“Works by the Late Bruce Conner” – (Part 2)

July 11, 2008  |  By
Filed under: Essay

[from guest writer Julian Myers]

“I quit the art business in 1967 for about three years… At that time, whenever I’d get any letters about art related events, I’d send them back or throw them out. Sometimes, I’d write deceased on them. I was listed in Who’s Who in American Art and I sent back all their correspondence with “Deceased.” After three years, Who’s Who believed me… So the artist is definitely dead.”

On Monday, July 7, 2008, Bruce Conner died in San Francisco. It wasn’t the first time – in 1960 he advertised an exhibition of works by “the late Bruce Conner” – but it may be the last. Conner’s singular life isn’t really done justice by a list of his many roles and personae – but you need them, if only to understand just what a restless, curious, and prodigious figure he was: prankster, filmmaker, iconoclast, bullshitter, printmaker, performer, punk, sculptor, collagist, romantic, spiritualist, painter, candidate for City Supervisor and much more.

BURNING BRIGHT, Bruce Conner, 1996, Collection SFMOMA

I didn’t know Conner, though I wish I did. Now I won’t have the chance.

I know, and value greatly, his artworks, which isn’t the same thing – but it’s something. He was probably my favorite artist, and created what is widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest films ever made: A Movie from 1958.

A Movie was constructed completely of found footage. As he described it, this was a “pseudo-criminal” process that nevertheless was little different than making a painting. Painting, no more or less than appropriating objects, was a kind of theft: “You’re stealing all the past experiences that everyone has had… You’re building on this huge pyramid which has millions of dead bodies down at the bottom of it.”

A Movie was a “new old movie” – it looked antique in 1959. It was a comedic archaeology of progress, and an elegy for American modernity. The twentieth century is pictured, first comically, then with increasing sadness, as doomed charge, a monumental hubris – a zeppelin exploding in midair. The last shot of the film, breathtaking in its context, shows a diver swimming into the hull a submerged ship. He’s exploring the ruins of a century barely half over.

BOOK PAGES, Bruce Conner, 1967, Collection SFMOMA

Conner’s relationship with SFMOMA was notoriously troubled. As Conner recounted in 1979 (in an interview published in Damage and reprinted in Stiles and Selz, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art), Henry Hopkins, then the museum’s director, had proposed doing a retrospective of the artist’s work to date. But they couldn’t agree on certain things. Conner wanted to take part in curating his own history, and demanded a role in the conservation of assemblages that he’d originally intended to change over time. He also wanted his show to be free – the museum wanted to charge $2 admission fee – or at least to share in a percentage of the earnings from an increased admission.

“[Hopkins] told me that this exhibition would be a terrific boon to my career. It would make me famous and rich. I’ve been told that since I was twenty-one years old… It’s one of the more fraudulent myths of the art business. Whereas, the only way you can make any money is to get a percentage of the gate. The concept that the museum and the galleries have been working on for so long is a 19th century one, wherein you confront a robber baron…who smashed millions of tiny babies into the ground, tore their eyeballs out and disemboweled them; he’s done this his whole life… And he’s built castles around the world.”

They practically informed me it was a post-mortem,” the artist said – invoking, in part, the avant gardist cliché of the museum as mausoleum, or morgue. More to the point, however, Conner was hoping to retain, or recover, some determination over his work, and his public image. “Everything was being run as if I did not exist,” he declared. Needless to say, SFMOMA never did their retrospective. Perhaps those around at the time will have another perspective.

ST VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE/HOMAGE TO ERROL FLYN, Bruce Conner, 1960, Collection SFMOMA

It’s too bad. It would have been tremendous. As the works in SFMOMA’s collection attest, Conner made some of the most distinctive and intense works of the last century. Works by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, whose productions from the late 1950s are often connected to Conner’s, look by comparison mannered “moves” in an art historical game. Conner’s best assemblages – Homage to Jay Defeo, 1958, The Temptation of St. Barney Google, 1959, Snore, 1960, Looking Glass, 1964 (the last one he made) – leap out of history. They look like rotting encrustations, half-destroyed artifacts of a culture both distant and familiar. They’re also, sometimes, surprisingly femme: When I saw “2000 BC”, Conner’s retrospective at the de Young Museum in 1999, my friend kept saying, of the assemblages, “I can’t believe someone made these. What was her name again?” Sarah, I whispered, Bruce Conner is a boy. “No she isn’t!”

These wounded and delicate almost-objects seem organic, alive, about to crawl away. “I made them vulnerable,” said Conner in 1979, “They were designed with the idea that time, the elements, would change them.” Like a life.

There’s more to say, and so much I haven’t addressed. Hopefully the conversation can continue in the comment box or – as Conner might have preferred – out in the night.

8 Comments

  1. Tanya Says:

    Conner—intercut with academy leader—imagined as a movie assembled from filmic and real memories. Played forward, and then in reverse.

    I’m thankful that local filmmaker (and resident film expert) Paul Clipson collaborated with Conner and Canyon Cinema to bring virtually all of his film shorts to SFMOMA for the two-part Conner Obscura program. After one painfully long-winded audience question, he brilliantly responded, “Yes.” I remember him dressed all in white, watching as his carefully planned surprise of a rare three projection version of Cosmic Ray unfolded. I was struck by his generosity and commitment to remastering and sharing his work on his own terms. There are people who have criticized Conner’s fierce control over his work on the grounds that an artist—known for pioneering the tradition of appropriating found footage as well as cannibalizing his own pieces for source material—was hypocritical in refusing to allow his films to be appropriated by other artists or screened without permission. I couldn’t help but love his dismissal of all the open source hype bandied about.

    In the wake of his death, with YouTube bootleg videos circulating throughout the blogosphere, I began to panic over the fact that seeing his films as films in a cinema space (and not transferred to video in the gallery context) would become an increasingly rare experience. Since the Conner Obscura program, his films have been yanked out of circulation for preservation reasons and because of his own perfectionism. Sad that he allegedly began destroying his prints.

    Bombhead always seemed to be an apt self-portrait for such a volatile force in art. Silent explosions occurred throughout his oeuvre, from the run in a nylon stocking to the swell of an atomic cloud. He not simply moved between media, he continually abandoned media. He refused to be identified with a single accepted body of work. Much of his best work was in turn born out of abandonment or loss: junk from razed Victorians in the Western Addition or discarded ephemeral films (to borrow Rick Prelinger’s term). The lonely forced labor of his friend Jay Defeo’s one ton painting out of the studio womb in The White Rose stands as one of the most moving portraits of an artist by another artist.

    For an artist who grappled with how the art world threatened to limit how his legacy was defined, I find it a fitting tribute that Conner’s Mabuhay Gardens photographs are highlighted at the Berkeley Art Museum now instead of the favored assemblages. The series has sometimes been perceived as a separate strand of photojournalism from fine art proper. They further his important history of collaborating with musicians and share the characteristic energy, framing, and interstitial moments of his shorts. A film like Breakaway (go-go dancing Toni Basil), or De Detroit: UXA, July 10, 1978 (lying on the floor of the stage), reflect his attention to the performing body.

    While North Beach will forever flaunt its Beat pedigree, there is little to no evidence walking around that a punk scene ever thrived there. Mabuhay Gardens and Bruce Conner are gone. His defiant spirit is remembered.

    Tanya (Zimbardo), assistant curator, Media Arts

  2. konrad Says:

    A couple responses. It’s just as much a “cliché” to call a museum a mausoleum as it is to think of it as a bank, where the most valuable work is stored and exchanged, or a stage where the most current work is shown. They are each metaphors. In other words each frames a true understanding of some of what a museum does.

    One needs only the slightest familiarity with Conner’s work (and i’m certainly not an authority) to know that its full gamut included films prints, assemblages, actions, performances … and his exhibitions. Isn’t an exhibition, a show, a “work?” — just as much as any individual drawing, performance or action. I think Conner knew there was no upper bound to the Work, and wanted to work on that scale. I wouldn’t chalk it up to wanting to command his “legacy.” I think that’s a misunderstanding of his approach. The sentiment is not unlike that of the surrealists or the situationists, to make life from the perspective of art. (If you wonder about this comparison, consider that Conner, Cornell, and Debord were pioneers of the found footage film.) If you’re lucky enough for Life to include Museum Shows, or if you’re unlucky enough to live in a hypercommodified society, then you create with those means, too. This certainly can lead to or be a cover for “control freak” kinds of behavior, but there’s no denying that for an artist who works in so many media, the museum show was another kind of ‘assemblage’ to him, with unique constraints, challenges and potentials. We can only wish the administration had been more accomodating. There’s no second chance now, so it’s not really an issue for the current curators.

    As Tanya wrote, Paul Clipson is to be praised for stepping in to help make those shows of his films (and the surprises) a possibility, and such a great occasion.

    One thing to note about his appropriations and the accusation of “hypcritical” is that the films were made of commercial elements (music and picture), not other artists’ personal work. The performance in Cosmic Ray was unique (i’m pretty sure) in being the only piece that used work by another artist without permission. The story i was told was that Conner tried to get the rights to the music. You can imagine the cosmic comedy of Ray Charles sitting in a theater with his record label’s lawyer next to him decribing the film as a shot list, with about the least possible aesthetic understanding of what Conner was doing (celebrating). Needless to say the price was too high.

  3. Julian Myers Says:

    Hi Konrad – My use of the word ‘cliché’ meant to point to the way that Conner’s description of the proposed retrospective as “post-mortem” placed him in a long line of artists in the 20th Century who experienced the traditional museum as mortifying or deathly. No doubt there’s some kernel of truth to such an ascription, even as it was by 1979 mostly just reflex. I didn’t think it was the most important thing about the lines I quoted; as I was aiming to say above, it was Conner’s imagining of a museum for “living” artists and works that put paid to all the “museum as” metaphors.

  4. Julian Myers Says:

    By the way, Tanya, I loved your connection of the Mabuhay photographs to Breakaway and other film works – what a productive way to read those pictures.

  5. konrad Says:

    Julian,

    I’m not sure what the last clause means there? “paid to” = “to shame” ? I actually think that there’s quite a large helping of truth to Conner’s reaction to the proposed arrangements. His metaphor seems to have explained the failure of the negotiations concisely and accurately. One wonders if the the same thing would happen today, even after the success of BC 2000.

    It seems like Conner’s approach was to treat the Museum like a gallery (intense involvement with exhibition, free admission for the public). It seems like the Museum wanted to be a museum. I think Conner’s position itself (the lines you quoted) contains a valuable, time-honored, not-yet-worn-out critique, not a reflexive defense. How does the museum serve: the artist, the curator, the public? Apparently Conner introduced several destablizing factors, messing the economic model, messing with the preservation protocols. Perhaps the question would be, how has the museum changed, if the critique has been outmoded?

  6. Julian Myers Says:

    Hi Konrad – “Put paid” means to finish off or deal with. I hope I haven’t implied that Conner’s critique was outmoded. I said that by calling the museum a morgue he was invoking what was, by 1979, a familiar idea. I wanted to make clear with my next sentence – “More to the point, however, Conner was hoping to retain, or recover, some determination over his work, and his public image.” – that I think he was saying something more: indeed, as you say, “explaining the failure of negotiations concisely and accurately,” “messing with the economic model,” etc. Like you, I think he was imagining that a different set of roles and relationships might apply – and like you, I am disappointed that so little has changed since then.

  7. konrad Says:

    Julian,

    Ah, thanks for the new phrase! And for clearing things up.

    I guess the more important point in my response to you was that i think we disagree about the wrangling over the exhibition. Desire for control follows quite easily (in my imagination anyway) if one looks at the “restropective” as a piece of work itself, rather than a showcase to enhance his standing (the carrot he swatted away) or control his legacy. The exhibit is an extension of the artwork, not a separate PR domain.

    It is easy for me to imagine, knowing the little about him that i do, that the tweaking of the museum’s administration was a gambit. Ok, a principled gambit (against “Robber Barons”), but basically a way to leverage an offer into an opportunity for work on a large scale. Something about your use of “cliche” and “reflex” did seem slightly dismissive of Conner’s obstreperousness in this situation. I think he was reasoned and insightful. And, perhaps like you, i wished he’d got away with it!

  8. Julian Myers Says:

    I loved his ideas and his obstreperousness. But you know… art historians… skeptical of everything. On the idea of retrospective as gesamtkunstwerk: I am intrigued by the idea. I’d like to reread the correspondence – parts of which are accessible to the public in his Artist’s File in SFMOMA’s library – with that possibility in mind.

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