His tiny inkblot drawings are there. So are the huge tapestries populated with biblical figures and utterly strange heads. And so are his punk-rock photos, typewriter drawings, and the 1961 assemblage titled HUNK DING DONG JUNK YING YANK that incorporates everything from torn nylons to egg cartons and looks like a Pharaonic object meant to survive into the afterlife.
Bruce Conner’s new exhibit at San Francisco’s Anglim Glibert Gallery coincides with a major retrospective at SFMOMA, “Bruce Conner: It’s All True,” that opens on Saturday, Oct. 29. Both shows celebrate an artist who, in a 50-year career, was a restless, obsessive, humorous, sardonic Renaissance man.
Conner was always trying new art forms. And always taking them in new directions, like the way he helped create the music video genre, starting with his still-phenomenal 1961 work, Cosmic Ray, which sets Ray Charles’ frenetic song “What’d I Say“ against scenes of a gyrating nude woman, fireworks explosions, U.S. Army maneuvers, depictions of Native Americans, and film errata. Mickey Mouse and a mushroom-cloud explosion also make appearances in this hypnotic peep show, revealing a world where sex, violence, and entertainment overlap in oddly concentric circles — something Conner once called “a battle between creative and destructive forces.”
Who was Bruce Conner? Before his death in 2008 at age 74, he was someone who didn’t get the kind of lavish attention he’s getting now at SFMOMA, because he insisted on vetting all his displayed artwork. It was a precondition most museum administrators refused to accept.
“It’s strange,” says Jean Conner, his widow and an artist in her own right, as she attended the opening of “Bruce Conner: Total Environment, Total Consciousness” at Anglim Gilbert. “He had turned down shows at SFMOMA. Now that he’s not around to turn it down, they had a chance to show it,” she says, laughing. “I wonder if it would have happened if he was around. It probably wouldn’t have. Because he would have had to control everything. And the museums just don’t work that way.”
“It’s All True,” which SFMOMA organized and which first opened in July at MoMA in New York, features Conner’s immense film output, along with more than 200 other works that stretch from the 1950s to just before Conner’s death. Among the highlights are Child, his 1959 almost-creepy assemblage of a figure in a chair that was Conner’s protest against capital punishment and the American justice system; and other late 1950s and early 1960s assemblages of nylon, bike wheels, mannequin parts, and ephemera that are so intricate and compelling that it’s easy to understand why art curators were comparing Conner to Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.
There’s also Conner’s series of “Angels” photograms from 1973-75, which are life-size, mummy-like outlines of light reflected against his own body, and Two Leaves, a poetic ink piece that’s Conner’s response to the Sept. 11 terror attacks. There is also Conner’s 2006 digital reworking of Cosmic Ray into Three Screen Ray, which sets the work on a triptych of screens. “It’s All True” is the first comprehensive overview of Conner’s career, and whether artgoers explore his work at SFMOMA or at Anglim Gilbert just a block away, they’ll see vivid examples of Conner’s wide breadth of interests.
In 1977, Conner began visiting the punk-rock performances at Mabuhay Gardens, the Broadway Street club where Devo, the Mutants, and other bands slashed around with their fans. For a punk-rock zine called Search and Destroy, Conner documented the singer Rozz Rezabek, of the group Negative Trend, careening in the air like an Olympic high-jumper, and singer Ricky Williams of the Sleepers falling off the small stage, face up, amid piles of popcorn. Conner’s punk-rock photos capture the frenzy and the fun that he tried to manifest in his own work. At Anglim Gilbert Gallery, Conner’s punk photos are situated in a room with a tapestry, At the Head of the Stairs, that features angels with a big, wrapped skull, and a figure whose head is a giant car filter. Or is that a roll of toilet paper? Based on a collage that Conner made in 1987, then digitized in 2003, At the Head of the Stairs was completed on a Jacquard loom in Belgium. It’s designed to be hung up or stood on — a black-and-white work of cotton and Conner’s imagination that he completed when his health was very much in question.
In 1984, Conner was diagnosed with sclerosing cholangitis, a bile duct disease that strains liver function and left him badly fatigued. He “retired” from art around the time of his big 1999 exhibit at Minnesota’s Walker Art Center, “2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II,” which the de Young Museum also showed. But, encouraged by Jean Conner, he still made art — partly under pseudonyms like “Anonymouse” and “Emily Feather,” which let him claim that other artists were doing the inkblot drawings which were still appearing in public. Conner began focusing on inkblots in 1975, and whether it’s the tiny framed ones or the larger pieces that offer row after row of unique designs, the inkblots required a meticulousness that Jean Conner witnessed first-hand — and was also kept away from. Some of the pieces at Anglim Gilbert Gallery and SFMOMA were essentially new to Jean.
“He did so much work — I never knew what was going on,” she says. “He would go off into a room and he would work, and I wouldn’t go in there. And I worked the same way. We were never in the same room when we were working.”
When Conner passed away, the Kansas native had lived with Jean in San Francisco for half a century. Looking around Anglim Gilbert — which has exhibited Conner’s work for years on opening night, when people were drinking wine and talking animatedly about HUNK DING DONG JUNK YING YANK and the other artworks, Jean Conner said that the environment brought her a delayed joy.
“For me, it’s sort of like a party that we didn’t have when he died,” she said. “At that time, I couldn’t even think about doing anything. Now, it’s great.”
“Bruce Conner: Total Environment,Total Consciousness”
Through Dec. 3 at Anglim Gilbert Gallery, 14 Geary St., S.F. Free; 415-433-2710 or anglimgilbertgallery.com
“Bruce Conner: It’s All True”
Oct. 29 – Jan. 22 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St., S.F. $19-$25;415-357-4000 or sfmoma.org