Bruce Conner: It’s All True is the first monographic museum exhibition in New York of the artist Bruce Conner, the first large survey of his work in 16 years, and the first comprehensive retrospective. The exhibition brings together over 250 objects in mediums including film and video, painting, assemblage, drawing, prints, photography, photograms, and performance.
Bruce Conner: It’s All True presents a lifetime of work by Conner (1933–2008), one of the foremost American artists of the 20th century, whose transformative work defies straightforward categorization. An early practitioner of found-object assemblage and a pioneer of found-footage film, Conner was a singular member of both the underground film community and the flourishing San Francisco art world, achieving international standing early in his career. His work across a broad range of mediums touches pointedly on various themes of postwar American society, from the excesses of a burgeoning consumer culture to the dread of nuclear apocalypse. Conner’s diverse practice also anticipated the fluidity between mediums that is a hallmark of 21st-century art making. In addition to moving images and assemblages, he produced paintings, drawings, sculptures, prints, photographs, installations, and conceptual interventions.
Organized both chronologically and thematically, the exhibition emphasizes Conner’s polymathic abilities by integrating works across mediums. In a midcentury cultural landscape marked by extremes of devastation and abundance, Conner emerged as a figure shrewdly adept at repurposing and recombining the detritus of a media-dominated culture. The exhibition begins with Conner’s first film, A MOVIE, a major cornerstone of American experimental cinema and a blueprint for what would become a signature strategy for Conner—creating new forms by reordering the shards and fragments of the 20th century. Defining a dynamic mode of filmmaking through the montage of found footage set to music through precise, rapid-fire editing, A MOVIE has had an enduring influence on generations of artists who have produced new films and videos by appropriating, manipulating, and remixing the remnants of mass-media culture. Conner’s film includes over 180 shots assembled from fragments of B movies, newsreels, and industrial films, partly found at a local photo store, and partly sourced from Castle Films, a distributor of films for domestic use. Conner chose to use a litany of images of war, speed, catastrophe, and sexual exploitation, creating a dark vision of American life in the Atomic Age that would become a recurrent theme in his work.
The exhibition continues with Conner’s early paintings and assemblages from the 1950s and early 1960s. Born in Wichita, Kansas, Conner studied art in Wichita, and subsequently Omaha, Nebraska. When he moved to San Francisco in 1957, he arrived as a painter, though his affinity for three dimensions was already apparent in the thickly painted, scratched, and sometimes gouged surfaces of these works. Conner had experimented with found objects in his two-dimensional work from as early as 1954, and some of his first mature paintings had material such as wire and cardboard embedded in them, making them hybrids of painting and collage. Conner’s first assemblage, RATBASTARD, was completed in 1958, the same year that he created the jokingly titled Rat Bastard Protective Association, a social group of like-minded artist and poet friends with a shared interest in the detritus of everyday life. Over the next six years, Conner developed a range of assemblage formats including reliefs, along with hanging and freestanding sculptures. Using discarded furniture and building materials found in San Francisco neighborhoods undergoing urban renewal, Conner’s assemblages incorporated elements like clothing, toys, costume jewelry, feathers, photos, newspaper clippings, cigarette butts, nails, tacks, and razor blades. With few exceptions these works were wrapped, festooned, or stuffed with torn and laddered ladies’ nylon stockings. This web-like textile, which became his signature material, gave his assemblages an ancient, spooky aspect.
The following gallery features his film BREAKAWAY, in which dance, music, and cinema powerfully combine as the hypnotic and frenzied movements of actress, singer, choreographer, and underground icon Antonia Christina Basilotta (Toni Basil) streak through, and pierce the inky blackness of cinematic space. In an update of early filmic studies of dance and motion, Conner’s camera seems to dance along with Basil, zooming in and out and perfectly capturing—even mimicking—Basil’s movements in a kind of cinematic duet fueled by pop music.
Concerned about the Cold War, and short of money, in late 1961 Conner and his wife Jean moved to Mexico City. There he produced a body of assemblages and drawings distinctly different from his earlier work, incorporating fewer consumer objects and more pictures cut from magazines, along with trinkets that could be bought cheaply, including beads and religious amulets. The ink-on-paper drawings Conner produced during his Mexican sojourn reflect the artist’s experimentation with psilocybin mushrooms, as well as his friendship with Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary. The mushroom form appears frequently in these works, and in some it is equated with the mushroom-shaped cloud of a nuclear explosion. At the end of 1962, Conner and his wife returned to the U.S., and in 1964 they returned to San Francisco, where Conner lived for the rest of his life.
The following gallery presents the film LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS. Departing from the use of stock footage in earlier films like A MOVIE, LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS consists of footage shot directly by Conner while living in Mexico, and some earlier shots of Bruce and Jean Conner in San Francisco. Building on the rapid rhythms of A MOVIE and BREAKWAY, and introducing multiple-exposure sequences, it is a psychedelic, meditative travelogue of mostly rural Mexico, featuring sumptuously colored images of the natural world, local villages, and religious iconography. Most of the footage was shot while the Conners roamed the hillsides seeking psilocybin mushrooms, sometimes joined by Timothy Leary, who appears briefly in the film. In 1967 Conner added a soundtrack, “Tomorrow Never Knows” by The Beatles, and in 1996 he edited a longer version of the film by repeating individual frames up to five times, which he set to music by experimental composer Terry Riley. Both versions will be presented in the exhibition.
Themes of violent death—by execution, murder, or nuclear annihilation—are common in Conner’s early work and reflect the artist’s engagement with contemporary issues of social justice, such as the nuclear arms race, the war in Vietnam, and capital punishment. These concerns were never more in evidence than in his so-called BLACK WAX SCULPTURES, produced from 1959 through 1963. Described by the artist as “a series of works that represent protest, horror, disgust, anger, revulsion,” these combinations of wax and found objects were created concurrently with Conner’s assemblages, but were conceived as separate from them.
Conner produced drawings throughout his career, creating several unique bodies of work, each of which grew out of a specific technique that the artist created and then continued to refine over a lifetime. While living in Massachusetts in late 1962, Conner embarked upon a group of abstract drawings whose dense but delicate crosshatchings and minute patterns of lines encircling shapes covered the surface of the paper from edge to edge. These motifs were composed around simple geometric shapes like circles. Recognizing the hypnotic effect produced by staring at minute, high-contrast patterns in the shape of centralized images, Conner titled many of these works “Mandalas,” after emblems used in meditation practice. During this first, fertile period, Conner produced his largest number of drawings with this mesmerizing black-and-white motif, but he would continue to make them periodically for another quarter century. Conner also made offset lithographs based on his ink-and-felt-tip drawings, and the motif was also used to adorn magazine and book covers, posters, endpapers, cards, and other multiples.
The following gallery displays REPORT, one of Conner’s most laborious filmic efforts, on which he worked, in various versions, for almost five years. It contains footage from the famous Zapruder film of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, along with numerous newscasts, records, and other evidence from the event. Conner intercuts these elements with commercials, so that the film gradually takes on the format of a continuous television broadcast. The meticulous editing consistently heightens anticipation and emotional tension while deferring closure, questioning, amplifying, and exploiting the role media imagery played in documenting the event and the process of national mourning.
The series of 29 large-scale photograms that Conner called ANGELS were created in collaboration with the San Francisco photographer Edmund Shea (1942-2004) and develop Conner’s fascination with darkness and illumination. A photogram is created using a camera-less photographic technique in which objects are placed against photo-sensitive paper and exposed to light, producing a light negative imprint against a dark background. Conner himself posed for these ghostly works, though his body and features have been dematerialized into luminous, spectral forms that convey the mystical and spiritual overtones that would continue to permeate his work.
In 1974 Conner began a series of densely monochromatic pen-and-ink drawings. In some works velvety black ink covers the entire sheet; in others, the otherwise black surface is dappled by miniscule points of white—reminiscent of stars peeking through a night sky. Just as Conner’s Mandala drawings were created using a loose system of lines clustered around central geometric forms, his STAR and INK drawings are made by filling in around increasingly smaller areas that remain un-inked. Dated by the month and year of their creation, they can be seen as celestial portraits of specific moments in time.
Conner’s film CROSSROADS epitomizes his horrified fascination with the nuclear bomb, as well as with the capacity of art and cinema to create a powerful record of death and destruction on an unimaginable scale. To make the film, Conner sourced footage of Operation Crossroads, a nuclear bomb test the American government carried out in 1946 at Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific. Hundreds of planes and ships were mobilized by the U.S. Military to record the explosion from multiple angles, and Conner went to great lengths to acquire a selection of the extensive footage, undertaking a sustained letter-writing campaign to the government to request the declassified material. The result is a disturbingly majestic meditation on one of the 20th century’s most unsettling, iconic images.
In 1977, after the singer Toni Basil invited Conner to see a performance by the band DEVO at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco, Conner became a regular at the important Bay Area punk venue. Invited in the same year to contribute to V. Vale’s celebrated punk zine Search & Destroy (1977–79), he embarked on a yearlong photographic project to document bands and audience members at the club. In the 1990s, Conner revisited his Mabuhay photographs, producing from them a series of collages that are both nostalgic for, and critical of, the wildness and violence of the punk generation. Departing from the combination of music and imagery in his films, these photographs draw their power in part from their silent witnessing of a gritty subculture at its boisterous peak.
THREE SCREEN RAY (2006) is the third in Conner’s series of works structured around Ray Charles’s hit “What'd I Say” (1959). It followed the film COSMIC RAY (1961) and the multipleprojector film installation EVE-RAY-FOREVER (1965/2006). Conner often reused film material to create radically different works, and in THREE SCREEN RAY, footage from COSMIC RAY is remixed and expanded to create a racy, lurid, immersive rock ’n’ roll environment. After expressing skepticism about the quality of video as compared to film, Conner realized late in his career that advances in digital video technology could allow him to create moving-image environments that were more difficult to achieve using film. In THREE SCREEN RAY the three video channels create dynamic juxtapositions between elements including countdown leader, footage of tribal dancing, military imagery, television commercials, and Mickey Mouse, allowing Conner’s trademark themes of vice and violence to reach fever pitch.
Conner started to experiment with a technique incorporating inkblots in 1975, continuing it until the end of his life; during his final years, it became his primary technique for working on paper. Conner kept his process to himself, but his results show an increasing mastery in manipulating even the smallest blots of ink and in composing these tiny shapes into ever more complex compositions. In 1999, Conner announced his retirement from the art world. The same year, suspiciously Conner-like inkblot drawings began appearing under the names Emily Feather, Anonymous, and Anonymouse. Claiming that he had trained and paid three artists to create and exhibit inkblot drawings, Conner lauded these anonymous artists' decision to create art under pseudonyms, as it resonated with his career-long interest in playing with issues of artistic authorship and identity. In addition to inkblots, Conner also returned to the medium of small-scale collages created with cutouts from late-19th- and early-20th-century engravings.
Working again with old footage, in 2008 Conner completed EASTER MORNING, an elegiac, mournful work, and the last film he completed before his death at the age of 75. This hypnotic meditation on rebirth and renewal, an expanded version of his 1966 Super 8 film EASTER MORNING RAGA, is propelled by Terry Riley’s iconic Minimalist composition In C (1964). When Conner was 11 years old, he experienced a sudden, unexplained visionary experience that ignited a lifelong interest in religious, meditative, even psychotropic explorations. “It seems to me,” Conner would later observe, “that within religious contexts there are certain ways of talking about experience that don’t exist otherwise.” EASTER MORNING is meditative—at times even frankly religious—and manifests the spirituality that appears throughout his oeuvre, from his earliest Christian-themed paintings to his trance-inducing works on paper. But EASTER MORNING also returns to another recurring theme of Conner’s: a yearning for escape.
The exhibition is organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and co-curated by Stuart Comer, Chief Curator, Department of Media and Performance Art, MoMA; Laura Hoptman, Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture, MoMA; Rudolf Frieling, Curator of Media Arts, SFMOMA; Gary Garrels, The Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture, SFMOMA; with Rachel Federman, former Assistant Curator, Painting and Sculpture, SFMOMA. Curatorial assistance for the presentation at MoMA was provided by Giampaolo Bianconi, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Media and Performance Art, MoMA and Akili Tommasino, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, MoMA. Following MoMA, the exhibition will be on view at SFMOMA (October 29, 2016–January 22, 2017) and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid (February 21–May 22, 2017).
Special thanks to Jean Conner, Robert Conway, Michelle Silva, and the Conner Family Trust for their cooperation and support with the exhibition.