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.

Conner has been wrestling with the press for many years, and is more than practiced at giving an interview. His interview technique is to answer direct questions indirectly, with anecdotes, stories, metaphors. It makes sense: Conner is using reporters -- as he uses art -- to mirror himself.

"I'd like to create a perceived reality of Bruce Conner," he smiles.

Certain facts are, more or less, well-established.

Conner grew up in Wichita, Kan. As a teenager, he hung out with Michael McClure, a poet and playwright who later joined the orbit of the beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Conner went to art school in Nebraska and met Jean Sandstedt, also an art student, on a blind date. They married in 1957. At McClure's urging, they moved to San Francisco trying to escape the "horrible 1950s environment where anybody who was not mainstream was considered a communist, insane, queer." Jean and Bruce melded with the iconoclastic artists whom history has labeled the beatniks. Conner became known for assembling sculptures -- "My jewels," he grins -- from pieces of junk he found at construction sites.

In 1958, Conner assembled a 12-minute apocalyptic action movie -- A MOVIE -- from bits and pieces of stock footage. (Conner is very specific about requiring the names of his artworks to be spelled in all capital letters.) The film, a montage of disaster scenes from old newsreels and movies, evokes, at first, laughter, which quickly turns to despair, leavened, at the end, by the barest flicker of hope that man will somehow survive the technology of the atom bomb. A MOVIE was widely heralded as the work of a genius when it was released, guaranteeing Conner a permanent niche in the pantheon of experimental filmmakers.

Bruce Jenkins, director of the Harvard Film Archive, who curated the film exhibits in "2000 BC," writes, "What the Cubists wreaked on painting ... Conner inflicted on cinema itself." Many of the 27 short films Conner crafted became instant classics because he constantly broke new ground, both as a social critic and as an artist. Above all, his films engross viewers because they are, in a sense, beautiful paintings that move.

In his movies, Conner captures the vital signs of the last half of the previous century: atomic bomb explosions (CROSSROADS, 1976), the murder of President John F. Kennedy (REPORT, 1963-67), women's liberation (BREAKAWAY, 1966), psychedelic drugs (LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS, 1961-67), the punk rock critique of corporate banality (MONGOLOID, 1977).

Combining a flair for self-promotion with a streak of nihilism, Conner habitually messed with the minds of his fans and collectors. When he became famous for his sculptures, he set them on fire, and then stopped making them entirely. Sometimes, though, his public expressions of disdain for the art world seemed more like performance art than a serious desire to commit career suicide.

When he became well known as a filmmaker, for instance, Conner says, "I deliberately set out to destroy my reputation." At the first showing of LEADER, he brags, the audience noisily recoiled against being held captive to 30 minutes of blank leader tape accompanied by an endlessly repeated line from a television sitcom about ... being held prisoner.

Conner's reputation as a bad boy was, of course, not destroyed, but enhanced.

Conner used peyote, tripping alone in Golden Gate Park long before Charles Manson bum-rapped the Summer of Love. During one trip, Conner suddenly recalled a vision from his youth.

"I was 11. It was late afternoon and the sun was shining on the rug and I was doing my homework when things started changing. I went into this strange world and began evolving into countless different creatures and people, until finally I was very tired and very old. It seemed to last an eternity, and when it stopped I could hardly remember how I'd been when I started out. I felt so old I thought I'd crack and break if I moved."

Conner considers this one-with-the-universe experience as the guiding vision of his life. An equally pervasive influence on Conner, however, seems to be the absolute terror with which he regards the possibility of nuclear war.

In 1962, the Conners moved to Mexico -- the land of the magic mushroom -- where Jean gave birth to a son, Robert. Conner says he moved there to escape the death by nuclear fire that he just knew was coming his way. Unfortunately, he did not speak Spanish. He could not find a job. He learned, to his horror, that Mexican culture celebrates death.

When a Mexican art critic insulted his sculptures as "a dalliance with garbage and filth," Conner had had enough of the brave new world of Mexico City. He came north, crossing into Texas -- just in time for the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Eventually, the Conners returned to San Francisco, where, at least, they would be vaporized among friends. When free love, pot, and acid took center stage in the mid-1960s, Conner was in the thick of it, churning out psychedelic drawings that became museum pieces. When punk rock became the rage in the 1970s, Conner frequented San Francisco's Mabuhay Gardens club, drank heavily, and art-photographed the rockers for Search & Destroy magazine. (Earlier this year, some of these photographs were exhibited at the Curt Marcus Gallery in New York City as "Dead Punks and Ashes.")

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