Looking for Bruce Conner
by Kevin Hatch
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012
418 pp. illus. 53 col, 53 b/w. Trade, $29.95
Reviewed by Allan Graubard
New York, NY 10019 USA
It may perhaps be true that Bruce Conner’s contributions to the art of the last half of the twentieth century, and up to his death in 2008, are now secure. Still, as the first book that examines his oeuvres over the full course of his life, surely it will help in keeping him present for us – as he should be. For not only are Bruce Conner’s works unique. They evidence an artist who eluded categorization, recreating himself several times, and whose verve inspires. You can find it in his assemblages, drawings, films, paintings, and conceptual works. You can also find it in his history, including the humoresque of his run for San Francisco Supervisor in 1967 with his cute baby photo on his election poster. Perhaps the 5000 plus citizens who voted for him knew something we don’t?
A Wichita, Kansas native, Conner emerges elsewhere in that “City by the Bay” during an intimate period of counter-cultural renaissance as the 50s turn to the 60s. His circle is diverse and prominent: poets Michael McClure and Philip Lamantia, artists Jay DeFeo and George Herms, filmmaker Stan Brakhage, to name a few.
Known initially for his assemblages, built up precisely from found materials --stockings, feathers, cardboard, bicycle wheels, wax, a distressed couch, what have you (prompted by his fascination with San Francisco junk dealers) -- their effect is savage and magnetic. After a time, ill content to keep running in place, he side steps the critical attention he has gained by turning to film, when the underground movement is first finding its feet.
His influence, again, is immediate. Commonly but not always using found footage, his first, discretely titled “A Movie,” reveals an amateur with the eye of a master, and a cutting technique to match. Subversive visual rhythms pitched to near hysteria infuse “Breakaway,” shot, as we are told, “in one long exhausting session” sans found footage. The ever- poignant “Report” captivates the Kennedy assassination. “Marilyn Times Five” portrays erotic obsession, his and ours. There is the terrible beauty of “Crossroads,” an orchestration of a U.S. Navy sub-surface hydrogen bomb explosion, which fascinates each time I view it. Should I mention his collaboration with David Byrne and Brian Eno, “America Is Waiting,” an idiosyncratic forerunner of music videos, and there are more.
With Conner, however, “more” is not simply quantitative but entails variety and space; a sufficient space in which to live on a page or canvas, for one. Throughout his years he composes inkblot and intricately detailed drawings, exhaustive efforts, the best of which have a rare and disturbing delicacy. Later he embraces collage, which evolve from a surrealist axis to a more personal and probing composite that refines external influence.
Kevin Hatch, who authored the study, concludes it by commenting on Conner’s search for originality, his refusal to dance to the critical measure of his time, what that meant, and how he did it.
Independence, intimacy, and revelation are values that Conner lived by and that infuse his works, ever vibrant, funny, erotic, caustic, and elegant. If this study facilitates our engagement with them and their creator, then they will abide within and between us just that much more, a measure of our rapport with the world we face and the world we desire; a borderland that we cannot entirely possess.