BREAKAWAY (1966), a five- minute short by the artist Bruce Conner, consists of two distinct halves. In the first, a winsome brunette billed as Antonia Christina Basilotta – later reincarnated as 1980s pop star Toni Basil – frugs for the camera in various states of undress along to her recorded performance of the eponymous mid-1960s pop tune. Her hectic motion is made all the more antic and exhilarant by a buffeting of quick-cut edits, black-frame punctuations and in-camera effects, such as crash zooms and variant frame rates. In the second half, everything that we’ve just seen is repeated, but backwards, as the song plays in a distorted ‘rewind’ version. (Rock musicians were, contemporaneously, fiddling around along the same lines – see ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ from The Beatles’ 1966 album Revolver, which would soundtrack one version of Conner’s LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS in 1967.)
The structure of BREAKAWAY, which at once anticipates the music video and surpasses in formal daring the vast majority of video work made at that time, suggests a disgorging splurge followed by a slurping-up again – an act of recycling of the sort that was central to much of Conner’s early ‘scavenger’ work. (His found-object sculptures, many of them wrapped in women’s nylons, can even suggest the appearance of mouldy vacuum cleaner bags.) For those of us mostly familiar with Conner as an experimental filmmaker, a more complete perspective on the manifold strange movements that comprise his purposefully aimless career is on offer in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, ‘It’s All True’, and an accompanying monograph, both organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in Conner’s adopted hometown.
The retrospective’s all-embracing title speaks to the diverse output that such a show must attempt to compress into something like a coherent whole, for the restless, impossible-to-pin-down Conner worked in an impressive array of media. He was a collage artist and an innovative filmmaker whose materials were both found-footage and images of his own devising, a proto-performance artist whose ‘happenings’ included a 1967 campaign for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and a plan to play shadow author to ‘The Dennis Hopper One-Man Show’. He was a beatnik, a hippie and a punk rocker, as well as the producer of reams of squirming felt-tip pen mandalas, resembling the writhing sulci of a vast brain, which could only be the product of an obsessive personality.
Conner delighted in subterfuge and strove to remain an anonymous, ego-less figure – ‘I feel like it is an imposition for people to insist on saying that I am Bruce Conner,’ he wrote to his boyhood friend, the Beat poet Michael McClure, in 1965 – but a few biographical notes are perhaps due. He was a Kansan, like Hopper, raised in Wichita, and from an early age aspired to the life of an artist. He studied at present-day Wichita State, where McClure remembers him trying to steal Albert Pinkham Ryder’s 1884 painting Moonlight on the Sea from the Wichita Art Museum. He then continued to Nebraska University and finally the University of Colorado, where one of his instructors, the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, encouraged Conner to expand his practice to movies.
Conner followed this advice shortly after arriving in San Francisco and the result, A MOVIE (1958), is the first thing greeting visitors on entering ‘It’s All True’, projected as a looped 16mm film. Beginning with the title card ‘THE END’, Conner’s ass-backwards assemblage rolls out a parade of sensational images parodying the inducements of popular cinema. These range from high plains shoot-outs, through cheesecake cuties and daredevil feats to catastrophies both natural and man-made, among them an image Conner would return to time and again: the voluptuous horror of the mushroom cloud. Right out of the gate as a filmmaker, Conner had produced a work that revivified moribund Eisensteinian montage and invented the modern found-footage collage film, which he and the likes of Arthur Lipsett would go on to refine and define. If he’d never produced anything more, he would have assured his place in the annals of experimental film with A MOVIE. But he did a lot more.
Conner’s earliest works – scorched-earth oil on Masonite paintings – are marked by rugged formations of topographical impasto. Soon enough, Conner moved into sculpture proper, using detritus picked up on the streets of San Francisco to fashion his first pendant rag-and-bone shop assemblages. These were made under the auspices of the Rat Bastard Protective Association (RBP), a pseudo-serious artists’ group formed with friends from the city.
It can’t be overstated just how insolently dingy these sagging, dragging objects look, some 60 years on, in an immaculate white-box setting. Like toxic swag bags left over from a big, blow-out Armageddon party, these are grimy magpie collections, whose titles (The Temptation of Saint Barney Google, 1959, The Black Dahlia, 1960, Son of the Sheik, 1963) encourage the viewer to parse their jumbled contents for allusions to the eponymous pop-culture subjects. Their rusty, dun colouration is only occasionally enlivened by the dull glitter of paillettes or costume jewellery. And, yet, these are downright quaint next to the body of work that Conner referred to as his ‘Little Museum of Horrors’ – the ‘Black Wax Sculptures’ he turned out between 1959 and 1963. This collection of broken, sepulchral forms includes a mummified toddler strapped into a high chair rigged for capital punishment (Child, 1959), a triple-amputee Christ (Crucifixion, 1960) – a charred lump that was once a head – and a piece of shoulder resting on a soiled divan (Couch, 1963).
The unmistakable bleakness of these works is attributed to Conner’s sense of impending apocalypse during the Cold War. He was compelled by fear of nuclear holocaust to high-tail it to Mexico in the autumn of 1961: the first of a number of retreats from the art world, with which he had a deeply conflicted relationship that would mark his career. These were invariably followed by triumphant returns: he came back from Mexico with a small, uncommonly festive collection of assemblages inspired by indigenous folk art, as well as footage that would become the lush, stuttering travelogue LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS, which takes you on a hurtling tour of the countryside, drunk on colour and texture.
The most intriguing of Conner’s periodic hibernations from producing gallery work occurred shortly after Basil took him to the Mabuhay Gardens club in San Francisco to see the band Devo. Conner, then in his mid-40s, spent the next year hanging around Bay Area punk shows and taking photos from the pit for publication in V. Vale’s magazine Search & Destroy. The encounter with Devo was particularly a hand-in-glove match of aesthetics. Conner produced a short collage film that twitches along to the marching beat of the band’s first single, ‘Mongoloid’, made up of industrial and educational films as well an unsettling early-1960s commercial in which a businessman fantasizes about being entombed in a suitcase and whisked away from his life to Palm Springs.
Conner’s cut-and-paste collages from 19th-century engravings, which he made throughout his life, retrospectively seem like the proto-punk model for a million flyers and zines, but no movement or moment can definitively claim him. Artist Kevin Beasley, contributing to the monograph, offers an astute definition of Conner’s consistently inconsistent approach as ‘a methodology of slippages that not only embraces “against-the-grain” tactics but survives off them’. Reviewing the Conner corpus as laid out by MoMA, there’s a sense of being in the presence of an ingenious escape artist, nimbly picking the locks and slipping from one self-generated persona to another. Catch him if you can.
‘Bruce Conner: It’s All True’ is at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, until 2 October 2016.
First published in Issue 181