Rat Bastard: On Bruce Conner
Hatch’s book is not a biography, which is understandable given Conner’s longing to be one of the invisible. Still, it could have offered a clearer chronology of the artist’s life, perhaps in an appendix, and especially for the ’50s and ’60s, when Conner seems to have been almost constantly on the move and restlessly revising his working methods. No such chronology is to be found in the “2000 BC” catalog or, more understandably, two important earlier books that placed Conner in a broader movement among West Coast artists: Rebecca Solnit’s Secret Exhibition: Six California Artists of the Cold War Era (1990) and Richard Cándida Smith’s Utopia and Dissent: Art, Poetry, and Politics in California (1995).
In Looking for Bruce Conner, the outlines of a story emerge by and by. Conner was born in Depression-era Kansas in 1933, which his high school friend McClure would recall not as the black-and-white Kansas that Dorothy escaped in a storm of imagination but rather as something like the Emerald City, which he claims was based on the Sunflower State’s Flint Hills—“but that was only for the few of us.” The place where McClure and Conner came to consciousness was “a place of tent revivals…. And it’s also the Kansas of bar fights…. It was a primitive place. Farmers with their red, sun-cracked necks were moving from being reapers to being people wearing sombreros and riding on power harvesters.” Conner agreed, recalling Wichita’s “fantasy and theater of miracles—I didn’t need Surrealism or European religious arts—Blackstone the Magician and Thurston the Magician would appear and make horses disappear on the stage.” Oz is the source of magic fake and true.
Conner repeatedly told his own story regarding the origins of his art, which took place in his Wichita bedroom when he was 11.
Sun was shining through the window. I was lying on the floor and I was looking out across the rug at the light on the floor. I went into a state of consciousness which I couldn’t describe afterwards. I changed. I changed physically, I changed conceptually, and it took hundreds of years. I changed and grew old, through all kinds of experiences, in worlds of totally different dimensions. And then I became aware of myself being in the room. Here I am, in a room, and I’m enormously old. How can I ever get up? I’m practically disintegrated. I’m an ancient person. My bones are falling apart. I can’t move. And then I slowly become aware of the rug. I look at my hands and they’re not old. I knew I was an old, ancient person, but I didn’t look that way. I didn’t understand what had happened and I wanted to talk to someone about it. I couldn’t. There weren’t words to describe the experience. The only thing I could think of saying was that it was like a dream. It wasn’t a dream, but very real. It wasn’t science fiction. There were so many things that were unknown secrets, that adult society knew, that they didn’t let children know about. I thought this was one of them.
Eventually he would realize that adult society didn’t know much about unknown secrets either. But in the meantime his search for them led him to scour the public library and his grandfather’s bookshelves, and to start experimenting with art. Later, in New York City, Conner would meet Lionel Ziprin, an adept in Jewish mysticism and interlocutor with the spirit world, who educated him in the Kabbalah and theosophy. According to his 2009 obituary in The New York Times, Ziprin “ran his apartment, on Seventh Street in the East Village, as a bohemian salon, attracting a loose collective that included the ethnomusicologist Harry Smith, the photographer Robert Frank and the jazz musician Thelonious Monk, who would drop by for meals between sets at the Five Spot.” Ziprin described himself as “anonymous all the time by choice,” an aspiration Conner shared.
Conner was a prize student at the University of Nebraska, from which he took a BFA in 1956; he then did postgraduate work at the art school of the Brooklyn Museum and the University of Colorado, where he met and married a fellow student, Jean Sandstedt. In 1957, the couple moved to San Francisco, where they quickly became part of the burgeoning art and literary scene, which Conner reimagined as a secret society called the Rat-Bastard Protective Association, formed of “people who were making things with the detritus of society, who were themselves ostracized or alienated.”
Not surprisingly, given the time and place, Conner’s search for hidden truths led him to experiment with hallucinogens. He took peyote for the first time in 1958, and it’s no coincidence that his later description of the experience echoes the account of his first vision at the age of 11: “I experienced myself as this very tenuously held together construction—the tendons and muscles and organs loosely hanging around inside—and it seemed like at any moment disaster could strike and you could fall apart. I mean, you were just held together by this thin skin and strings of flesh.” (This description could double as one of a Conner assemblage, debris held together by strands of torn nylon stockings.) In 1961 he relocated to Mexico, hoping to be able to live more cheaply and perhaps avoid the coming nuclear holocaust, but despite holding two exhibitions in Mexico City as well as one in Los Angeles, he left the country penniless. The next move was to Massachusetts, first to Timothy Leary’s commune in the Boston suburb of Newton Center, then to Brookline, where he happened to be living when the town’s favorite son, Jack Kennedy, was killed. But the East Coast didn’t take, and by 1965 he was back in San Francisco, where he would remain until his death, in 2008, from a liver disease from which he had long suffered.
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