Saturday, December 4, 2010

Bruce Conner . . .

. . . an In-The-News Round-Up!

Bruce Conner
circa 1980
(posing in front of one of his paintings)
[photograph by Chris Felver]

As you might have guessed from previous posts – one of which (click here) is entirely about him, and others which reference his work (click, for example, here) – I hugely adore the work of Bruce Conner, the great artist in a variety of media who died in 2008.

My deep fascination and love for Conner’s art all came about because of poetry. I’ve previously written about some of the mid-1960s collaborations between Michael McClure and Conner (click here, please, and scroll down to reason # 7), but I think my first hit of Conner was the Conner designed and illustrated (with a black-and-white photo of one of his assemblages) cover Philip Lamantia’s Destroyed Works (San Francisco: Auerhahn Press 1962) –

Destroyed Works (San Francisco: Auerhahn Press, 1962)
8.5" x 7"

– and one of Lamantia’s poems in that book – “The Bride Front And Back” – concerns Conner’s assemblage/sculpture THE BRIDE, a rendering of Charles Dickens’ Miss Havisham in detritus, stretched nylon, and wax:

THE BRIDE (1960)
36" x 17" x 23"

Lamantia’s poem blazes in response to Conner’s Havisham vision. Witness the final stanza:
WHAT SECRET DRUGS in her womb?
What watches out of her toenails tied to atomic submarine breasts?
Who’s torn her open in the dark turkish skyscraper ATLANTEAN PRIESTS
                          The Christians have slaughtered themselves!
The reflective and refractive energy in this assemblage of mantic/manic (including the super-heavy use of capitals) lineated observations and questions made me – maybe would make anybody – curious about the artwork which inspired it. And so Lamantia’s book and poem, when first experienced (the memories fuzz, but it was in my mid-20s, around 1980), first rang the Bruce Conner bell.


After having seen and enjoyed his artwork for years, I met Conner in the mid-1990s, after a screening of his films in Berkeley. I brought along and asked him to sign my copy of Destroyed Works, which had been previously signed by Lamantia. Bruce agreed,

and there probably aren’t many double-signed copies like that around!

Anyway, that brief moment with Lamantia’s book – Conner remarked on how much he liked it, and of course I did too – began what soon enough became a close friendship between Bruce and me. We lived in adjacent neighborhoods here in San Francisco, and for the next almost fifteen years we talked and saw each other often. Occasionally I accompanied him and his wife Jean at out-of-town exhibitions, taking personal vacation time to experience installation work (Bruce was always heavily involved in the details) and to have some fun. As do many others, I have my share of “Bruce Conner stories,” but those will have to wait for some other day.


Fast forward now, if you please, to the last 30 days. Bruce Conner is two years dead and gone, but his work most definitely lives. The convergence in the news and elsewhere over the last month of notices and appreciations of Conner’s work, indicating its continuing vitality, have been – with a tip here to the style of Lamantia – ASTONISHING. Consider the following, and please do click through the link(s) “beneath” much of what’s mentioned below:

Between November 10th and 23rd, The Film Forum in New York City each day presented Bruce Conner: The Art of Montage, a double-program featuring 17 of Conner’s independent, experimental, and mostly very short movies, made between 1958 and 2008.

the poster for the New York Film Forum program


To have most every Conner film shown twice-a-day for two weeks in Manhattan was thrilling enough. But there’s more! The critical response to the Film Forum program ran my brain-track off its sprocket! Now, Conner’s movies have always been well-received, and his first, A MOVIE (1958) long ago was selected for The National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. Nevertheless, the breadth and depth of the very positive to glowing reviews last month was something else. Among those weighing in were writers published in (click on each source or pull quote to read the full review):
The New York Times: “There is plenty of pure pleasure to be had from these films, for the eye and the heart as well as for the brain.”

The Village Voice: “Bruce Conner (1933–2008) was a film artist who changed the game with his first movie, titled A MOVIE (1958).”

ArtForum: “Conner’s reputation as a maker of still images—assemblages, collages, photographs, drawings, and paintings—has taken off in recent years, but it is his moving-image work that cements his place among the innovators and masters of twentieth-century art.”

The Wall Street Journal: “Conner was an epic poet and philosopher of the form, turning the very concepts of "epic" and "form" inside out.”

Time Out New York: “endlessly rewarding . . .”

Cinespect: “. . . noteworthy is Conner’s ability to play with hyperactive editing patterns or even very slow ones . . . ”

Capital: “Conner wasn't an essayist, but a visual musician . . . rhythms and melodies convulsing right on the screen.”

Idiom: “Conner’s contributions to film are, in very real sense, undeniable . . . his early explorations, sampling and remixing have become mainstream, even traditional, in film and video.”

Slant: “Conner was a 'fuck this' artist, not just for savage cultural criticism lightly guised as celebration, but because of the myriad ways in which he offered it, shifting style as soon as it bored him. [ . . . ] Conner's films are still essential.”

The L: “ . . . extraordinary in terms of serving up eerie resonance and offering satisfying and complex sound-image conjunctions.”

The AV Club: “Even now, film students regularly get their minds blown by Bruce Conner’s first major work: the 12-minute 1958 short A MOVIE . . . .”

and the (believe it or not) New York Post: “an excellent way to discover or revisit Conner’s mesmerizing and influential filmmaking.”

a still from Conner’s THE WHITE ROSE (1967)
(this seven minute film documents the removal of
Jay DeFeo’s monumental painting from her apartment;
per The New York Times last month, it is “as powerful
an evocation of love and loss as Hollywood has ever given us”)


Also last month, Conner’s LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS (1959-1967 / 1996, an edited-in-the-camera proto-psychedelic romp set to a trippy Terry Riley soundtrack) was featured by Ron Silliman on his blog the day before Thanksgiving (and after you click through here please do take Ron’s advice and view the film full-screen).

a still from Conner’s LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS (1959-1967/1996)


At Christies in New York City on November 11th, a set of small collages made in the 1960s by Conner from old reproductions of engraving collages, and formerly in the collection of Dennis Hopper, was sold for just a bit under, er um, a half-million dollars, approximately ten times the pre-sale estimate. Oh my!

an untitled Bruce Conner/Dennis Hopper collage (6.5" x 5.5")


A November 22nd post on The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog reported that a Conner installation (I believe the work is THREE SCREEN RAY, a magnificent projected movie triptych) was recently purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Conner’s long-time Los Angeles dealer, Michael Kohn, who brokered the sale, calls it “the pinnacle of success. Now at the museum, there’s Rembrandt, there’s Vermeer, and there’s Bruce Conner.” Oh my again!

installation view # 1 of THREE SCREEN RAY, a film triptych by Conner

installation view # 2 of THREE SCREEN RAY, a film triptych by Conner


Also last month, European reviewers continued to enthuse about Bruce Conner - The ‘70s, a large exhibition of drawings, paintings, prints, film and other work currently on view at the Kunsthalle Vienna. Click here to read an appreciation published about ten days ago, in Italian, if you please. For a video with many views of the installation, along with narration (in English) by the two Austrian curators, click here (and let it load).

88" x 37" [life-size, of Conner himself]
currently on display at the Kunsthalle Vienna


Finally – and this is a nice way to end it, as it brings Conner together with a poet – the Bureau of Public Secret’s amazing on-going project to republish Kenneth Rexroth’s weekly San Francisco Examiner newspaper columns exactly fifty years after they first appeared happened last month to print the one from November 13, 1960 in which ol’ Rexroth discussed . . . yes, indeed . . . Bruce Conner!

Set out below in full are Rexroth’s four paragraphs on Conner. They are breezy yet sharp in the classic Rexroth style, but also entirely spot-on in terms of what he conveys about Bruce. For those outside the Bay Area, the “Upper Fillmore” mentioned in the first sentence refers to a section of a street here in San Francisco; in addition, the Batman Gallery mentioned was one of a few short-lived but important (almost fabled) showcases for new art here in the early 1960s. Okay, here’s Rexroth on Conner, almost exactly fifty years ago:
On Upper Fillmore, in the heart of the new high-toned Bohemia, the Batman Gallery has opened with a bang. The owners are fine people, the decor is original and effective, the place is crowded — opening night it was jam packed, and best of all, the pictures sell. And well they might. They are by Bruce Conner, a young man full of beans.

Mike McClure introduced me to the work of Conner when he was still in school somewhere in the Middle West — paintings with that certain umja-cum-spiff that is the only sign of a truly original creative talent. A few months later I was being shown around Joe Pulitzer’s collection in St. Louis. In his bedroom and study where he could get the most good out of them were the oldest favorites and the latest acquisitions.

“Aren’t those by Bruce Conner?” I asked. He had seen them in the window of an obscure gallery some place in the sticks and gone in and come out with them under his arm, convinced that here was a significant painter. I was the first person he had ever met who could give him any information about Bruce. There they still are, I guess, with the Pissarros and the Gris’s. This is the response Bruce’s work seems to elicit from all people of sensibility — “This is the real McCoy.”

I think the best things he does, in the long run, are paintings and drawings. The wax sculpture, like the famous Baby in the highchair [blogger’s note: it’s actually titled CHILD and is now in the collection of the New York MOMA], and the corpse stuffed into a packing box, and the three-dimensional collages hung up in torn nylons, are what the nineteenth century called “machines” — gallery art, designed for immediate effect. There’s no doubt that they have that. He’s oddly nineteenth century, this young
enfant terrible, a traveler from another time. In the last analysis, his shockers are moral criticisms of contemporary society, and from, really, the point of view of the sylvan utopias of William Morris, just as the visions of his sensitive drawings are close to those of William Blake and Odilon Redon.

Kenneth Rexroth, circa 1960
in front of his Scott Street flat, San Francisco
photograph by Jonathan Williams


Further information about Bruce Conner can be found in the New York Times obituary, published days after his July 7, 2008 death, and in appraisals or appreciations published shortly thereafter in the Times (by Manohla Dargis), San Francisco Chronicle (by critic Kenneth Baker), and ArtForum (by film scholar Bruce Jenkins). The second page of the last article, quoting the often contradictory and wide-ranging labels that critics and commenters pinned on Conner, is especially engaging.

Another way to get further information about Conner is to take a look at the photograph that follows. I do not know who took it, but I call it “The Great BC” or “The Artist as Prestidigitator.” It surely conveys the magic energy in the hands, mind, and eyes of Bruce Conner:

Bruce Conner, at the CineVegas Film Festival, June 2004



John Olson said...

Great posting, Steve. If anything, for researching all those links to the reviews of Conner's films in Manhattan last month.

Are you sure, though, that top photo isn't John Carradine from John Ford's Stagecoach?

Steven Fama said...

Beautiful question, John! Take a look at Carradine, by clicking here. There is a similar liveliness in the eyes, a shared intensity, I do agree! Although raised in Kansas, Conner could do "western cowboy" quite well.