two-sided collage UNTITLED (1954–1961). The “front” side was begun and largely completed while Conner was still an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska. Its scuffed, brown-toned surface is made from distressed cardboard and scraps of wood. A pair of collaged cardboard circles punctuates the composition, along with two rectangles made from a flattened metal can and a piece of metal screening tacked to a wooden framework. The use of scrap materials and the carefully balanced, abstract composition recall the work of German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters. The “back” side of the collage developed over time. Conner noticed that works of art often accumulated labels as a result of changing ownership or inclusion in exhibitions, and that this history embodied a form of art-world validation: “So I started clipping out seals like Good Housekeeping and Parents’ Magazine seals, Chick Sexing Association seals, all sorts of things, and started sticking them on the back.”2 Over time, this side of the work became a dense collage of papers that included labels reading “Warning: You are in Great Danger” and “Fragile,” an “Ez for Prez” sticker (from when Conner ran his own “Ezra Pound for president” campaign in 1956), images from movie and science-fiction magazines, pictures of nudes from stag magazines, reproductions of artworks featuring women in varying degrees of undress (ranging from Boucher’s Bath of Venus to Brancusi’s abstract Eve), photographs of Marcel Duchamp and James Joyce, and much more. In time, Conner came to view the disparity between the harmonious, almost classical “front” side of UNTITLED and the visually cacophonous “back” side as emblematic of the contrast between a person’s proper, composed “public” face and his private, subconscious being.

Conner’s first true assemblage, RATBASTARD (1958), has a similarly hybrid history. It began as a thickly impastoed, vaguely flesh-toned painting, which, in a fit of frustration, the artist sliced and gouged. Intrigued by its injured condition, he then ran a thick steel wire through the various wounds, added collage elements—including a photo of people viewing a cadaver on a table and an illustration of a medieval torture scene—swathed the work in nylon (attractive because of its capacity to both reveal and conceal, nylon became a staple of many of his assemblages), and pierced it with nails. As a final touch, he added a cloth “handle,” so that he could carry it as a portable emblem of psychic distress and alienation. It became the first of a series of “Rat” pieces—including RATBASTARD 2 (1958), also in the Walker’s collection—that served as testaments to the alienation of the circle of artists and poets whose company he kept.

Other assemblages attest to Conner’s lifelong love of movies. THE BRIDE (1960), one of his few freestand-ing sculptures, features a wooden armature swathed in white-painted nylon and topped with candles whose melted wax has dripped down over it. As Conner was making the piece, it reminded him of the figure of Miss Havisham, the aging spinster and jilted bride whose accidental self-immolation is the climax of David Lean’s 1946 film version of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. SON OF THE SHEIK (1963) presents a tongue-in-cheek homage to the androgynous appeal of silent-film heartthrob Rudolph Valentino.

Much of Conner’s own reputation rests on the influence of his films of the late 1950s and 1960s, such as A MOVIE (1958), COSMIC RAY (1961), and REPORT (1963–1967), which were made from scraps of found footage edited together to create dense, ambiguous narratives. Echoes of each of these are to be found in artworks in the Walker’s collection. The back of UNTITLED is like a two-dimensional equivalent to the contemporaneous, groundbreaking A MOVIE, a cinematically dense, twelve-minute compilation of brief film clips whose emotional impact moves from the comic to the tragic to the sublime. Included in it are segments from a stag film, the Hindenburg disaster, and an atomic bomb blast that all directly echo images in UNTITLED.

The Walker’s collection also includes a collage made from a series of filmstrips that make up the complete 1961 film COSMIC RAY, sandwiched between two sheets of plexiglass. This presentation, created for the Walker’s 1999 exhibition of his work, allows viewers to experience in a different form the remarkable interplay between dark and light that lies at the heart of the film. It also enables them to experience it in material form, much as Conner did when he made it, splicing the strips together in his home editing room.

Lastly, Conner’s TELEVISION ASSASSINATION (1963–1964/1975) is a three-dimensional sculpture/installation that, like his film REPORT, takes as its subject the events surrounding the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But while REPORT is made from spliced strips of film documenting media reports of the tragedy, TELEVISION ASSASSINATION deals with another shooting that was actually caught on live TV: Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. Conner first issued the footage, all of which was filmed directly off his television set in the days after the Kennedy-Oswald killings, as an 8mm film in 1964. In 1975, he created the installation piece by projecting the film onto the screen of a nonfunctioning sixties-era television, thereby returning the images to their original source.

Conner’s involvement with film, which he produced mostly in black and white, influenced much of his nonfilmic work from the mid-1960s to the present. Many of these later works—principally collages, drawings, and photographs—explore visual effects of black and white in terms of darkness and light. The Walker holds a number of pieces from this period, including a full set of offset lithographs (1970–1971) and all three volumes of his photoetched collages THE DENNIS HOPPER ONE MAN SHOW (1970–1973).

Also in the Walker’s collection are two examples—ANGEL and NIGHT ANGEL—from the series of ANGEL photograms Conner created in 1974 and 1975. In a dark room, the artist affixed long sheets of light-sensitive photographic paper to the wall. He then stood before the wall while an assistant, Edmund Shea, turned on a slide projector. When the paper was developed, it turned black wherever the light had struck it; the areas where the light had been blocked by Conner’s body remained white. By exposing the paper to light for different amounts of time, he could get effects that ranged from pure white silhouettes to grayed silhouettes with white highlights to constellations of white points in a black field that can hardly be identified as representing the human figure. In these works, the artist’s body is dematerialized into pure light, hence the series title.

Throughout his career, Conner has made liberal use of unorthodox materials—everything from shredded nylon to filmstrips to felt-tip pens. In 1974 he pushed the envelope even further, using the legal requirements of California’s education system as the subject and medium for one of his artworks. Hired to teach an art course at San Jose State University, he was required by state law to submit his fingerprints to university authorities. At first, Conner balked. By this time, issues of identity and authorship had become an integral part of a number of works. At various times in his career, he had either not signed his works or had inscribed his name in such a crude fashion that the identity of the creator was thrown into question. In 1965, when invited to make prints at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop, he initially refused to sign the finished works. When Tamarind’s management complained that unsigned prints would have no value beyond the paper and materials used to make them, Conner compromised by “signing” them with his fingerprint, a sly poke at the printmaking taboo against getting dirty fingerprints on a plate or print. When San Jose State demanded a set of his fingerprints, he cited the Tamarind incident as evidence that his fingerprint had commercial value. In the end, the artist turned an unwelcome demand into a creative opportunity: he had a set of “limited edition” fingerprints made at the Palo Alto Police Department, on official police forms, one of which went to the university. The remainders were incorporated into a multiple called PRINTS (1974), in which the forms, along with an assortment of photographs and photocopied documents relating to the San Jose State incident, were enclosed within a steel lockbox.

  1. William Seitz, curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, gave currency to the term “assemblage,” which had been coined in the early 1950s by French artist Jean Dubuffet, when he titled a major 1961 exhibition examining the recent proliferation of mixed-media work The Art of Assemblage. Conner himself has never been comfortable with the term, preferring to refer to his found-object works as “collages,” “reliefs,” and “sculptures.”

  2. Bruce Conner, unpublished interview with the author, July 20, 1983, quoted in Peter Boswell, “Theater of Light and Shadow,” in 2000 BC: THE BRUCE CONNER STORY PART II, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1999), 28.

Boswell, Peter. “Bruce Conner.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center

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