|Birth name||Bruce Guldner Conner|
November 18, 1933|
|Died||July 7, 2008
|Field||Experimental film, assemblage, sculpture, painting, collage, photography, drawing, conceptual pranks|
|Training||Nebraska University, University of Colorado|
|Works||(always written in CAPITALS): A MOVIE (film), RAT BASTARD (assemblage)|
Born in McPherson, Kansas, Conner was raised in Wichita, Kansas, attended Wichita University (now Wichita State), and received his B.F.A in Art at Nebraska University in 1956. Conner then received a scholarship to the Brooklyn Museum Art School, where he studied for a semester. He then attended the University of Colorado on scholarship; also there was Jean Sandstedt, whom he had met at Nebraska and who would become his wife. On September 30, 1957, the two married and immediately flew to San Francisco. There, Conner quickly assimilated into the city's famous Beat community.
Early career (late 1950s / early 1960s)
Conner worked in a variety of mediums from an early age. His first solo gallery show in New York City took place in 1956 and featured paintings. His first solo shows in San Francisco, in 1958 and 1959, featured paintings, drawings, prints, collages, assemblages, and sculpture.
Conner first attracted widespread attention with his moody, nylon-shrouded assemblages, complex amalgams of found objects such as women's stockings, bicycle wheels, broken dolls, fur, fringe, costume jewelry, and candles, often combined with collaged or painted surfaces. Erotically charged and tinged with echoes of both the Surrealist tradition and of San Francisco's Victorian past, these works established Conner as a leading figure within the international assemblage "movement." Generally, these works do not have precise meanings, but some of them suggest what Conner saw as the discarded beauty of modern America, the deforming impact of society on the individual, violence against women, and consumerism. Social commentary and dissension remained a common theme among his later works.
Conner also began making short movies in the late 1950s. Conner’s first and possibly most famous film was entitled A MOVIE (1958). A MOVIE (Conner explicitly titles his movies in all capital letters) was a poverty film in that instead of shooting his own footage Conner used compilations of old newsreels and other old films. He skillfully re-edited that footage, set the visuals to a recording of Ottorino Respighi's Pines of Rome, and created an entertaining and thought-provoking 12 minute film, that while non-narrative has things to say about the experience of watching a movie and the human condition. A MOVIE subsequently (in 1994) was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. Conner subsequently made nearly two dozen mostly non-narrative experimental films.
In 1959, Conner founded what he called the "Rat Bastard Protective Association". Its members included Jay DeFeo, Michael McClure (with whom Conner attended school in Wichita), Manuel Neri, Joan Brown, Wally Hedrick, Wallace Berman, Jess Collins, and George Herms. Conner coined the name as a play on 'Scavengers Protective Society'.
A 1959 exhibition at the Spatsa Gallery in San Francisco involved an early exploration by Conner into the notion of artistic identity. To publicize the show, the gallery printed up and distributed an exhibition announcement in the form of a small printed card with black borders (in the manner of a death announcement) with the text "Works by the Late Bruce Conner."
A work of Conner's titled CHILD—a small human figure sculpted in black wax, mouth agape as if in pain and partially wrapped in nylon stockings, seated in—and partly tied by the stockings to—a small, old wooden child's high chair—literally made headlines when displayed at San Francisco's De Young Museum in December 1959 and January 1960. A meditation or perhaps comment on the then pending Caryl Chessman execution, the work horrified many. "It's Not Murder, It's Art," the San Francisco Chronicle headlined; its competitor the News-Call Bulletin headlined its article, "The Unliked 'Child'". Today, this powerful sculpture no longer exists. It was in the collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art, which kept it in storage for many years. An attempt to conserve its very fragile wax elements resulted in its disintegration.
A New York City exhibition of assemblages and collage in late 1960 garnered favorable attention in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Art News, and other national publications. Later that year Conner had the first exhibition at the Batman Gallery, in San Francisco; Conner had the entire gallery painted black to show his work, and the show received very favorable reviews locally. Another exhibition in New York in 1961 again received positive notices.
In 1961, Conner completed his second film, COSMIC RAY, a 4 minute, 43 second black-and-white quick edit collage of found footage and film that Conner had shot himself, set to a soundtrack of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say." The movie premiered in 1962; most suggest the film concerns sex and war.
Mid-career (early 1960s to circa 2000)
Conner and his wife moved to Mexico circa 1962, despite the increasing popularity of his work. The two —along with their just born son— returned to USA and were living in Massachusetts in 1963, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Conner filmed the television coverage of the event and edited and re-edited the footage with stock footage into another meditation on violence which he titled REPORT. The film was issued several times as it was re-edited.
In 1964, Conner had a show at the Batman Gallery in San Francisco that lasted just three days, with Conner never leaving the gallery. The show was announced only via a small notice in the want ads of the Los Angeles Times. Part of the exhibition is documented in Conner's film VIVIAN.
Also in 1964, Conner decided he would no longer make assemblages, even though it was precisely such work that had brought him the most attention.
According to Conner's friend and fellow film-maker Stan Brakhage in his book Film at Wit's End, Conner was signed into a New York gallery contract in the early 1960s, which stipulated stylistic and personal restraint beyond Conner's freewheeling nature. It is unlikely that Conner would ever sign such a restrictive document. Many send-ups of artistic authorship followed, including a five page piece Conner had published in a major art publication in which Conner's making of a peanut butter, banana, bacon, lettuce, and Swiss cheese sandwich was reported step-by-step in great detail, with numerous photographs, as though it were a work of art. Just before Conner moved to Mexico in 1961, he repainted a worn sign on a road surface so that it read "LOVE."
Conner produced work in a variety of forms from the 1960s forward. He was an active force in the San Francisco counterculture of the mid-1960s as a collaborator in light shows at the legendary Family Dog at the Avalon Ballroom. He also made—using the new-at-the-the-time felt-tip pens—intricate black-and-white mandala-like drawings, many of which he subsequently (in the very early 1970s) lithographed into prints. One of Conner's drawings was used (in boldly colored variations) on the cover of the August, 1967 issue (#9) of the San Francisco Oracle. He also made collages made from 19th-century engraving images, which he first exhibited as THE DENNIS HOPPER ONE MAN SHOW.
He also completed a number of short films in the mid-1960s, in addition to REPORT and VIVIAN. these include TEN SECOND FILM (1965), an advertisement for the New York Film Festival which the Festival rejected as being "too fast," BREAKAWAY (1966), featuring music sung by and danced to by Toni Basil), THE WHITE ROSE (1967), documenting the removal of fellow artist Jay DeFeo's magnum opus from her San Francisco apartment, with Miles Davis' "Sketches of Spain" as the soundtrack), and LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS (1967), a three-minute color wild ride with music by the Beatles.
During the 1970s Conner focused on drawing and photography, including many photos of the late 1970s West Coast punk rock scene. A 1978 film used Devo's "Mongoloid" as a soundtrack. Conner in the 1970s also created along with photographer Edmund Shea a series of life-size photograms called ANGELS. Conner would pose in front of large pieces of photo paper, which after being exposed to light and then developed produced images of Conner's body in white against a dark background. Conner also began to draw elaborately-folded inkblots.
In the 1980s and 1990s Conner continued to work on collages, including ones using religious imagery, and inkblot drawings that have been shown in numerous exhibitions, including the 1997 Whitney Biennial. Throughout Conner's entire body of work, the recurrence of religious imagery and symbology continues to underscore the essentially visionary nature of his work.
In 1999, to accompany a traveling exhibition, a major monograph of his work was published by the Walker Art Center, titled 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story, Part II. The exhibition, which featured specially built in-gallery screening rooms for Conner's films as well as selected assemblages, felt-tip pen and inkblot drawings, engraving collages, photograms, and conceptual pieces, was seen at the Walker, the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, the de Young in San Francisco, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
Late career (circa 2000 to 2008)
Conner announced his retirement at the time of the "2000 BC" exhibition, but in fact continued to make art until shortly before his death. However, much of this work, including in particular the many inkblot drawings he made, including a series responding to 9/11, were presented using pseudonyms or the name "Anonymous." Conner also made collages from old engravings, and completed (depending on how they are counted) three or four experimental films. He also used computer-based graphics programs to translate older engraving collages into large-sized woven tapestries, and made paper-based prints in that way as well. Various other artistic projects were completed as well, including in the year of his death a large assemblage titled KING. Conner also in late 2007 directed and approved an outdoor installation of a large painting, resulting in what one observer suggested is a final work-in-progress.
His innovative technique of skillfully montaged shots from pre-existing borrowed or found footage can be seen in his first film A MOVIE (1958). His subsequent films are most often fast-paced collages of found footage or of footage shot by Conner; however, he made numerous films, including most notably CROSSROADS, his 30 plus minute meditation on the atom bomb, that are almost achingly deliberate in their pace. Conner was among the first to use pop music for film sound tracks. His films have inspired generations of filmmakers, and are now considered to be the precursors of the music video genre. When told of his impact on music videos and his status as "the Father of MTV,", Conner would reply, "Not my fault."
Conner's works are often metamedia in nature, offering commentary and critque on the media — especially television and its advertisements — and its effect on American culture and society. His film REPORT (1967) which features repetitive, found footage of the Kennedy assassination paired with a soundtrack of radio broadcasts of the event and consumerist and other imagery — including perhaps most notably the film's final image of a close-up of a "SELL" button — may be the Conner film with the most visceral impact. REPORT "perfectly captures Conner's anger over the commercialization of Kennedy's death" while also examining the media's mythic construction of JFK and Jackie — a hunger for images that "guaranteed that they would be transformed into idols, myths, Gods."
Conner's collaborations with musicians include Devo (MONGOLOID), Terry Riley (LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS (long version) and EASTER MORNING), Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley (CROSSROADS), Brian Eno and David Byrne (AMERICA IS WAITING, MEA CULPA) and three more films with Gleeson (TAKE THE 5:10 TO DREAMLAND, TELEVISION ASSASSINATION, and LUKE). His film of dancer and choreographer Toni Basil, BREAKAWAY (1966), featured a song recorded by Basil.
Prints and tapestries
Conner also continued to work on editioned prints and tapestries during the last 10 years of his life. These works often used digital technology to revisit earlier imagery and themes; for example, his Jacquard tapestry editions, created in collaboration with Donald Farnsworth of Magnolia Editions in Oakland, CA, were translated from digitally manipulated scans of small-scale paper collages, made in the 1990s from engraving illustrations from Bible stories.
Conner, who had twice announced his own death as a conceptual art event or prank, died on 7 July 2008, and is survived by his wife, American artist Jean Sandstedt Conner, and his son, Robert.
- A MOVIE (1958)
- COSMIC RAY (1961)
- VIVIAN (1964)
- TEN SECOND FILM (1965)
- EASTER MORNING RAGA (1966)
- BREAKAWAY (1966)
- REPORT (1963–1967)
- THE WHITE ROSE (1967)
- LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS (1967)
- PERMIAN STRATA (1969)
- MARILYN TIMES FIVE (1968–1973)
- CROSSROADS (1976)
- VALSE TRISTE (1978)
- TAKE THE 5:10 TO DREAMLAND (1977)
- MONGOLOID (1978)
- MEA CULPA (1981)
- AMERICA IS WAITING (1982)
- TELEVISION ASSASSINATION (1995)
- LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS (long version, 1996)
- LUKE (2004)
- EVE-RAY-FOREVER (three screen installation) (2006)
- THREE SCREEN RAY (three screen installation) (2006)
- HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW (2006)
- EASTER MORNING (2008)
- 2010: Les Rencontres d'Arles festival, France;
2008 Life on Mars, the 2008 Carnegie International 
- Sophie Dannenmüller: "Bruce Conner et les Rats de l'Art", Les Cahiers du Musée national d'art moderne, Editions du Centre Pompidou, Paris, n° 107, avril 2009, p. 52-75. (text in French)
- 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II. Exh. cat. edited by Joan Rothfuss. Contributions by Kathy Halbreich, Bruce Jenkins, Peter Boswell. Walker Art Center, Minneapolis 1999.
- Solnit, Rebecca. Heretical Constellations: Notes on California, 1946–61, in Sussman [ed.]. Beat Culture and the New America. pp. 69–122, especially 71.
- Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Interview with Bruce Conner, Conducted by Paul Karlstrom in San Francisco, California, August 12, 1974:
"Bruce Conner: I sent announcements to eight or nine people, ten people probably, telling them that they were all members of the Rat Bastard Protective Association. I was president. They should pay their dues. The next meeting was scheduled at my house. Then it was scheduled after that for every couple of weeks at Fred Martin's, or Joan Brown's, or Wally's house, or wherever."
- Michael Ducan, Art in America, "The Self and Its Symbols", May 2000,
...from 1959 to 1966...the Manuel Neri, Joan Brown, Jay DeFeo, Wally Hedrick, Wallace Berman, Jess, George Herms, and Bruce Conner... group was jokingly dubbed by Bruce Conner the Rat Bastard Protective Association."
- James Boaden, Ruin of the Nineteenth Century: The Assemblage Work of Bruce Conner, 1957 – 1962 
- The title also puns on the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood; its initials the RBPA mirroring the PRB thus mocking the branding of a style and the cowering into clans of so many artists. Its members included Jay de Feo, Michael McClure, Manuel Neri and Joan Brown. See Rebecca Solnit, ‘Heretical Constellations: Notes on California, 1946–61’, in Sussman, ed., Beat Culture and the New America, 69–122, especially 71.
- Photo of Conner's CHILD
- Photo of San Francisco Oracle, issue # 9 (August 1967)
- SF Weekly profile of Conner by Peter Byrne: Dennis Hopper on Bruce Conner, retrieved July 12, 2008
- "The 21st Century BC," at the glade of theoric ornithic hermetica
- San Francisco Examiner review of Conner exhibition, October 1, 2009
- Garrett Caples, "SINCERELY, BRUCE CONNER: A Final Work-in-Progress?" at Poetry Foundation Harriet Blog, June 29, 2011
- Jenkins, Bruce. "Bruce Conner's REPORT: Contesting Camelot. Masterpiece of Modernist Cinema. Ed. Ted Perry. Indiana University Press, 2006.
- The Brooklyn Rail - Art
- Bruce Conner tapestries
- Bruce Conner's artist profile at Gallery Paule Anglim
- San Francisco Chronicle obituary retrieved July 8, 2008
- New York Times obituary 7/9/08
- The Guardian (of London) obituary
- "An Appraisal: An Artist of the Cutting-Room Floor", by Manohla Dargis, New York Times July 12, 2008; retrieved July 12, 2008.
- "Appreciation: Humor was Bruce Conner's Art", by Kenneth Baker, San Francisco Chronicle July 11, 2008
- Letter from Bruce Conner in The Brooklyn Rail (September, 2005)
- Watch Bruce Conner's film, "MEA CULPA" with music by Brian Eno and David Byrne, from "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts".
- Bruce Conner at IMDB
- Selected works by Bruce Conner in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
- Bruce Conner is represented by Gallery Paule Anglim in San Francisco, CA
- On Bruce Conner (may he rest in peace); Memorial by Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore, 2008
- Works by or about Bruce Conner in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- "21st Century BC" (an accounting of Conner's art work during the final approximately ten years of his life
- Inventory of Photographs from the Bruce Conner Papers (graphic), ca. 1958-1995, The Bancroft Library