Overview

One of the most ingenious and innovative artists of the last century, Bruce Conner was a shape- shifter, refusing to be constrained to a “signature” style or single artistic persona. After receiving early critical and commercial recognition, he became increasingly disenchanted with the art world and its power to dictate the terms of artistic production and success. Over the course of six decades, he would experiment with radical inventiveness in the realms of filmmaking, photography, collage, drawing, printmaking, performance and conceptual projects, seeking in each new method the mystery in the process and the surprise of discovery, while continuously upending expectations, derailing public acclaim, and elusively evading definition or classification.

 

Born in 1933 in McPherson, Kansas, Conner was an iconoclast and prankster. The non-conformist ethos of San Francisco was a natural magnet, and he moved there with his new wife, the artist Jean Conner, immediately after their wedding in 1957. His sculptural assemblages incorporating nylon stockings and found objects soon attracted attention and notoriety locally, in New York, and internationally. The materials were in part born of necessity—free and ubiquitous. He and his fellow artists scavenged the detritus left in the wake of the redevelopment of San Francisco’s Western Addition, reincarnating the vestiges into artworks that questioned the values of mid-century America. 

 

During that time in San Francisco, Conner also broadened his range of material exploration, making graphic works, film and conceptual pieces, and engaging in performance. Though drawing had always been a part of his practice, in the 1960s Conner developed technical and stylistic vocabularies which he used to create meticulously crafted works on paper that foreshadowed work he would make for the rest of his life. He gained recognition as a pioneer of experimental filmmaking, inventing a quick-cut style of editing achieved by splicing together found footage from a wide variety of sources with film he had shot. He also began experimenting in paper collage, primarily utilizing images from 19th century engravings—an inexpensive but culturally loaded source. It’s noteworthy that his films and collages—both  based on the strategy of creating new meaning though unorthodox juxtapositions—were conceptually and aesthetically related to his first successes in assemblage.  

 

But that early career recognition troubled Conner deeply – he quickly understood how it could lead to formulaic approaches and a deadening of creativity through a desire to appease galleries, critics, curators and collectors. Hence his decision in 1964 to stop making assemblage sculptures. In a 1965 letter to a friend he wrote, “I have a feeling of death from the ‘recognition’ I have been receiving… Ford Grant, shows, reviews, interviews, prizes… I feel like I am being cataloged and filed away and I have a refusal to [sic] produce something by which I will be ‘recognized.’”

 

Two important photographic bodies of work emerged in the 1970s. The ANGELS series, produced in collaboration with Edmund Shea, are a group of black and white photograms made through the exposure of Conner’s body and outstretched hands onto life-size photographic paper. In 1977 Conner saw Devo perform at a local club, Mabuhay Gardens, and was invited by the punk zine Search and Destroy to document the emerging punk rock scene. Conner embraced the project, likening it to “combat photography.” The resulting photographs are vivid documents of the violence, self-destruction and rebellion of that era. In the 1990s Conner revisited the excesses of this period in a group of photocopy collages memorializing punks from his Mabuhay days who had later died from drug overdoses.

 

In 1975 he began his first sustained experiments with inkblots, involving repetitions of mirrored forms made from delicate, intricate lines. The technique was a perfect complement to Conner’s quest for continual reinvention and his rejection of fixed definitions—seemingly born of accident and surprise, without prejudice or intent, and fully open to the viewer’s imagination and interpretation. Conner said of the method, “The goal is to create objects that continually renew themselves, to always change, to have the potential for the process of change.”

 

In 1984 Conner was diagnosed with a severe congenital liver disorder that left him chronically fatigued. In the years following his diagnosis he primarily produced works on paper—mainly engraving collages and inkblot drawings. He officially announced his retirement from the art world in 1999 at the culturally prescribed age of 65. But almost immediately, Conner-like inkblot drawings began appearing under the signatures of Emily Feather, Anonymous and Anonymouse. Explaining that he had trained and paid these artists to make and exhibit artwork, Conner commended their decision to remain anonymous as it validated his goal of disrupting norms of artistic authorship and identity. Believing that a signature had become paramount to the artwork itself, at various times during his life Conner declined to sign his artworks or, instead of a traditional signature, signed them with his thumbprint or a drop of his own blood. 

 

The refusal to be constrained by art world success allowed Conner the freedom to continually explore a range of unconventional methods and projects, making him one of the most influential artists of post-war America. His brilliance was recently and most completely explored in the retrospective exhibition and major catalogue of his work, It’s All True, organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which premiered at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2016 and traveled to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid.

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