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Rat Bastard: On Bruce Conner

Barry Schwabsky12 July 2016

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Until October, The Museum of Modern Art in New York will be hosting 
Bruce Conner: It's All True, the first complete retrospective exhibition of the American artist and filmmaker's work. Below, we present an essay on Conner by Barry Schwabsky, author of The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present, written in 2012 and first published in The Nation.

Bruce Conner, Unfinished Drawing, 1981-1983

As recently as 2005, the critic Michael Duncan could refer to Bruce Conner as an artist “long known only to cognoscenti” who was just starting to become more widely recognized. As it turned out, Duncan was being optimistic. Five years earlier, Conner’s work had been presented to a broader public by his first large-scale exhibition, “2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II,” which opened at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and traveled to Fort Worth, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Yet though the exhibition gave Conner a bit more name recognition, he remains a mystery to the average gallery-goer. All the more surprising, then, to read an excellent new critical study of the artist and filmmaker, who lived for much of his life in San Francisco and was part of a thriving network of artists that included Wallace Berman, Joan Brown and Jay DeFeo (watch for her retrospective, coming up at SFMOMA this fall and then the Whitney Museum of American Art early next year), as well as poets such as Michael McClure (a high school friend from Wichita) and Philip Lamantia. Kevin Hatch’s Looking for Bruce Conner may not elevate Conner into the renowned company of East Coast contemporaries like Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol or Frank Stella, yet it offers something even better: a deeper understanding of the work.

I doubt Conner would have smiled back at broader acclaim anyway. The shadows were his elective habitat, and he suspected that true knowledge was shrouded in secrecy. So he tried to deflect attention from himself. “The personality of the artist is a limiting factor,” he held, and focusing on it amounts to a digression “from what I consider the main purpose of the work to be.” Sometimes he sought to absent himself in the ultimate degree: one of his first exhibitions, in 1959, was billed as being by “the late Bruce Conner,” and in 1973 he would have himself listed as deceased in Who Was Who in America. Pseudonymity was a less extreme recourse: although his dealer got cold feet and canceled the show, Conner had planned — without permission — to exhibit a body of work under the name of his friend Dennis Hopper. One of his most substantial interviews, published in 1980, was conducted by one “Mia Culpa.”

There’s a paradox in Conner’s position: pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, but don’t ignore the intention behind his art. Taking “Mia Culpa” as one’s interlocutor means playing two parts instead of engaging in a true dialogue. It’s not surprising, somehow, that a film critic, in a 1967 survey of the experimental scene, observed that Conner “prefers playing the harmonica to speaking about his work but is the best self-publicist, save for Andy Warhol.” In a sense, Conner was an Anti-Warhol. Both artists were fascinated by the effects of repetition as well as the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life. They were drawn to some of the same subjects, from the Kennedy assassination and what Hatch calls the “commodification of the Kennedy legend” (Conner’s film Report, 1963–67; Warhol’s “Jackie” paintings, begun in 1964) to Marilyn Monroe (among Conner’s most adventurous films was Marilyn Times Five, 1968–73; Warhol had responded almost immediately to the president’s killing by depicting his widow, and was prompted to initiate his “Marilyn” series right after the actress’s death in 1962). From 1975 on, Conner’s main effort went into an extraordinary series of drawings based on an ink-blotting technique that recalls Hermann Rorschach’s famed test, while Warhol made an important series of Rorschach paintings in the mid-1980s, a time when he was exploring motifs taken, like those he’d always used, from popular culture and daily life — but now, at the same time, abstract.

Like Warhol, who once said he wanted to be a machine, Conner was beguiled by the elusive nature of the self. And there was something machinelike about Conner’s intensely focused manner of working, often wrongly called “obsessive”: all those countless hours with any awareness of the outside world blocked out, which he spent cutting and splicing together bits of film almost frame by frame, or filling the white surface of a drawing with intricately labyrinthine meanders of black ink, never letting his marker lose contact with the paper until the ink ran out. But Conner’s understanding of the ineffability of the self was hardly identical to Warhol’s. One of them famously said, “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” Like the purloined letter, the reality of things, for Warhol, was always hiding in plain sight; for Conner, the truth seemed to be concealed behind a misleading façade, and the dense, complex surface of a work had to lead the viewer elsewhere. Whereas the Pop artist sauntered to the center of the art world, assembling around himself a “factory” of followers (which always sounds like a party), Conner, as Hatch says, sought shelter at the art world’s margins — although he was not too marginal to exhibit, as did Warhol, at the London gallery of Robert Fraser, “Groovy Bob,” where Pop art met pop music. Warhol became a courtier to the rich and famous, thereby becoming rich and famous himself; Conner liked to call himself one of the rat bastards, the outsiders.

* * *

Hatch’s book is not a biography, which is understandable given Conner’s longing to be one of the invisible. Still, it could have offered a clearer chronology of the artist’s life, perhaps in an appendix, and especially for the ’50s and ’60s, when Conner seems to have been almost constantly on the move and restlessly revising his working methods. No such chronology is to be found in the “2000 BC” catalog or, more understandably, two important earlier books that placed Conner in a broader movement among West Coast artists: Rebecca Solnit’s Secret Exhibition: Six California Artists of the Cold War Era (1990) and Richard Cándida Smith’s Utopia and Dissent: Art, Poetry, and Politics in California (1995).

In Looking for Bruce Conner, the outlines of a story emerge by and by. Conner was born in Depression-era Kansas in 1933, which his high school friend McClure would recall not as the black-and-white Kansas that Dorothy escaped in a storm of imagination but rather as something like the Emerald City, which he claims was based on the Sunflower State’s Flint Hills — “but that was only for the few of us.” The place where McClure and Conner came to consciousness was “a place of tent revivals…. And it’s also the Kansas of bar fights…. It was a primitive place. Farmers with their red, sun-cracked necks were moving from being reapers to being people wearing sombreros and riding on power harvesters.” Conner agreed, recalling Wichita’s “fantasy and theater of miracles—I didn’t need Surrealism or European religious arts — Blackstone the Magician and Thurston the Magician would appear and make horses disappear on the stage.” Oz is the source of magic fake and true.

Conner repeatedly told his own story regarding the origins of his art, which took place in his Wichita bedroom when he was 11.

Sun was shining through the window. I was lying on the floor and I was looking out across the rug at the light on the floor. I went into a state of consciousness which I couldn’t describe afterwards. I changed. I changed physically, I changed conceptually, and it took hundreds of years. I changed and grew old, through all kinds of experiences, in worlds of totally different dimensions. And then I became aware of myself being in the room. Here I am, in a room, and I’m enormously old. How can I ever get up? I’m practically disintegrated. I’m an ancient person. My bones are falling apart. I can’t move. And then I slowly become aware of the rug. I look at my hands and they’re not old. I knew I was an old, ancient person, but I didn’t look that way. I didn’t understand what had happened and I wanted to talk to someone about it. I couldn’t. There weren’t words to describe the experience. The only thing I could think of saying was that it was like a dream. It wasn’t a dream, but very real. It wasn’t science fiction. There were so many things that were unknown secrets, that adult society knew, that they didn’t let children know about. I thought this was one of them.

Eventually he would realize that adult society didn’t know much about unknown secrets either. But in the meantime his search for them led him to scour the public library and his grandfather’s bookshelves, and to start experimenting with art. Later, in New York City, Conner would meet Lionel Ziprin, an adept in Jewish mysticism and interlocutor with the spirit world, who educated him in the Kabbalah and theosophy. According to his 2009 obituary in The New York Times, Ziprin “ran his apartment, on Seventh Street in the East Village, as a bohemian salon, attracting a loose collective that included the ethnomusicologist Harry Smith, the photographer Robert Frank and the jazz musician Thelonious Monk, who would drop by for meals between sets at the Five Spot.” Ziprin described himself as “anonymous all the time by choice,” an aspiration Conner shared.

Conner was a prize student at the University of Nebraska, from which he took a BFA in 1956; he then did postgraduate work at the art school of the Brooklyn Museum and the University of Colorado, where he met and married a fellow student, Jean Sandstedt. In 1957, the couple moved to San Francisco, where they quickly became part of the burgeoning art and literary scene, which Conner reimagined as a secret society called the Rat-Bastard Protective Association, formed of “people who were making things with the detritus of society, who were themselves ostracized or alienated.”

Not surprisingly, given the time and place, Conner’s search for hidden truths led him to experiment with hallucinogens. He took peyote for the first time in 1958, and it’s no coincidence that his later description of the experience echoes the account of his first vision at the age of 11: “I experienced myself as this very tenuously held together construction—the tendons and muscles and organs loosely hanging around inside—and it seemed like at any moment disaster could strike and you could fall apart. I mean, you were just held together by this thin skin and strings of flesh.” (This description could double as one of a Conner assemblage, debris held together by strands of torn nylon stockings.) In 1961 he relocated to Mexico, hoping to be able to live more cheaply and perhaps avoid the coming nuclear holocaust, but despite holding two exhibitions in Mexico City as well as one in Los Angeles, he left the country penniless. The next move was to Massachusetts, first to Timothy Leary’s commune in the Boston suburb of Newton Center, then to Brookline, where he happened to be living when the town’s favorite son, Jack Kennedy, was killed. But the East Coast didn’t take, and by 1965 he was back in San Francisco, where he would remain until his death, in 2008, from a liver disease from which he had long suffered.

* * *

Bruce Conner, A Movie (1958)

The turns and twists of Conner’s artmaking may at first seem easier to chart than those of his peripatetic life. Starting in the mid-1950s, his primary medium was assemblage, and he was a central figure in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1961 landmark exhibition “The Art of Assemblage.” Yet, saying he was “tired of gluing things down,” he abandoned the practice in 1964. Meanwhile, in 1958, he’d begun making films; for a while, in the mid-’60s, he poured most of his energy into film, but by the late ’60s, it was losing its importance, and after 1973 his involvement was mainly limited to tinkering with older works. For a while, he essentially had two parallel careers: the art world knew his assemblages but paid no mind to his films; the experimental film world honored him as a pioneer but was oblivious to his gallery work. Finally, he sidestepped both identities. Like most artists, he’d always drawn; from the mid-’70s on, this became his primary activity.

Following an introduction that evokes the tension Conner always felt between “private, unknowable, interior experience” and the “duplicitous world of shared symbols and false appearances,” Hatch’s study, accordingly, explores assemblage, film and drawing in turn, with a late look at collages and graphic work; oddly, he gives scant attention to the inkblot drawings to which the artist devoted his later years. He shows how Conner’s assemblages, with their grotesquery, their evocation of the cruel eroticism and violence of daily life, were rooted in Antonin Artaud’s theater of cruelty and its aspiration to give “the heart and the senses that kind of concrete bite which all true sensation requires.” Many of these works, pieced together from the detritus of daily life, look as though they have been tortured — assembled, torn apart, lashed back together again and ready for further torment. His 1959-60 sculpture Child was compared in the San Francisco Chronicle to “something a ghoul would steal from a graveyard.” The assemblages seem always unfinished and already ruined. It’s odd that Hatch doesn’t mention Kurt Schwitters, whose “cathedral of erotic misery” — as he sometimes called the Merzbau, the house in Hanover, Germany, whose interiors he had altered — would have made an appropriate setting for some of Conner’s constructions. Perhaps Hatch takes too literally Conner’s aversion to situating his work within the history of art. In any case, he suggests that with time, Conner’s assemblages became “more elaborate and polished” but by the same token began to court “outright emotional manipulation.” The San Francisco poet Kenneth Rexroth, for one, warned against a thirst for immediate effect.

Instead, Conner turned his attention to filmmaking, an art of “light and space and sound.” Eschewing narrative, his films are assemblages of sorts too, mostly pieced together from found materials, as his sculptures had been. They are about collisions between images and the gaps between them as well, where, again, “public images and private desires…collide without resolving.” They evoke the opacity of images, which — at least with reference to Conner’s late return to the medium with his final film, Easter Morning (2008), made with material recouped from a film he’d abandoned in 1966 — Hatch identifies with “the profound mystery of mortality.”

Drawing was Conner’s one lifelong pursuit. Here too, perhaps more surprisingly, Hatch finds his central theme being played out, “the struggle to reconcile the public address of art with the inescapably personal imperatives of art making.” And always, the pieces are about time. Hatch argues that even in one of Conner’s earliest extant works, Brunetto Latini (1956), it takes a significant amount of time for the eye to bring the image into focus, to distinguish figure from ground. This relates to the dichotomy between appearance and reality. The immensely convoluted patterns and concatenations of marks typical of Conner’s drawings are, as Hatch says, “an index of the incessantly protean and chaotic nature of human existence, and living proof of the falseness of appearances.” Those he made in the 1960s are dense, imageless abstract fields built around centralized, mandala-like forms, which the eye is recruited to re-create restlessly and ad infinitum (since, unlike a real mandala, there is no focal point by which the field can be organized). Conner likened it to making “five thousand drawings on the same page. Every time I made a mark the context changed.”

“Meaning is disclosed in the very course of searching for it,” Hatch rightly remarks, but it is also always effaced in the same process. The continual recontextualization of marks, of images, of objects means that their ultimate significance is never unveiled. The strength of Hatch’s inquiry, however, is not just in formal analyses of distinct mediums but rather in his sense that all of Conner’s work is “a pursuit of answers without resolution, a dilation on a single query, a journey continually nearing but never reaching the seat of meaning.” But does this ultimate inability to find the center of the maze mean that Conner finally lets us (and himself) down? Does it signify the failure of his art? I don’t think so. Conner’s was a practice of continuance and perseverance. It was never about solving or resolving a problem or a quandary, but rather about holding onto the thread of intuition by which the mind pulls itself forward. The paradox — as Conner’s felt-marker drawings quintessentially intimate — is that the mind produces the thread in the very process of following it. It’s not clear to what extent Conner came to believe that he’d attained the hidden truth, but his conviction of the falsity of what he’d been taught remained unfaltering. His life was a series of abandonments, whether of places, artistic practices or specific works, which were often lost or destroyed. He even abandoned artmaking altogether at times, though never for long. But the query, as Hatch calls it, was never abandoned, and Looking for Bruce Conner is best when reminding us of its singleness.

Barry Schwabsky's The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present is out now. 

Bruce Conner: It's All True will be on view at MoMA through October 2, 2016.

Filed under: art, film