SAN FRANCISCO — The art world is widely regarded as a free zone, a place where anything goes and revolution rules the day; in fact, it's a rigidly structured fiefdom governed by a strict code of unwritten rules. Multimedia artist Bruce Conner is an anarchist to the soul, and he's never been able to resist messing with those rules.
"The idea behind the story of 'The Emperor's New Clothes' is central to my sense of aesthetics," says the 56-year-old artist during a conversation at his home in the suburb of Daly City. "I've seen foolishness all my life, yet for some reason we all agree not to mention it. It amazes me how either through pure repetition or coercion by power, a view of what life is like is imposed on what life is like. I find it difficult to stand by and not speak of what's obviously going on, and this has been considered extremely bad behavior on my part."
Conner has indeed paid a price for his breaches of cultural etiquette. Acknowledged by art-world insiders as having played a significant role in helping break the stranglehold Abstract Expressionism had on art during the 1950s, Conner has been turning out critically acclaimed work for more than three decades, yet he's hardly a household name. Here are a few reasons why:
The art world went wild over his assemblages of the early '60s, so in 1964 he decided to never make another one (his assemblages are still considered his most important work). Hailed as a gifted experimental filmmaker, he made 20 short films and established powerful ties within the movie world of the '60s. Then, rather than graduate to a feature-length film as he easily could have done, he gave his camera away in 1973 and abandoned the form. For several years he refused to sign any of his work, short-circuiting the issue of authenticity central to the market for artists' work.
When "Who's Who in American Art" sent him a form requesting biographical information for a listing, he returned the form stamped "deceased"; he's now listed in "Who Was Who" as a dead artist. In a market where artists are rewarded for staking out a bit of turf, establishing a recognizable style and cranking out product, he bounced from one style to the next, giving no thought as to whether anyone else could make these stylistic leaps with him. He took long hiatuses, producing no work whatsoever for several years at a time. And, whenever he got the chance, he spoke his highly opinionated mind about all that he found idiotic in the art world.
Compulsively antagonistic toward the status quo, Conner might be dismissed as an eccentric crank but for the fact that much of his work is undeniably brilliant.
One of the founding fathers of the school known as Bay Area Funk, Conner took the Victorian memory box aesthetic of Joseph Cornell (a melancholy sculptural style involving antique trinkets and toys lovingly arranged in weathered wooden boxes) and updated it, investing it with the mood of dread and paranoia that hung like a poisoned fog over over the bomb-obsessed '50s. Essentially a neo-Dadaist style rooted in an awareness of the absurdity that permeates life, Funk is an improvisatory street style that arose from the Bohemian underground, and the hat it wears is one of freewheeling experimentation.
Conner, however, twisted the style into something dark, Gothic and brutal. Rife with Freudian symbols, his assemblages reek of a nasty, predatory sexuality and are ripe with the stench of decay and death. Alarmingly morbid in the early years of his career, Conner turned out work during the '50s and '60s that pulsates with futility and a sense of entrapment evocative of the writings of Samuel Beckett.
Conner's groundbreaking assemblages are but one manifestation of his multifaceted sensibility. An accomplished draftsman, filmmaker, painter and photographer, he was a Conceptualist long before that was recognized as legitimate art form and was presenting performance art as far back as the early '50s. Inspired by mysticism, jazz, poetry, Dada, Oriental philosophy and Existentialism, he's turned out a body of work that's remarkably coherent in light of its wide diversity.
Currently the subject of a retrospective exhibition opening this Saturday at the Michael Kohn Gallery in Santa Monica, Conner hasn't been seen hereabouts since a 1972 show at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery, though he's shown sporadically at the Smith Anderson Gallery in Palo Alto for the past decade. A central player in three major cultural movements--the Beats of the '50s, the Love Generation of the '60s, and '70s punk--he's maintained a low profile for the last 20 years. Notoriously illusive, he's periodically dropped out of sight throughout his career, and his productivity came to a complete halt four years ago when he contracted a rare liver disease.