Rat Bastard: On Bruce Conner
The turns and twists of Conner’s artmaking may at first seem easier to chart than those of his peripatetic life. Starting in the mid-1950s, his primary medium was assemblage, and he was a central figure in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1961 landmark exhibition “The Art of Assemblage.” Yet, saying he was “tired of gluing things down,” he abandoned the practice in 1964. Meanwhile, in 1958, he’d begun making films; for a while, in the mid-’60s, he poured most of his energy into film, but by the late ’60s, it was losing its importance, and after 1973 his involvement was mainly limited to tinkering with older works. For a while, he essentially had two parallel careers: the art world knew his assemblages but paid no mind to his films; the experimental film world honored him as a pioneer but was oblivious to his gallery work. Finally, he sidestepped both identities. Like most artists, he’d always drawn; from the mid-’70s on, this became his primary activity.
Following an introduction that evokes the tension Conner always felt between “private, unknowable, interior experience” and the “duplicitous world of shared symbols and false appearances,” Hatch’s study, accordingly, explores assemblage, film and drawing in turn, with a late look at collages and graphic work; oddly, he gives scant attention to the inkblot drawings to which the artist devoted his later years. He shows how Conner’s assemblages, with their grotesquery, their evocation of the cruel eroticism and violence of daily life, were rooted in Antonin Artaud’s theater of cruelty and its aspiration to give “the heart and the senses that kind of concrete bite which all true sensation requires.” Many of these works, pieced together from the detritus of daily life, look as though they have been tortured—assembled, torn apart, lashed back together again and ready for further torment. His 1959-60 sculpture Child was compared in the San Francisco Chronicle to “something a ghoul would steal from a graveyard.” The assemblages seem always unfinished and already ruined. It’s odd that Hatch doesn’t mention Kurt Schwitters, whose “cathedral of erotic misery”—as he sometimes called the Merzbau, the house in Hanover, Germany, whose interiors he had altered—would have made an appropriate setting for some of Conner’s constructions. Perhaps Hatch takes too literally Conner’s aversion to situating his work within the history of art. In any case, he suggests that with time, Conner’s assemblages became “more elaborate and polished” but by the same token began to court “outright emotional manipulation.” The San Francisco poet Kenneth Rexroth, for one, warned against a thirst for immediate effect.
Instead, Conner turned his attention to filmmaking, an art of “light and space and sound.” Eschewing narrative, his films are assemblages of sorts too, mostly pieced together from found materials, as his sculptures had been. They are about collisions between images and the gaps between them as well, where, again, “public images and private desires…collide without resolving.” They evoke the opacity of images, which—at least with reference to Conner’s late return to the medium with his final film, Easter Morning (2008), made with material recouped from a film he’d abandoned in 1966—Hatch identifies with “the profound mystery of mortality.”
Drawing was Conner’s one lifelong pursuit. Here too, perhaps more surprisingly, Hatch finds his central theme being played out, “the struggle to reconcile the public address of art with the inescapably personal imperatives of art making.” And always, the pieces are about time. Hatch argues that even in one of Conner’s earliest extant works, Brunetto Latini (1956), it takes a significant amount of time for the eye to bring the image into focus, to distinguish figure from ground. This relates to the dichotomy between appearance and reality. The immensely convoluted patterns and concatenations of marks typical of Conner’s drawings are, as Hatch says, “an index of the incessantly protean and chaotic nature of human existence, and living proof of the falseness of appearances.” Those he made in the 1960s are dense, imageless abstract fields built around centralized, mandala-like forms, which the eye is recruited to re-create restlessly and ad infinitum (since, unlike a real mandala, there is no focal point by which the field can be organized). Conner likened it to making “five thousand drawings on the same page. Every time I made a mark the context changed.”
“Meaning is disclosed in the very course of searching for it,” Hatch rightly remarks, but it is also always effaced in the same process. The continual recontextualization of marks, of images, of objects means that their ultimate significance is never unveiled. The strength of Hatch’s inquiry, however, is not just in formal analyses of distinct mediums but rather in his sense that all of Conner’s work is “a pursuit of answers without resolution, a dilation on a single query, a journey continually nearing but never reaching the seat of meaning.” But does this ultimate inability to find the center of the maze mean that Conner finally lets us (and himself) down? Does it signify the failure of his art? I don’t think so. Conner’s was a practice of continuance and perseverance. It was never about solving or resolving a problem or a quandary, but rather about holding onto the thread of intuition by which the mind pulls itself forward. The paradox—as Conner’s felt-marker drawings quintessentially intimate—is that the mind produces the thread in the very process of following it. It’s not clear to what extent Conner came to believe that he’d attained the hidden truth, but his conviction of the falsity of what he’d been taught remained unfaltering. His life was a series of abandonments, whether of places, artistic practices or specific works, which were often lost or destroyed. He even abandoned artmaking altogether at times, though never for long. But the query, as Hatch calls it, was never abandoned, and Looking for Bruce Conner is best when reminding us of its singleness.
Barry Schwabsky asks, “Does a sculptor destroy things or merely change them?” as he surveys the work of Jimmie Durham in the August 21 issue.