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.

"We are genuinely pained that the process [of restoring it] has not been more successful, but we have not abandoned hope that, with Mr. Connor's [sic] ongoing cooperation, it may yet be fully restored."

Conner believes the museum is patiently waiting for the situation to resolve itself through his death. In the meantime, he says, he considers CHILD to be in lockup, similar to what Chessman experienced on death row, before he was executed.


During his long career, Conner has had several run-ins with art dealers and museum bureaucrats. He sued a local art dealer for nonpayment and, as a result, he believes, was blacklisted from showing in San Francisco for 10 years. Another time, Conner demanded that the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art pay him a percentage of the gate for showing his films. He was not amused when the museum director replied, "I didn't think you were in this for the money."

These business dealings may have earned him a reputation in art world circles as "difficult." Conner, naturally, does not consider himself to be difficult; he simply wants respect.

"I am a small businessman," says the artist. "I conceive and create my product, and personally make it entirely by hand. I present it, and market it, and make my living doing this."

Conner makes an uneven living from selling his art. Today the resale of a sculpture can bring up to $100,000, maybe more; prints run from $150 to $20,000. But Conner does not own much of his work anymore. (He is entitled to 5 percent of resale profits.) Ultimately, the price of an artwork depends upon how much the art world values the artist. Conner aficionados say that his work would be worth more if he had not refused to "mass produce" aesthetically pleasing objects, as many pop artists do.

"The museums and dealers want to be in control of the artist, not vice versa," says Conner's agent, Paula Z. Kirkeby.

While Conner praises the particular art dealers and curators who collaborate with him, he has unkind words for art administrators in general. He says, "They treat the artists as idiot savants who cannot understand what they are doing."

Conner, though no idiot, might be a savant. He is perfectly capable of analyzing his own work.

"A long time ago," he says, "I started thinking about social structures. They always have a center and a perimeter. This relationship is continuously repeated.

"Children in all cultures go through similar stages in creating an image or a symbol. The first thing they do is smear. They make an indefinite, but big, smear. If they have a tool, like a stick, or a pencil, they make a lot of marks. Then they decide to control it. They make a dot. This is the first sign of organization. Then they move the dot and make a line.

"But they can't get away from the dot. It's the essence, the center, repeated over and over again.

"I study fundamentally repetitive structures that happen over time. I am interested in how messages are conveyed by people; how they are organized; how they screen through the chaos."

Conner is -- for Conner -- the dot at the center of the beautiful, terrible world he ceaselessly organizes.

On the day of our last visit he told me a final story.

"I went back to the de Young yesterday. The sign for "2000 BC' is still up at the end of the hallway. One of those temporary walls with a paragraph about me being a shadowy figure is still there; but all the artwork is gone, and where it was nailed to the gray walls there are little white patches. Everywhere is dust and debris.

"And there is an empty frame on a floor stand. A vertical bar and a rectangular frame which used to hold a sign that said, "No cameras allowed in this area.' The sign is gone, and the frame is empty. It's like the whole show is still there, but it's the empty frame. It's like another exhibition.

"I told Jean maybe I would come back and spend a morning there in that room and if somebody came in I could tell them stories. There is all that space, and it's all lit up, and it's all the empty frame and the empty hall and the empty space ... all that's left is the story."


Although he has not made a lot of money, Bruce Conner has made a great success of his career as an outsider. Since 1960, he has had nearly 100 solo exhibits. His works have appeared in dozens of group shows in museums and galleries around the world (SFMOMA owns 20 Conner works). And in "2000 BC," for the first time selections of his work in multiple mediums were gathered into a single space, where the perceived realities of the Conner mind were open to public view.

Conner is transfixed by archetypes -- the patterns and models underlying things -- and obsessed with the nature of structure itself, the rules of symmetry and repetition, the possibility of tapping secret codes, the connectedness of everything.

"At age 16, Bruce had the most highly developed sense of beauty I have ever seen," Michael McClure remembers. "His teenage work was sought after by his friends. Later he made CHILD. It was intensely, socially conscious; it was critical awareness fused with terrible beauty."

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