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Bruce Conner

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.


More on the exhilarating Pacific Standard Time show (extravaganza?) in Los Angeles:

Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, MOCA, has its main location downtown near Disney Hall (and, until they were expelled last weekend, OccupyLA.) The MOCA’s “we could play football in here”-sized spillover exhibit space, the Geffen Contemporary, is in Little Tokyo. A former warehouse redesigned by Frank Gehry, the Geffen is hosting MOCA’s PST exhibit, Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981.

The timeframe focused on in this exhibit is one that is banked between two national political events—Richard Nixon‘s resignation and the subsequent inauguration of Ronald Reagan.

The work included in the show reflects a time that was “out of joint,” fragmented, disrupted. From the Under the Big Black Sun exhibit description:

Celebrating California as a turbulent, often anarchic center for artistic freedom and experimentation during the 1970s, this major survey exhibition examines the rise of pluralistic art practices across the state. The years 1974 and 1981 bracket a tumultuous, transitional span in United States history…and borrows its title from the 1982 album by the Los Angeles–based punk band X to suggest that, during this period, the California Dream and the hippie optimism of the late 1960s had been eclipsed by a sense of disillusionment during the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam era.

The dystopian atmosphere of the 1970s created an artistic milieu that seemed to include everything under the sun. Across the state, competing social and political ideologies and clashing cultural perspectives resulted in heterodox approaches to art-making. The spirit of questioning and experimentation occurring in and beyond the studio took precedence over affiliation with any art-historical group or movement, and a rich dialogue developed between artists in Northern and Southern California in the absence of powerful regional art museums and commercial galleries. California artists, particularly young, recent art school graduates, embraced a DIY attitude that resulted in the hybridization of media and the breaking apart of traditional forms and genres, freely experimenting in their works with painting, sculpture, photography, performance, video, installation, sound, books, and printed matter.

The work IS all over the place—political protest, social commentary, politics of identity, shock value, deadpanned, ironic—and less welcoming to my sensibilities than many of the other PST exhibits. But there were some important moments captured in this show. Here are a few that spoke to me:

Ed Rusha, The Back of Hollywood, 1977. (Collection of Musee d’Art Contemporain de Lyon, France, courtesy of the artist)

I like what Ed Ruscha had to say about this image: “The Hollywood sign is actually a landscape in a sense. It’s a real thing and my view of it was really a conservative interpretation of something that exists, so it almost isn’t a word in a way—it’s a structure.” There is the apocryphal story that he also used the Hollywood sign (which he could see from his Venice studio) as a measure of the smog. If he could see the sign, that meant it wasn’t so bad. This brings back memories of a very different Los Angeles from the clear skied, blue beautied light that is more common now.

Zuma #5, from the Zuma Series (1977/2006), by John Divola. Photo courtesy of the artist.

John Divola‘s Zuma Series is visually compelling but is also a strong statement of its time period, between 1974-1977. Divola recorded the breakdown and decomposition of a shack along the shore in a novel way—he participated in its demise as if he were a force of nature as well. Dystopic yes but you can’t not look.

Childhood Rejection Drawing, From the Rejection Quintet, by Judy Chicago. Colored pencil and graphite on paper. Photo courtesy of the artist

Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro intervened in my life in 1972 with the first major feminist art statement in California, Womanhouse*. That installation brought a significant shift in perspective to me and my female artist friends which feels awkward and difficult to explain to younger artists. Seeing a set of these Chicago drawings on display at the Geffen brought back the intensity of that experience.

Three Weeks in May, Suzanne Lacy. Panel, map of Los Angeles, RAPE stamps in red. Collection of the artist. Photograph by Grant Mudford

More on a feminist art theme: In 1977 Suzanne Lacy collaborated with Leslie Labowitz to create the “Three Weeks in May” event that included a performance piece at City Hall, consciousness raising (I know, but that is what it was called back then) and self-defense classes for women. Lacy went on to be an important presence in my life, editing the book, Mapping the terrain: new genre public art, and producing “The Crystal Quilt”, a performance that featured over 400 older women.

Crossroads, by Bruce Conner. Video installation

Crossroads was made in 1976, one year after the fall of Saigon. Bruce Conner, ever resourceful and multifaceted, took archival footage of nuclear weapons testing program in the Bikini Atoll during the summer of 1946. For this video presentation he slows down the footage and puts a soundtrack on it by minimalists Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley. The video is poetic and meditative while offering a window into the horrific.

Big Ideas (1000 of them), by Richard Jackson

What painter couldn’t be moved standing in front of Richard Jackson‘s wall of 1000 canvases, hidden from view and face down, with paint oozing out? It’s an unforgettable image.

*The Getty has an extensive exhibit up now that documents Womanhouse. That is a topic I will be covering in more detail in a future post.

Ocean Park No. 67, 1973, Richard Diebenkorn. The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection courtesy of The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn

Ocean Park No. 26, 1970, Richard Diebenkorn. Nerman Family Collection courtesy of The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn

Pacific Standard Time, the sprawling art exposition that includes encampments at 60 different venues in the Los Angeles area, has already shifted the narrative for signifiers like California, art, post war, innovation.

The experience as it turns out is even more overwhelming and implication-rich than I imagined. (My pre-visit post is here.) And even though I spent my early life on the West Coast and am very familiar with the work of many of these California artists, the visual impact still has me feeling a bit too dizzied to offer a linear account. As Roberta Smith wrote in the Times, “’Pacific Standard Time’ has been touted as rewriting history. It seems equally plausible to say that it simply explodes it, revealing the immensity of art before the narrowing and ordering of the historicizing process.”

The image that comes to mind is an immense tarp laid out in the desert, an expanse of flatness that seemed inert. Then one day a helium truck showed up. Who knew? The immense and colorful hot air balloon, air borne and levitating over Los Angeles right now, is more spectacular than anyone imagined.

With my sensibility villi all still aflutter from a week of overstimulation I’ll just launch in and share a few highlights. A good beginning is the Getty (the organization that conceived and underwrote this whole thing) and the Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950–1970 show. Just a few words but mostly images.

And no better place to start than the two paintings by Richard Diebenkorn included in the show and pictured above. Very different from each other but both utterly exquisite. My partner Dave sat in front of these and said, “These two are worth the trip.”

And here are some other memorables:

This Mary Corse painting so subtle and reflective it is nearly impossible to capture it in a photograph.

Untitled (White Light Grid Series-V), 1969, Mary Corse. Glass microspheres in acrylic on canvas. Andrea Nasher Collection. Permission courtesy Ace Gallery and the artist

Ah. Bruce Conner. Finally this artist and his multifarious gifts are on display all over town (as well as at the Rose Museum in Boston). This early piece is a particular gem.

Black Dahlia, 1960, Bruce Conner. Offset photograph, feather, nails, paper collage, tobacco, rubber hose, fabric, sequins, string, and mixed media. Courtesy of the Conner Family Trust, San Francisco / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Ed Moses. In his 80s now with a legacy that is legion. This early collage is compelling as is a piece on resin.

Dalton’s Waffle #1, 1960, Ed Moses. Crushed newspaper, shellac, and wood. Collection of Jim Newman & Jane Ivory. Image courtesy of Ed Moses

Hegemann Wedge, 1971, Ed Moses. Powdered pigment, acrylic, and resin on canvas. Collection of Phyllis & John Kleinberg. Image courtesy of and Ed Moses

Ronald Davis and his gorgeous mastery of olored polyester resins and fiberglass. (Note: There is another stunning Davis painting on view at the Norton Simon museum.)

Vector, 1968, Ronald Davis. Molded polyester resin and fiberglass. Tate: Purchased 1968. Image courtesy of the Tate

John Altoon (who died way too young, in 1969), was doing his own Ocean Park series before Diebenkorn made the Venice neighborhood world famous.

Ocean Park Series, 1962, John Altoon. Oil on canvas. Permission courtesy of the Estate of John Altoon and Braunstein/Quay Gallery, San Francisco, CA. Photo by Gene Ogami

Craig Kauffman mastered industrial plastics and his ethereal works seem to float in space.

Untitled, 1969, Craig Kauffman. Acrylic lacquer on plastic. Courtesy the Estate of Craig Kauffman and the Frank Lloyd Gallery.

Often referenced for his teaching at UCLA, Lee Mullican had an interest in spiritual dimensions and was influenced by Native American traditions, Surrealism, Zen Buddhism and jazz.

Untitled (Venice), 1967, Lee Mullican. Oil on canvas. Estate of Lee Mullican, Courtesy of Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles.

Sam Francis mastered the edges in this piece. (Another exquisitely understated and tonal Francis is hanging in MOCA Los Angeles.)

Untitled (Mako Series), 1967, Sam Francis. Oil on canvas. Collection of The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

OK. I’ll stop there for now. More, more, more to come.

The view from the Getty with Robert Irwin’s gardens in the setting sun

This was a weekend with a disruptive sense of time. It made me think of an essay by the poet Wendell Berry, “An Entrance to the Woods” in which he describes making a trip to a forest in Kentucky. He leaves work, drives hard over the interstate highways for over an hour, then finally arrives at his destination. But he has a sense that he has not really arrived. He’s restless and uneasy, not comfortable in the intense silence of a forest he has loved in the past. He said his body was telling him that “people can’t change places as rapidly as their bodies can be transported.” Making the trip by way of the freeway, his mind was not yet fully there. In the past, he took the slower back roads and the acclimatization happened much more organically. He states, “the faster we go…the longer it takes to bring the mind to a stop in the presence of anything.” It wasn’t until the next morning that he was able to enter into the place for the first time. Only then could he say, “I move in the landscape as one of its details.”

Exhibit at Lyman-Eyer Gallery, Provincetown MA

My summer show opened in Provincetown on Friday night. Seeing my new work in a different context, grouped by a different set of eyes, is its own kind of mind/body journey. But that good night was followed close upon by an early morning flight to a wedding in a Pennsylvania. The euphoria of celebrating and dancing the night away with friends may have masked any differential in arrival times of body and spirit. That much reveling feels like a blast of full body joy.

Shifting again, I spent Sunday at the 55th Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, a contemporary show themed loosely (and I do mean loosely) around Is there Life on Mars? A big yes to a few of the artists whose work was included in that show—Bruce Conner, recently deceased California artist, consistently moving Vija Celmins and a young Indian artist, Ranjani Shettar.

Angel series, Bruce Conner

Conner was a highly unpredictable artist who refused to be pigeonholed into any of the isms and labeling that are so rampant in contemporary art. Some of his work in the past has moved me, some has not. But Conner’s Angel series, photograms made from large sheets of light-sensitive paper exposed to a beam of light from a projector, are unforgettable. These images were created without a camera and feel apparition-like and other worldly. It was hard to not feel a bit weepy looking at these hauntingly beautiful works knowing that Conner passed away just a few weeks ago at the age of 74. Adieu to one of the brave ones.

Vija Celmins, Night Sky

Vija Celmins, whose image, Night Sky, won the Carnegie Prize, had a room full of her characteristically delicate paintings and drawings. I always find her work so insistently deep and authentic. She is one of the contemporary masters at holding tension between surface and depth.

Ranjani Shettar, Just a Bit More

Ranjani Shettar’s installation held me breathless. She created an updated version of Indra’s net out of a web of threads and hand-molded beeswax balls. It suggested outer space, multidimensional rabbit holes, the metaphor of a network that holds all of us in connection to one another. Exquisite.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Falling Water

The last leg of the journey was spent at Falling Water, Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece. I have been before, but I have never seen it in the context of the wild rhododendron forest of the Laurel Highlands. It is a flotilla of perfection, perched above those waterfalls and still, after all these years, an utterly compelling encounter.

Back home, most of the essential parts of me have returned with my body. Or maybe not. I’m still feeling these very distinct but powerful invitations to step out of the ordinary, whatever ordinary is, and to move in the landscape—both man made and natural—as one of its details.