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The Aesthetics of Pacifism: Bruce Conner at MoMA

Installation view of BRUCE CONNER: IT’S ALL TRUE. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 3-October 2, 2016. © 2016 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck

Bruce Conner: It’s All True
Museum of Modern Art
July 3rd  - October 2nd, 2016

By JILL CONNER, JUL. 2016

Bruce Conner’s retrospective It’s All True, currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, opens with “A Movie” (1958) and initially suggests the artist as an enigma within the published narratives of Modern and Postmodern art. Born in McPherson, Kansas on November 18, 1933 Conner was everywhere and somewhere at the same time, an underlying characteristic of his small-town, Midwestern roots. The artist’s paintings, sculptures, films, photographs, drawings, prints and sound art also never evolved into a single repetitive style. Rather, each one of Bruce Conner’s ideas expanded upon previous forms, before growing into something different, something new. As a sweeping posthumous exhibition, It’s All True becomes independently Modern and decisively relevant through a chronological observation of the artist’s ongoing negation of the Postwar American mainstream.

Even though It’s All True opens with a piece from 1958, the artist’s career began in 1954 when he studied art at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. While there, Conner also opened an art gallery, a novelty within the university’s community. Upon completion of his degree in late 1955, the artist received funding for a full year to study Advanced Painting at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, made possible by the Max Beckmann Memorial Scholarship.

Bruce Conner, UNTITLED (1966), felt-tip pen on paper, 38 × 25 1/2 in. (96.5 × 64.8 cm). (Courtesy: Conner Family Trust.) © 2016 Conner Family Trust, San Francisco / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

However Conner only stayed six months, until May 1956, when he relocated to the University of Colorado in Boulder to continue his studies in film. After marrying Jean Sandstedt in 1957, Bruce Conner settled in San Francisco and began a prolific but obscure career that involved combing beaches, sifting through flea markets and shopping at thrift stores, seeking remnants of American freedom through charming yet mundane, throw-away objects.

In 1953 Robert Rauschenberg erased a drawing of Willem de Kooning, the same year that the war on Korea ended. Bruce Conner started moving erratically around the country as the Vietnam War started in 1955. He created two paintings “Untitled” (1955) and “Spider” (1955) that each portrayed a plunge into a black paint. “Untitled” includes layers of lighter hues peeling through darkness, but “Spider” appears far more bleak as black charcoal mixes with paint into an opacity that speaks to some kind of hopelessness.

When Conner arrived in New York City in January 1956, the government’s military conscription was in effect. Although American Abstract Expressionism had also been anti-war, it was clear that this once heroic genre was no longer effective in promoting world peace throughout American society. On August 11th, 1956 Jackson Pollock died unexpectedly in a car crash on Long Island. Two years later Fluxus artist Allan Kaprow shared the widespread malaise that had been saturating the art community in New York City in his essay titled The Legacy of Jackson Pollock:  “Rather than releasing the freedom that [American Abstract Expressionism] at first promised, it caused not only a loss of power and possible disillusionment for Pollock but also that the jig was up. And those of us still resistant to this truth would end up the same way, hardly at the top. Such were our thoughts in August 1956.”  The ongoing debate between figurative and abstract art was still left unresolved.

Bruce Conner, "SOUND OF ONE HAND ANGEL" (1974), gelatin silver print, 87 3/4 x 41 1/4 in. (222.89 x 104.78 cm) Collection SFMOMA, purchase © Estate of Bruce Conner / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Ben Blackwell

However Bruce Conner continued where Abstract Expressionism left off. The artist’s painting “Untitled” (May 10, 1957) shows a combustion of bright, red oil paint over gold leaf as a thin dabble of white oozes across the lower right corner of the Masonite surface. The date in the title does not signify anything specific but reveals the new significance of day and time, rather than words, left in the wake of Pollock’s sudden death. Two ink-on-paper drawings titled “Geryon” (September 23, 1955) and “Brunetto Latino” (1956) introduced the artist’s foray into cross-hatch lines that simultaneously bury and reveal forms, a technique that Conner returned to in more detail during the 1960s. 

The artist further examined the paradoxical relationship between figure, ground and movement in a 12-minute, black-and-white film titled, “A Movie” (1958). Throughout this work Conner placed random pieces of found, filmed footage, rendering a specific edit that echoed the fast-paced feelings of disquiet and uncertainty that had evolved during the previous decade. As the title indicates there is no specific plot beyond a sweeping musical score that plays in harmony with images that alternate between seductive women, scenes of war, peaceful landscapes, military jets, volcano eruptions, cowboys, Indians and earthquake damage. Without a voiced narration, Conner’s blandly-titled film suggests associations of victory, awe and adventure, while a portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt flashes past, along with a few frames that show “THE END,” “TART” and “MOVIE." This grandiose mix is convincing, but begs the question of how these visual fragments are real beyond the artist’s staged framework.

When considered as still images, one could suggest that “A Movie” is a critique of Edward Steichen’s memorably successful exhibition titled Family of Man that opened at the Museum of Modern Art three years earlier in 1955, showing subjects from Second and Third World countries, who were smiling and living at ease. Seichen’s vast group exhibition was not only a resounding success but also a far leap from the aftershocks of World War II that were still reeling across the globe.  Although abstract artists in America protested the devastation of World War II by turning away from the human form, Bruce Conner faced what he saw before him and continued to embellish the notion of figurative art, underscoring its significance as something more than a subject of debate within aesthetics.

Bruce Conner, "LOOKING GLASS" (1964), mannequin arms, dried blowfish, painted wood, glass, fringe, shoe, cardboard, cut and pasted printed papers, paint, ny lon, fabric, jewelry, beads, string, doll voice box, fur, artificial flowers, feathers, garter clip, tinsel, and metal on Masonite; 60 1/2 x 48 x 14 1/2 in. (153.67 x 121.92 x 36.83 cm). Collection SFMOMA, gift of the Modern Art Council © Estate of Bruce Conner / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Ben Blackwell

Conner’s assemblage pieces, for instance, attest to the figure’s fleeting, ephemeral nature. “Ratbastard,” (1958) presents a dark but crudely textured oil painting wrapped in layers of nylon that includes a small black-and-white photograph nailed in the upper right corner of the picture plane, showing a group of suited men. One person, who stands on the left side in the photograph, extends his gaze to the camera, suggesting that the subject of this photograph is a dark spectacle, like a crime scene, that remains difficult for the viewer to access. A mix of brown and red paint appears to accumulate just beneath the composition’s soft, gauze-like surface. The artist’s addition of a handle along the top of the wooden frame not only makes the artwork available as a performative, portable object, but also suggests that this piece is a symbol of migrating tragedy.

Throughout the 1960s Bruce Conner’s sculptural assemblage pieces became more aggressive and returned to the motif of catharsis through the suggestion of charred remains as seen in five sculptures titled, “Child” (1959) “Crucifixion” (1960) “Resurrection” (1960) “Medusa” (1960) and “Couch” (1963). The decaying form of a toddler, seen in “Child” (1959), affirms a foreboding legacy left behind in the wake of World War II that continued through the Korean War and into the prolonged military conflict in Vietnam. These pieces of detritus continued to  highlight the poignant fact that acts of violence are purely rational acts.

Bruce Conner. CHILD. 1959-50. Wax, nylon, cloth, metal, twine, and high chair. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Philip Johnson. © 2016 Bruce Conner / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital image © 2016 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: John Wronn

The 14-inch canvas titled “Cherub” (1959) for instance, contains the lifeless expression of a doll’s head that peers out from beneath a screen of dark nylon and wax. The doll’s empty face foreshadows the grim undercurrent of unease that wove throughout American society in the 1960s, when Conner started to position the motif of woman as a signifier for the enemy within. Unlike the earlier assemblage works of Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell, Conner veered away from utopian ideals. 

“Black Dahlia” (1960), for example, hangs on the museum’s wall, vertically extending two-feet in length, and centers around the black-and-white pin-up of a scantily clad female dancer, seen from the back. Blue and silver sequins are bunched to the left as a long, brown bird feather extends downward beneath the nylon cover. A partially exposed, rusted nail pierces the woman’s derrier while the drawing of a skull emerges from the bric-a-brac below, suggesting the face of death. By hinting at portable reliquaries and personal shrines, in sculptures such as “Suitcase” (1961-63) “Pillow” (1961-64) “Drum” (1962) and “Partition” (1961-63), beauty is transformed into a timeless object of gritty distortion. The unglamorous is less passive and becomes more disruptive. 

However Conner’s drawings of bomb clouds combusting across paper, as seen in “Mushroom Cloud, 2313 E Kellogg St. Wichita, KS” (1963) confirm the fact that conflict is more than a reaction to primitive sexual tension. The artist takes one through toxic vacuums in two additional drawings “Untitled” (November 5, 1963) and “Golgotha” (November 6, 1963). In response to the mounting devastation from the Vietnam War that appeared in newspapers every day, Bruce Conner created “Hunchback” (1964) where a violent, human dimension is imposed upon lines of endless conflict.

Bruce Conner "BLACK DAHLIA" (1960), photomechanical reproductions, feather, fabrics, rubber tubing, razor blade, nails, tobacco, sequins, string, shell, and paint encased in nylon stocking over wood. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. © 2016 Bruce Conner / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Bruce Conner, "23 KENWOOD AVENUE"(1963), ink on paper, 26 x 20′′ (66 x 50.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase and partial gift of Achim Moeller in memory of Paul Cummings. © 2016 Bruce Conner / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Although Conner does not disfigure the erotic female nude, he suggests the eroticized feminine form as a source of physical provocation while also affirming woman as the traditional symbol of mother, freedom, and passion. The single woman, moreover, becomes the object and the objective of war. She becomes a sign of postwar lust and desire, as seen in “Cosmic Ray” (1961), that was later extended into “Three Screen Ray” (2006). The sound of “What’d I Say” (1959), by Ray Charles, accompanies black-and-white images of numbers as well as alluring female dancers. Each image spins by, lights flash, and beads shine illusionistically, while the sound of Ray Charles’ classic tune overtakes the cinematic experience, creating an alternative narrative that eventually transformed into the beat of West Coast surfing culture. 

By 1966 the artist created expansive but focused drawings using felt-tip pen on paper. When comparing these profoundly dark surfaces to his earlier cut-outs made between 1960 and 1965, the artist distanced himself from figurative representation and created, instead, a palpable space that suggested different depths at once. Conner’s “Mandala”-series from 1965  stands as a collection of meditative works where small cross-hatch lines established a visual rhythm between weave and weft, taking the gaze around moon shapes and the feel of rotating space.

In a more tactile way, the artist’s use of nylons and found objects conveyed the genre’s material neglect of the human form. The “Angel,”-series from 1975 in particular reflects the illusion of a standing male figure who appears wrapped in nylon throughout 8 photographs. Standing about 7-feet high and 3-feet wide, these mysterious silhouettes suggest a struggle of the body beneath the layered, gestural lines. Conner’s subsequent inkblot drawings free themselves from such formalist limitations by way of a balance between color saturation and interlaced connections of form.

Installation view of BRUCE CONNER: IT’S ALL TRUE. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 3-October 2, 2016. © 2016 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck

Throughout It’s All True, Bruce Conner’s extensive use of throw-away materials, including wax and paint, sets up a satirical mimesis of the layering process that had first been defined by American Abstract Expressionism. In the end, the movements and materials featured throughout this phenomenal exhibition resolve none of the dichotomies that were initially set forth by the artist over sixty years ago. Rather, they are each open and ongoing. As intended, Conner leaves observers standing in the exotic middle of nowhere, following a list of juxtapositions that streams down one museum wall near the start and close of the exhibition. WM

Jill Conner

Jill Conner is an art critic and curator based in New York City. She is currently the New York Editor for Whitehot Magazine and writes for other publications such as Afterimage, ArtUS, Sculpture and Art in America.  

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