Bruce Conner, “CROSSROADS [promotional still]” (1976), 35mm film (black and white, sound) transferred to video, 37 minutes, the Museum of Modern Art, New York and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (Accessions Committee Fund purchase), with the generous support of the New Art Trust (© Bruce Conner 2016. Courtesy Conner Family Trust) (click to enlarge)

Working in painting, drawing, assemblage, film, photography, photograms, performance, collage, and printmaking, Bruce Conner (1933–2008) made more discrete bodies of work across more mediums than any other postwar artist. A genius of the recondite and the banal, of occult disciplines and popular culture, he possessed the third or inner eye, meaning he was capable of microscopic and macroscopic vision, of delving into the visceral while attaining a state of illumination. He embraced – and at times seemed to revel in – the darkest understanding of what it meant to be mortal, as in these words by Edgar Allan Poe, which come at the end of his short story, “The Premature Burial”: “There are moments when, even to the sober eye of Reason, the world of our sad Humanity may assume the semblance of a Hell…”

For Conner, death and hell were not abstractions but physical states; in the late 1950s, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, amid the tensions of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race between the USSR and the United States, he felt as if they were all around him, that he was just a step away from being consumed by the fires of Hell (the atom bomb).

Conner’s response was to make work that caused viewers and critics to recoil in horror. I am thinking of his assemblage “CHILD” (1959), which was partially inspired by the execution of Caryl Chessman, who had spent more than a decade on death row claiming that he was innocent of the charges of non-lethal kidnapping. In plain English, although Chessman did not murder anyone, he was sentenced to death and executed. Living with the fear of the atom bomb, Conner might have thought that he too was on death row facing government-sanctioned execution.

Bruce Conner, “CHILD” (1959-50), wax, nylon, cloth, metal, twine, and high chair, the Museum of Modern Art, gift of Philip Johnson (© 2016 Bruce Conner / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital image © 2016 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo by John Wronn)

I thought about “CHILD” because this was probably the first time it has been seen since Philip Johnson bought it in 1970 for the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which put it in storage, or what Conner called “detention,” and refused to show it. The irony is that after languishing in the museum’s basement for more than forty years, “CHILD” is on display in the artist’s first New York retrospective, Bruce Conner: Its All True, at the Museum of Modern Art (July 3 – October 2, 2016), which was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Art, the next stop on its itinerary. The show attempts to be comprehensive and includes around 250 works done in nine media. The show at MoMA was organized by Stuart Comer and Laura Hoptman.

According to Roberta Smith, writing in The New York Times:

[…] the assemblages tend to look dated, like exuberantly nihilistic juvenilia, although I suppose they are credible antecedents of goth.

Bruce Conner, “BLACK DAHLIA” (1960), photomechanical reproductions, feather, fabrics, rubber tubing, razor blade, nails, tobacco, sequins, string, shell, and paint encased in nylon stocking over wood, the Museum of Modern Art, New York (© 2016 Bruce Conner / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Smith is not alone in this judgment of Conner’s assemblages, which he made between 1958 and ’64, and which he stopped making just as they came into vogue. But to me “CHILD” is central to recognizing what Conner is about. In this terrifying sculpture, he uses brown wax to construct an infant-sized human with adult proportions, who is tied to a high chair and partially wrapped in tan nylon stockings. One leg sticks out, a stump. The compression of an infant and an adult into a single figure recalls Early Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child, where the infant Christ is depicted as a miniature adult. If, as William Wordsworth claims, “[t]he Child is father of the Man,” Conner’s figure embodies the past (infancy), the present (the horrors of modern life), and the future (death and decay). The nylon stocking might be evocative of spider webs, but it also resembles the loosened wrappings of a mummy. It is a chilling vision of what it means to be alive in the latter half of the 20th century and, as I see it, any other time in history. I see “CHILD” not as nihilistic and dated, but as Conner’s attempt to imagine the material changes brought about by death. While both Andy Warhol and Conner contemplated death, Warhol tended to glamorize it or turn it into spectacle; Conner pondered the foulness of its outcome.

“CHILD” marks a culmination of Conner’s vision of reality, his understanding of the body’s vulnerability to change. His wall pieces, which use lace, fabric, painted paper, ribbon, tissue with lipstick print, beaded necklaces and sequins, are about the detritus one leaves behind at death. Antonin Artaud felt compelled to travel to Mexico because he wanted to “Voyage to the land of speaking blood.” In his assemblages, some of which were made while Conner, his wife Jean, and newborn son Robert were living in Mexico City, he voyaged to the land of death and back; he visited a necropolis of his imagination and returned with artifacts he found there.

I don’t think it is purely a coincidence that Conner changed his work in the mid-1960s and moved away from his vision of terror to one of exaltation and altered states. It was the beginning of the countercultural movement in America, especially in San Francisco, where Conner lived. By then, he had already met Timothy Leary, who looked him up in Mexico City because he had heard that Conner was an authority in the local use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, hence the film LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS (1959-67/1996), which is both a documentary and an imaginative re-creation of looking for and ingesting mushrooms. Leary makes a very brief appearance in the film because Conner felt that he was far more interested in gaining notoriety than in recognizing that the pharmacological knowledge they possessed should be kept underground. Eventually, their different philosophies regarding hallucinogens caused a rift between them.

Installation view of “BRUCE CONNER: IT’S ALL TRUE”, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 3-October 2, 2016 (© 2016 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Martin Seck) (click to enlarge)

LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS is being shown at Conner’s MoMA retrospective, along with other innovative films, such as A MOVIE (1958), BREAKAWAY (1966), REPORT (1967), which revisits the commercialization of President Kennedy’s assassination, and CROSSROADS (1976), a 37-minute film that slows down and repeats declassified government footage of a 1946 nuclear test on the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, accompanied by a mesmerizing soundtrack provided by the musical compositions of Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley. If you think about the music that Conner uses in his films, from Respighi’s Pines of Rome to Riley and Gleeson’s compositions, to Devo’s “Mongoloid,” it is clear that he possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of many media, including music, film and art.

By slowing down and repeating the government footage in CROSSROADS, in some sense dragging out the destruction, Conner re-creates the fascination and horror he experienced as a teenager, watching patriotic newsreel footage in a movie theater before the main attraction played, reports that documented the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As an artist of the sacred, whose use of humble materials amounts to a withering critique of America’s glorification of materialism and the artists who delight in it, Conner rejected the literal and its codification by Frank Stella. From the very beginning of his career, Conner foresaw that Stella’s maxim, “What you see is what you see,” would lead to the celebration of glamor and expensively made art, signature styles and a dependable line of over-sized production, which it has. Conner believed that even if you could not beat the system didn’t mean you had to join them, that that was the biggest cop-out of all.

Bruce Conner, “BURNING BRIGHT” (1996), ink on paper mounted on ragboard; 27 5/8 x 36 inches, Collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund: gift of the Gerson and Barbara Bakar Philanthropic Fund, Collectors Forum, Diane and Scott Heldfond, Patricia and Raoul Kennedy, Phyllis and Stuart G. Moldaw, Byron R. Meyer, Madeleine H. Russell, Chara Schreyer, Elle Stephens, Norah and Norman Stone, and Phyllis Wattis (© Estate of Bruce Conner / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo by Ben Blackwell) (click to enlarge)

Although Conner was never a Minimalist, he pared down his means. He used a felt-tip pen in many drawings, which meant that he could not revise any mark he made. This was also true of his inkblot drawings, in which he made vertical rows of signs along one side of a crease and then folded the paper so that a mirror imprint would appear on the other side of the crease. Conner’s drawings constitute one of the glories of art made during the past fifty years.

Conner’s preoccupation with bodily change and, later, the mental changes brought on by the ingestion of hallucinogenics, is consistent with his interest in identity and the alter ego, as well as his questioning of authorship. He made all the collages and the books accompanying them for a solo exhibition he titled DENNIS HOPPER ONE MAN SHOW. When he turned sixty-five and said that he had “retired” from making art, works that were made in Conner’s studio were signed by various artists, each with their own style and personality. This is what Conner said about these artists in an interview with Jack Rasmussen:

Emily Feather has an affinity for blue ink. Some of her drawings seem like the patterns of frost that appear during a cold winter night on a glass windowpane. I can discern her interest in Asian and Native American Indian art in the drawings. Anonymous uses a more sinuous line and the inkblots are likely to be connected linearly from one vertical series to another. Anonymous was listening to the radio on 9/11 when the two airplanes collided with the World Trade Center. Anonymous created a scroll inkblot drawing with two leaves falling. There was another work later that day with three leaves. Then four leaves. More scrolls with more leaves were created in the weeks of crisis that followed. Falling leaves and leaving.

Bruce Conner, “UNTITLED” from “MANDALA SERIES” (1965), felt-tip pen on paper. 10 1/16 x 10 1/16 inches. The Morgan Library & Museum, New York (© 2016 Conner Family Trust, San Francisco / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo © Stefan Kirkeby Photography)

In his use of black and white, particularly in the felt tip pen drawings, it is clear that Conner saw reality as a struggle between dark and light, materiality and immateriality. Many of the felt tip pen drawings configured into mandalas, a symbol of the search for completeness, which he further underscored by undermining the figure-ground relationship between black and white. He could make the grotesque bodies in “CHAIR” and “COUCH” (1963) and yet, in the mid-70s, collaborate with the photographer Edmund Shea on a series of photograms measuring more than seven feet in height and bearing such titles as “ANGEL” (1975) and “STARFINGER ANGEL” (1975). In these works, the softly glowing form of a body appears out of the black photographic paper, often with a brighter hand reaching toward you. The shape of the body bears an uncanny relationship to Egyptian mummies as if it is signaling to us from the afterlife. No matter what medium he worked in, Conner remained true to his perfectionist impulses while employing inexpensive materials and processes, often nothing more than a pen, scissors, glue, and light sensitive paper.

Bruce Conner, “UNTITLED” (1966), felt-tip pen on paper, 38 × 25 1/2 inches (courtesy Conner Family Trust. © 2016 Conner Family Trust, San Francisco / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York) (click to enlarge)

I suppose some critics believe it is possible to praise both Conner and Jeff Koons for their perfectionism, but I am not one of them. I think the critic who praises both is speaking out of both sides of his or her mouth. Conner is a cosmological artist intent on making connections and uncovering mysteries, while Koons is a slave to materialism and those who buy his shiny trophies and massive trinkets to fill the emptiness in their lives.

In the late 1970s, true to his long interest in manifestations of anarchy and rebellion, which he likely saw as righteous anger, Conner began taking photographs of punk bands performing at Mabuhay Garden, and published them in the punk magazine, Search and Destroy. This is what he said to Greil Marcus about them:

They’re floating in the air, part of this suspended sphere, and they’ve got these beatific looks on their faces, they’re in anguish. Or combat photography…

In the inkblot drawings, the viewer encounters an orderly field of indecipherable signs. When Artaud traveled to Mexico, he saw omens everywhere and was sure they were pursuing him, and this drove him deeper into madness. Conner did not run from signs, no matter how disturbing they may have appeared. Instead, he turned and embraced them. Rejecting signature style and dependable lines of production, both capitalist mainstays, he went his own way. He was fearless in that regard. Not many artists are.

Bruce Conner: It’s All True continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through October 2.

John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...

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