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.

By the late '70s, Conner had publicly retired from the underground several times; run a spoof political campaign for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors; spliced together two dozen tiny films; created reams of black-and-white drawings; developed an ulcer; and made only small amounts of money.

To supplement his meager art income, Conner worked in a succession of dead-end jobs, such as movie theater usher, light show technician at the Avalon Ballroom, Hollywood film producer, film art teacher, and liquor store clerk.

Along the way, Conner accepted financial support from an array of government and corporate institutions, such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ford Foundation, even though he has loudly polemicized against government and corporate funding of the arts. When asked about this apparent contradiction, Conner explains that it is almost impossible for a working artist to avoid art world patronage.

If Conner has accepted gratuities from the art world, he has mostly made his own way. His grants add up to only a few tens of thousands of dollars during a 40-year period, and, he says, most of that money was spent on art materials. The museums showing "2000 BC," however, are funded by Fortune 500 companies and various levels of government. And in no small irony, Conner's show got a big chunk of money from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

In 1959, Conner was trying to cast a metal sculpture inspired by Caryl Chessman, a convicted robber-rapist who was about to be gassed by the state of California. But Conner's waxen mold of Chessman kept failing; the liquid bronze turned to shapeless slag. Finally, Conner decided that the wax model itself would become CHILD, a protest against the death penalty and social injustice.

He added bits of nylon and twine to the blackened wax homunculus -- about the size of a real child -- and strapped it into a high chair with a leather belt. When the sculpture was exhibited at the de Young, the art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle howled, "It's something a ghoul would steal from a graveyard."

A newspaper columnist named Herb Caen led a chorus of public derision, but the de Young's director refused to shut down the show, saying that, "CHILD is done with considerable skill. At the same time, it is not a pleasing subject."

What the opinion mavens for the family newspapers did not mention in their published critiques, however, is that CHILD sports a set of adult male genitalia, which Conner saw as symboliz- ing "Chessman as simultaneously a prisoner of his own uncontrollable impulses and of society's own need for order and control."

Which is not to say that Conner is, or was, in favor of sexual violence. As is typical of him, however, he took a highly controversial image and turned it into an archetype. Conner has always understood the value of controversy in propagating a mass message. According to the Chronicle, "Despite its repulsive-ness, CHILD has consistently been attracting more interest than anything else in the show."

Today, Conner says that CHILD transcended Chessman and became "an analogy to show that society creates repercussions on the child, if the child does not revoke and deny a child's point of view." In other words, a sculpture created in opposition to capital punishment evolved into a comment on the plight of all children confronted with adult sexuality, and adult values and pressures to conform to a social system.

The continuing saga of CHILD mirrors Conner's personal story: his struggle to come to terms with the adults who control society (and the sale of art).

In the late 1960s, a wealthy art collector purchased CHILD for $350 and gave it to the Museum of Modern Art because the New York museum refused to buy the sculpture outright, saying it was too emotional. Gradually, through manhandling and neglect, the fragile piece deteriorated.

In 1995, the Whitney Museum of American Art displayed the sculpture; when Conner saw the collapsed condition of CHILD, he asked for it to be withdrawn from the exhibition and restored by the Museum of Modern Art.

Two years later, curators at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center, which originated "2000 BC," were eager to borrow CHILD. Administrators at the Museum of Modern Art refused to let the curators see it. They had, it seems, consigned it to "inaccessible storage."

In the spring of 1998, Conner was finally allowed to visit CHILD, which had been partially restored. He was not, however, able to come to an agreement with the museum about how to continue fixing it.

Conner wrote to the museum's chief curator, Kirk Varnedoe, that "CHILDis in a destroyed state which I do not consider reparable without my input. I have revised the documentation to delete reference to the Museum of Modern Art and added the information "No longer extant.'"

Varnedoe later agreed with Conner to resume restoring CHILD; but Conner has not heard from the administrator for nearly a year, despite repeated letters and phone calls.

In response to an inquiry from SF Weekly, the Museum of Modern Art issued a statement (in which it repeatedly misspelled Conner's name as "Connor") acknowledging the "importance" and "value" of CHILD.

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