As recently as 2005, the critic Michael Duncan could refer to Bruce Conner as an artist “long known only to cognoscenti” who was just starting to become more widely recognized. As it turned out, Duncan was being optimistic. Five years earlier, Conner’s work had been presented to a broader public by his first large-scale exhibition, “2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II,” which opened at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and traveled to Fort Worth, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Yet though the exhibition gave Conner a bit more name recognition, he remains a mystery to the average gallery-goer. All the more surprising, then, to read an excellent new critical study of the artist and filmmaker, who lived for much of his life in San Francisco and was part of a thriving network of artists that included Wallace Berman, Joan Brown and Jay DeFeo (watch for her retrospective, coming up at SFMOMA this fall and then the Whitney Museum of American Art early next year), as well as poets such as Michael McClure (a high school friend from Wichita) and Philip Lamantia. Kevin Hatch’s Looking for Bruce Conner may not elevate Conner into the renowned company of East Coast contemporaries like Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol or Frank Stella, yet it offers something even better: a deeper understanding of the work.
I doubt Conner would have smiled back at broader acclaim anyway. The shadows were his elective habitat, and he suspected that true knowledge was shrouded in secrecy. So he tried to deflect attention from himself. “The personality of the artist is a limiting factor,” he held, and focusing on it amounts to a digression “from what I consider the main purpose of the work to be.” Sometimes he sought to absent himself in the ultimate degree: one of his first exhibitions, in 1959, was billed as being by “the late Bruce Conner,” and in 1973 he would have himself listed as deceased in Who Was Who in America. Pseudonymity was a less extreme recourse: although his dealer got cold feet and canceled the show, Conner had planned—without permission—to exhibit a body of work under the name of his friend Dennis Hopper. One of his most substantial interviews, published in 1980, was conducted by one “Mia Culpa.”
There’s a paradox in Conner’s position: pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, but don’t ignore the intention behind his art. Taking “Mia Culpa” as one’s interlocutor means playing two parts instead of engaging in a true dialogue. It’s not surprising, somehow, that a film critic, in a 1967 survey of the experimental scene, observed that Conner “prefers playing the harmonica to speaking about his work but is the best self-publicist, save for Andy Warhol.” In a sense, Conner was an Anti-Warhol. Both artists were fascinated by the effects of repetition as well as the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life. They were drawn to some of the same subjects, from the Kennedy assassination and what Hatch calls the “commodification of the Kennedy legend” (Conner’s film Report, 1963–67; Warhol’s “Jackie” paintings, begun in 1964) to Marilyn Monroe (among Conner’s most adventurous films was Marilyn Times Five, 1968–73; Warhol had responded almost immediately to the president’s killing by depicting his widow, and was prompted to initiate his “Marilyn” series right after the actress’s death in 1962). From 1975 on, Conner’s main effort went into an extraordinary series of drawings based on an ink-blotting technique that recalls Hermann Rorschach’s famed test, while Warhol made an important series of Rorschach paintings in the mid-1980s, a time when he was exploring motifs taken, like those he’d always used, from popular culture and daily life—but now, at the same time, abstract.
Like Warhol, who once said he wanted to be a machine, Conner was beguiled by the elusive nature of the self. And there was something machinelike about Conner’s intensely focused manner of working, often wrongly called “obsessive”: all those countless hours with any awareness of the outside world blocked out, which he spent cutting and splicing together bits of film almost frame by frame, or filling the white surface of a drawing with intricately labyrinthine meanders of black ink, never letting his marker lose contact with the paper until the ink ran out. But Conner’s understanding of the ineffability of the self was hardly identical to Warhol’s. One of them famously said, “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” Like the purloined letter, the reality of things, for Warhol, was always hiding in plain sight; for Conner, the truth seemed to be concealed behind a misleading façade, and the dense, complex surface of a work had to lead the viewer elsewhere. Whereas the Pop artist sauntered to the center of the art world, assembling around himself a “factory” of followers (which always sounds like a party), Conner, as Hatch says, sought shelter at the art world’s margins—although he was not too marginal to exhibit, as did Warhol, at the London gallery of Robert Fraser, “Groovy Bob,” where Pop art met pop music. Warhol became a courtier to the rich and famous, thereby becoming rich and famous himself; Conner liked to call himself one of the rat bastards, the outsiders.