Magazine article Artforum International

A Life in Two Parts: Bruce Jenkins on Bruce Conner (1933-2008)

Magazine article Artforum International

A Life in Two Parts: Bruce Jenkins on Bruce Conner (1933-2008)

Article excerpt

BRUCE CONNER'S DEATH this past summer was not his first. Back in 1972, in an attempt to stanch annual solicitations for inclusion in Who's Who in America, he wrote to inform the publisher of his death, only to find himself an entry in Who Was Who in America the following year. A more conceptual loss, of his artistic persona, took place in February 1973, when a long-planned exhibition titled "The Complete Dennis Hopper One Man Show" finally opened at the James Willis Gallery in San Francisco. Originally proposed in the mid-1960s at a time when Conner had completed two dozen or so Ernst-like collages utilizing fragments of nineteenth-century engravings, the show was named so as to cede authorship of the work to the actor Dennis Hopper, a friend of the artist's. conner's Los Angeles dealer at the time, Nicholas Wilder, was concerned about Hopper's nonparticipation in the project and refused to mount the exhibition, and the material, which Conner later made into new etchings, was not seen in its entirety until the San Francisco show nearly a decade later.

These are but two episodes in what curator Joan Rothfuss has called Conner's career as an "escape artist." A year or so before the Hopper exhibition was conceived, Conner had approached his New York dealer, Charles Alan, with a plan for a two-person show that would pair him with Marcel Duchamp, one of the key influences on West Coast artists of his generation. As Conner later described the project to gallerist Michael Kohn, "Duchamp would exhibit objects in the gallery that he personally did not create ... [and] I would paint the sculpture stands and walls of the gallery where the works would be displayed." Conner wanted Duchamp to sign the appropriated work, while his own efforts in repainting the gallery its original color would go unsigned. Alan declined.

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These conceptual acts, routinely rejected by gallerists, were part of a larger enterprise that sprang from a firm desire to opt out of the marketplace and the burgeoning museumization of contemporary art. They equally reflected Conner's omnivorous cultural appetite and capacity to work across media. For he was, if not exactly a Renaissance man, nonetheless an artist who was as deeply engaged by music (soul and blues as well as classical and the experimentations of John Cage and Terry Riley) as by literature, politics, and the visual arts. He could ply his craft in total solitude, drawing for hours on end without lifting the point of his felt-tip pen from the sheet of paper until it was entirely out of ink, or work with six other artists in the frenetic control booth at San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom to produce real-time moving-image and light-show accompaniments for rock and jazz concerts. Over the course of his career, Conner would create work in almost every form of the fine arts (painting and drawing, sculpture and assemblage, collage and prints) as well as several of the camera arts, from film installations and multiscreen projections to life-size photograms.

Film seemed to offer the artist a particularly resonant arena in which to combine his visual talents and his engagement with music. Conner drew inspiration from a lifelong affection for American genre films as well as his quasi-Dadaist reading of the "coming attraction" movie trailer as a legitimate mode in its own right. The films he made in the late '50s and '60s vividly combined appropriated imagery with his own footage and sound tracks borrowed from Ray Charles, Toni Basil, the Beatles, and Miles Davis, among others. They were embraced in such diverse quarters as Madison Avenue, which valued the highly condensed form he had devised, and the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, which recognized in Conner a rather singular mix of formal innovation and political engagement. And although Conner threatened a paternity suit, his films were frequently credited with spawning the music video format. His mastery of editing sound and image was matched by the exuberance of his cinematography and the lyricism of his densely layered imagery. …

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