Bruce Conner: It Wasn't All True

The present work comes from Natasha Nicholson, an artist who was close to Bruce Conner from 1967 to 1972, a productive period of transition (among many) for Conner, one where he was creating some of his now most notable collages, films and drawings. 

Nicholson first met Conner when she was twenty-two, in an evening class Conner was teaching at the Art Institute of San Francisco. The class was titled "For Women Only" and in the first session, Conner went over to the door, locked it and told the students: “we’re staying here all night. If anyone is uncomfortable, you can leave now.” Nervously, a few women left, but Nicholson stayed. She looks back now, saying Conner was one of the most brilliant teachers she has encountered: “mentally demanding” and able to “get you to go somewhere you had no intention of going...powerfully but quietly...into an unfamiliar realm.” 

Nicholson and Conner circa 1968

They spent the next five years together, collaborating, learning from the other’s artistic practice and navigating the nascent, somewhat ungainly west coast art scene.  This time was particularly difficult for Conner, as he struggled to move away from the assemblages that had gained him recognition, avoid the label of “film-maker” and maintain gallery support as he withdrew from the art world. “Everything broke the rule from the last time,” Nicholson says of Conner’s work, and he was always concerned with “yes and no, black and white, positive and negative—all of the contrasts that could be between something.” 

Stills from the film Vivian, 1965 (L, R) Portrait of Bruce Conner, 1968 (center)

Conner’s enigmatic, passionate and imperious approach to art making is evident in this collection, which includes a rare, early abstract painting, dense, metaphysical "all-over" prints and drawings, letters and ephemera, small collages and assemblages and a stunning 16mm reel of nine of his pioneering films, compiled by Conner himself.

In recent years Conner’s massive and varied body of work has come to be seen as one of the most important of the twentieth century, simultaneously embodying and shirking the mainstream and counter-cultural fluxes of the era. Conner approaches the tragedies and ecstasies of the century with a roving, sympathetic eye, an iconoclastic smirk, and above all, an unwavering commitment to artistic integrity in the face of “art as commodity.” 

Nicholson characterizes Conner and their relationship as complicated, noting that “he had an enormous capacity for caring about people,” but could also be his own (and others’) “worst enemy.” She has held this collection for nearly forty years and as retrospectives of Conner’s work have recently appeared at major institutions, she claims that “it wasn’t all true,” but he was a “remarkable artist and a remarkable person” made of many disparate parts, often obscured, that “would change constantly.”

still from Cosmic Ray, 1962

This work is from a significant collection that offers a rare glimpse into the interior life of an artist of astonishing output and curiosity, who has often been referred to as a “cosmological artist,” concerned with the anxieties of existing as an individual, obligated to being consigned to the world. “I think that happens with certain people that are so, to use a word from one of his movies, ‘cosmic ray,” says Nicholson, "they hold this universe inside of them…they are a sole source of power and fury.”

"I haven't called very many people brilliant in my life, but he truly was. Everything he did, he could do any medium, anything and the passion that he brought to it was amazing."

Natasha Nicholson on Bruce Conner

We confront this total unknown entity in the world...I like to re-create that moment, the moment when you are confronted with something that is a surprise. It is a delight, a mystery, maybe an unsolvable mystery. Unsolvable mysteries are much more attractive to me.

Bruce Conner

I like the works ... to be seen as phenomena. It’s one of the reasons you don’t see a signature … I don’t want the signature to predispose you as to an attitude about what this is. And that if it looks like it came out because of a chemical reaction, whether it’s a mineral event or whatever, or whether it’s by somebody who you’ve never heard of before, I want that piece to be seen on that same level.

Bruce Conner

Bruce Conner at Tamarind
Lithography Workshop

In 1965, Bruce Conner received a two-month fellowship at the prestigious Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles, which was founded by June Wayne in 1960. At a time when printmaking was held in low regard, she raised the profile of the medium by inviting contemporary artists to the workshop including Sam Francis, Louise Nevelson, Josef and Anni Albers, Ed Ruscha and Bruce Conner. 

Much as the Ford Foundation grant Conner received that same year for film-making caused him anxiety and roused a rambunctious streak in him, his time at Tamarind was spent subverting sacrosanct practices of printmaking. Cal Goodman, the acting director at Tamarind while Wayne was away in Europe, even discharged Conner from the residency after Conner tried to edition a cancelled print. When Wayne returned, she was delighted by Conner's antics and allowed him back in—his affection for her is captured in his print This Space Reserved for June Wayne.

Conner created fourteen prints during his time at Tamarind, each in an edition of twenty, and refused to sign them, opting instead to mark them with a thumbprint (normally a much-dreaded result of pulling prints with ink-covered fingers). This act points to his perpetual struggle with notions of authorship, his identity as an individual and an artist, and adhering to anything nearing convention. One print in particular he made, a photo-lithograph replica of his birth certificate, drew ire from Wayne, as she had built her whole career around raising the reputation of printmaking beyond simply a means of reproduction.

These prints represent an important transitional era in Conner's life as a person and an artist—in 1967 he proclaimed he was “retiring” from the art world and soon after the Tamarind fellowship, he shifted his focus to his dense, obsessive “all-over” and mandala drawings and prints along with his films. The errant attitude with which Conner approached mediums, styles and propriety throughout his long career is encapsulated in these works from his time at Tamarind.

Conner's fingerprint signature and the Tamarind Lithography Workshop stamp

Bruce Conner

Bruce Conner was born in McPherson, Kansas in 1933 and died (by his own account) several times, after spending fifty years creating one of the most idiosyncratic and interesting bodies of work of the latter half of the twentieth century. Never content to work in one medium or mode, Conner explored moments of chaos and order, grief and ecstasy, our private and collective experiences, through assemblage, photography, film, collage, drawing and conceptual vagaries.

Conner once called Kansas “a place to be from,” and, like many young creative people of his generation, he was eventually drawn to the west coast. He studied literature and art at several schools, including Kansas Art Institute, Wichita University, University of Nebraska and briefly, Brooklyn Museum School. He later admitted his perpetual enrollment was largely to avoid the horror of being drafted. Painting was the first medium he explored seriously, citing Modigliani, Paul Klee and the ethos of Dada as early influences. Though he was painting at the height of abstract expressionism, and in an abstract mode, he found very little kinship with the style, its disciples and New York, calling the city “a rat maze, going from one little box to another little box … to get from one safe haven to another.”

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