Artjournalism

Bruce Conner, the greatest artist you don't know, uses our Peter Byrne for image-honing purposes. We use Conner to get you to pick up the paper.

Dennis Hopper, the movie star, tells me emphatically that Bruce Conner is one of the best artists in America, period. He says Conner's experimental films were a major influence on the editing of the '60s motorcycle movie classic, Easy Rider. He credits Conner with single-handedly inventing the music video genre. He raves about the garage full of Conner sculptures he owned before the IRS seized them one foul day.

Then Hopper trashes Pablo Picasso.

Picasso's most famous painting is, perhaps, Guernica, a modernist rendition of the destruction of a small Spanish city by Fascist bombs in 1937. Hopper faults Guernica as "aesthetically pleasing." How, he asks, can the horrors of war be truly depicted by such a gentle aesthetic?

In contrast to the Picasso painting, Hopper talks glowingly about Conner's anti-war sculpture BOX (1960), which is the figure of a charred child inside a burned box shrouded in nylon stockings. Hopper prefers Conner's vision of despair over Picasso's because Conner's is not cloaked in pleasing forms. BOX is actually quite horrible to look at -- fascinatingly so.

Talking about one of his repeated visits to Conner's recent one-man show at the de Young Museum, "2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II," Hopper mentioned his special fondness for BLACK DAHLIA, an "assemblage" inspired by a famously unsolved 1950s sex-murder case in Los Angeles. The repelling, yet oddly attractive, work is concocted from nylon stockings, a picture of a naked woman with a nail driven through her buttock, feathers, sequins, rubber hose, and string. Hopper calls it "a great sensual, sexual, macabre, questioning piece."

Then he trashes the art world.

For more than 40 years, Hopper says, Conner's eclectic body of work, which includes film, sculpture, painting, drawing, and collage, has drawn critical fire from a "snub-nosed elite based in New York City."

As a matter of career choice, Conner has perpetually inhabited the underground of the art world. He was a player in the beatnik scene, the hippie acid test, the punk rock explosion. Pick a rebel art movement in Cold War America, and Conner was there. And not as a dilettante, either. His art resides in the permanent collections of the world's great art museums, yet his name is barely known outside circles of art connoisseurs. "He is one of the most important artists in the world," says Peter Selz, a former chief curator for the Museum of Modern Art in New York who has been championing Conner's work since 1960.

The key to understanding why the talented Conner is not as rich or famous as contemporaries like Andy Warhol or Robert Rauschenberg lies in politics. Much of his multimedia work is a scathing critique of American society, and the nuclear terror that, in his view, pulses at the heart of the system.

"Conner's aesthetic is deadly," Hopper says. "It's really strong stuff."

Then he sighs, and adds, "Over time, it may lose its original meaning and become more acceptable, easier to digest."

Indeed, Conner's works of the last decade or so are much more introspective and subdued than the hellish objects that once adorned the beautifully repulsive things he made. Conner is doing his damndest, however, to make sure that his story -- the how and why of Bruce Conner -- survives conscious and unconscious sabotage by art world critics and curators. He does this by methodically cultivating his well-established art-world-renegade image, even as he accepts support from institutions he considers to be -- as a group -- the enemy of art. In short, Conner is wont to bite the hand that sometimes feeds but (he feels) always exploits him.

And so the hand has never fed him very well.


I hadn't heard of Bruce Conner until I saw a newspaper advertisement for "2000 BC" this summer. The ad featured BOMBHEAD (1989), a collage depicting an atomic bomb's mushroom cloud as the head of a military officer. Things atomic are something of a Conner fixation, but the exhibit is a sample of the incredible range of Conner's work, rather than a themed retrospective. ("I am not ready for my funeral yet," quoth the artist.) The traveling show -- which is on the way to an Oct. 8 opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles -- features 150 works, on loan from private collectors, museums, and Conner. They include sculptures assembled from trash and underwear; delicately inked drawings of galaxies and yin-yanging mandalas; space-time-bending collages made from 19th-century wood engravings; rows of tiny, quasi-human inkblots; and the mini-films that brought Conner fame, if not fortune.

Conner lives in a brown bungalow near Glen Park with his wife, Jean, an officer of the local garden club. Jean, who is an artist too, has strewn the front yard with moss and baby tears. The Conners, in fact, seem quite domesticated, hardly a threat to the social order. Conner, who is 67, spends his days making art and organizing his career. For the past 15 years, however, his time has been severely circumscribed; he suffers from a liver disease that could kill him at any moment. He does not, therefore, suffer fools gladly.

At our first interview, he is still peeved at questions posed the day before by a New York Times reporter. The writer, Conner surmises, is premising her story on the theory that his career has suffered because he is "difficult" to work with. Conner is angry because the reporter will not tell him who the accusers are.

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