Bruce Conner  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Bruce Conner (November 18 1933 - July 7 2008) was an American artist renowned for his work in film, drawing, assemblage, painting, collage, and photography, among other disciplines. He worked mainly at the West Coast and is best-known for his 1978 video clip for "Mongoloid", a musical composition by the American punk band Devo.


Early life

Born in McPherson, Kansas, Conner was raised in Wichita, attended Wichita University (now Wichita State), and received his B.F.A in Art at Nebraska University in 1956. Conner then received a scholarship to the Brooklyn Museum Art School, where he studied for a semester. He then attended the University of Colorado on scholarship; also there was Jean Stanstedt, who he had met at Nebraska and who would become his wife. On September 30, 1957, the two married and immediately flew to San Francisco. There, Conner quickly assimilated into the city's famous Beat community. Gathering scraps from abandoned buildings, women’s undergarments (including nylon stockings), pieces of old dolls and Victoriana, he created gauzy assemblages which garnered his first art-world attention. These assemblages represented what Conner saw as the discarded beauty of modern America. They deal will issues like Hiroshima, violence against women, and consumerism. Social commentary and dissension remained a common theme among his later works.


Conner’s first, and possibly most famous, film entitled, A Movie (1958) combined his thrift store hunting process and his use of still photography. It is referred to as the piece that brought Conner to notoriety. In skillfully editing stock footage, Conner created abstract metaphors of mankind's violence. He subsequently made nearly two dozen non-narrative experimental films.

While Conner was living in Massachusetts in 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Conner filmed the television coverage of the event (near Kennedy's birthplace) and edited and re-edited the footage with stock footage into another meditation on violence which he titled Report. The film was issued several times as it was re-edited.

According to Conner's friend and fellow film-maker Stan Brakhage in his book Film at Wit's End, Conner was signed into a New York gallery contract in the early 1960s which stipulated stylistic and personal restraint beyond Conner's freewheeling nature. Conner reacted by attending openings, only to move among the crowd worldlessly pinning buttons that read "I am Bruce Conner" or "I am not Bruce Conner" to their clothes. Many send-ups of artistic authorship followed, including a five page piece Conner had published in a major art publication in which Conner's making of a peanut butter, banana, bacon, lettuce, and Swiss cheese sandwich was reported step-by-step in great detail, with numerous photographs, as though it were a work of art. Brakhage reported that when Conner moved to Mexico in the mid-1960s, he (Conner) painted the word "LOVE" on a roadway, only to be forced to scrub it off by officials. Conner subsequently moved back to San Francisco, working for a while selling beads on Haight Street as his art career floundered outside of the gallery system which had made him a star earlier in the decade.

Conner, however, produced work in a variety of forms from the 1960s forward. He was an active force in the San Francisco counterculture of the mid-1960s as a collaborator in light shows for the legendary Family Dog at the Avalon Ballroom. He also made intricate black-and-white mandala-like drawings (many of which he lithographed into prints) and collages made from 19th-century engravings. During the 1970s he focused on drawing and photography, including many photos of the late 1970s West Coast punk rock scene (a 1978 film used Devo's "Mongoloid" as a soundtrack), and producing dramatic, life-sized photograms as well as elaborately-folded inkblots. In the 1980s and 1990s Conner continued to work on collages, including ones using religious imagery, and inkblot drawings that have been shown in numerous exhibitions, including the 1997 Whitney Biennial. Throughout Conner's entire body of work, the recurrence of religious imagery and symbology continues to underscore the essentially visionary nature of his work.

His films are distributed by Canyon Cinema. In 1999, to accompany a traveling exhibition, a major monograph of his work was published by the Walker Art Center, titled 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story, Part II. The exhibition, which featured specially built in-gallery screening rooms for Conner's films as well as selected assemblages, felt-tip pen and inkblot drawings, engraving collages, photograms, and conceptual pieces, was seen at the Walker, the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, the DeYoung in San Francisco, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.


Conner first attracted attention with his moody, nylon-shrouded assemblages, which were complex amalgams of such found objects as women's stockings, bicycle wheels, broken dolls, fur, fringe, costume jewelry and candles, often combined with collaged or painted surfaces. Erotically charged and tinged with echoes of both the Surrealist tradition and of San Francisco's Victorian past, these works established Conner as a leading figure within the international assemblage "movement." Conner began making short movies in the late 1950's. His innovative technique can be seen in his first film, A Movie. His subsequent films are most often fast-paced collages of found and new footage. Conner was among the first to use pop music for film sound tracks. His films have inspired generations of filmmakers and are now considered to be the precursors of the music video genre.


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