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)

There is an article by Thomas Garver in a 1967 issue of ArtForum called “Bruce Conner makes a Sandwich.” The sandwich included bacon, Swiss cheese, banana, lettuce, bread, Miracle Whip, peanut butter, and butter. It was Conner’s response to a regular series in ArtNews, which featured an artist making a painting. Conner was having none of it. According to Conner, “it was a product being produced because the camera was there, and, when somebody is observing the performer’s action, that always alters things.” He did not trust those who acted out in public — those gestures of normalcy or largesse — and neither should we.

During the course of his career, Conner made more discrete bodies of work across more mediums than any other postwar artist: paintings, drawings, assemblages, films, photographs, photograms, performances, collages, tapestries, artist’s books, and prints. He made work that was done in one shot, with no revisions and no going back, as well as work that he endlessly fussed over and revised. He slowed film down and he speeded it up. He once described a film he made on the set of Cool Hand Luke (1967) as an “exercise in poverty filmmaking.” All the effects one sees in his films were available to the magician and early filmmaker, George Méliés.

There is no signature Conner work. Instead, there are many discrete bodies of work done in a particular medium. By any standard, he was a perfectionist who could embrace accident and happenstance. It seems to me that Conner, who had his first New York retrospective only this year — Bruce Conner: It’s All True, at the Museum of Modern Art (July 3–October 2, 2016) — offers a measure of defiance and skepticism that we might consider when thinking about art and its role in society. He questioned authorship long before it was fashionable. He passed out “I am Bruce Conner” buttons at gallery events so he could claim to have been there.

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)

For many years, his seven-minute film, “THE WHITE ROSE” (1967), was all we knew of Jay DeFeo’s legendary painting, “The Rose” (1958–66), which was stored behind a wall in the San Francisco Art Institute for twenty-five years, until the Whitney Museum of American Art purchased, restored and exhibited it. In contrast to many of his contemporaries as well as many well-known figures working today, he refused to define an artist as a surrogate for a dependable machine. He was not about posing with his collectors or designing handbags. He did okay a t-shirt that said “Rat Bastard” on it, but that is about as far as it went.

Conner’s work reminds us that great art need not be the product of outsourcing and expensive production, that it is not about spending money to make money, and that it doesn’t have to be an esthetic celebration of capitalism and greed. Someone sitting in a small room using pen and paper can make art. In 1967, he ran for a seat on the board of city supervisors in San Francisco. According to his wife, Jean:

[…] the speech he gave was a list of candies and desserts and I believe the one that went into the voter’s booklet was about light. He went through the Bible, probably the New Testament, picked out all the verses in which light was mentioned and that was his statement. Bruce voted in every election and was very critical of friends who didn’t vote. Even if his was the only “no” vote, it was important to let someone know that someone had protested.

Throughout his life, he believed that even if you could not beat them, that didn’t mean you had to join them. Joining them was the biggest cop-out of all. Joining them means that you are a slave to materialism and to those who buy trophies and trinkets to fill the emptiness of their lives. He was not interested in receiving the blessing of the church of art that explained what he was up to. He did not need that kind of phony love.

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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