The archetype of The Fool has been written about at length. The permutations are many, but the most common variance for most of us is from Shakespeare’s plays. Fools are never what they seem. And they are certainly not “fools.”
Art history has its fools as well, even (and especially) in recent years. One of my favorites who played with that archetype is Bruce Conner, another artist from my list of Noncanonicals (more about that here.)
Conner was a West Coast artist—my proclivities lean that way as many of you know—and someone I remember from my earlier years growing up in California. A new and excellent biography by Kevin Hatch, Looking for Bruce Conner, offers an evenhanded and highly readable account of Connor’s career.
Conner’s art is so wide ranging, crossing over into every medium and point of view. Categorizing him has been nearly impossible. Some of his works are so powerful for me personally that I do plan to write a few future blog posts more specifically about his oeuvre.
Hatch’s account includes several of Conner’s hilariously dissembling antics. Besides his amazing visual art making, Conner was way clever, persnickity and very smart. It was probably that combination of qualities that contributed to his reputation for being both irascible and endearing. But the adventures of his life make for great stories.
Here is a sampling: Conner decides to run for office in San Francisco back in 1967 as a prank. A friend and poet James Broughton (and one time husband to Pauline Kael) wrote a poem for the occasion called, “Tomfool for President: A Campaign Song for Bruce Conner.”
Tomfool, come tickle us
with authentic tomfoolery
Our motes have got too many beams in their eyes.
Turn topsy these turtles
on their lopsided noodles.
Clean sweep the whole country with indecent surprise!
From Hatch’s book:
Tom Fool, of course, was a mythical figure, and Conner’s persona gained its own mythic proportions over the years…the fool’s two traditional guises, court jester and festival clown, have a common ancestor in the individual under possession, “inspired with a higher wisdom.”
The idea of ancient, sacred wisdom is much to the point. There is a profoundly atavistic quality in Conner’s work that extends fro his assemblages and collages to his prints and drawings…This atavistic tendency partakes of the mysterious: the work consistently points inward, toward an unreachable center, even as it opens out toward the public sphere (achieving the latter most often via the outmoded goods of postwar American’s recent but forgotten past.) Broughton’s phrase “indecent surprise” aptly captures the spirit of the work. Profane and sacred, humorous and tragic, private and universal—all these antinomies are pushed to the breaking point, with results that often astonish.
Ah the wisdom of the fool, the wisdom of knowing where to poke. More on Conner will be forthcoming.