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Bruce Conner in the Cultural Breach : Decades of antagonizing the status quo has brought critical acclaim for the brilliant yet eccentric multimedia pioneer

June 10, 1990|KRISTINE McKENNA

Conner the man is hardly what you'd expect in light of his work. Meeting with him at his exceptionally orderly house, one encounters a neat, soft-spoken gent who obviously quenches his thirst for chaos and grunge in his work.

"I've descended into this private hell of being an artist who's thought of as dead, but, in fact, I'm still living," he says with a laugh. "I am, however, retired. It's been two years since I did a drawing, and prior to that I hadn't done much else for several years. Contracting a fatal illness is a wonderful device for helping you be aware of things in a different way, and I've simplified my life quite a bit in the past few years. I'm on a restricted diet and I've learned to pace myself. Most people with this illness don't survive more than three years and I was diagnosed four years ago, so I'm living on free time. I'm quite happy to be here too."

Born in McPherson, Kan. in 1933, Conner was raised in Wichita, which he describes as "a repressive place. It was the kind of town where anybody who deviated from the norm was ostracized, and culturally it was pretty isolated, so I had to educate myself.

"There was a collection of paintings and sculpture at the Wichita Museum," he recalls, "and some of that work made a big impression on me. William Harnett has been an important influence on all my work, and I first encountered his art at that museum. Harnett uses objects compositionally and tells stories with the objects he uses, so I learned a lot from him. They also had work by Albert Pinkham Ryder and George Gros that I liked quite a bit. I worked there as a museum guard for a while, so I got to know the work pretty well.

"As to the environment at home, my mother encouraged me to be creative but my father wanted me to be a businessman like him. He was disappointed in me for a long spell, but once I started selling work and being written about in magazines he decided I was a prize," he says with a laugh.

Routine though Conner's childhood was, the doors of perception began opening early for him. As a young boy, he recalls hours spent contemplating the uncountable blades of grass in his lawn, and saw terrifying faces in the wood-grain pattern of his grandmother's dresser. At age 11 he had his first mystical experience.

"It was late afternoon and the sun was shining on the rug and I was lying there doing my homework when things started changing," he recalls. "I went into this strange world and began evolving into countless different creatures and people, until finally I was very tired and very old. It seemed to last an eternity, and when it stopped I could hardly remember how I'd been when I started out. I felt so old I thought I'd crack and break if I moved. Then I looked at my hand and saw it wasn't old, and looked at the clock and it was 20 minutes later."

His prepubescent mind blown, he nonetheless forged ahead like a normal American boy. Art studies at Wichita University were followed by a degree from the University of Nebraska in 1956, and a scholarship to the Brooklyn Art Museum. While in New York he fell in with a group of people investigating Tibetan religion, the Tarot and the cabala, and those things continued to fascinate him for several years. In 1957 he left New York for the University of Colorado, met his future wife, Jean, whom he married that year, then drifted farther west.

"I went to high school with Michael McClure (a Beat poet), and after he moved to San Francisco in 1954 he called and said I should come out too," Conner says. "So in 1957 my wife and I flew here the day we were married and found an apartment far outside of North Beach. Five months later Wallace Berman moved in a few doors down from my place, and, after Wallace came up, all these people from L.A. came up too. It was a pretty exciting time to be in San Francisco. I remember taking peyote for the first time in 1958 and walking through the park wondering if anyone in the Bay Area could possibly be experiencing the same thing I was. I painted the windows of my house, made assemblages that I put out on the street, and did performances. My wife worked as a secretary at a clinic, and that's how we paid the bills."

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