Arts & Theater

Witty, harrowing work of artist Bruce Conner approaches greatness

The multimedia piece “Tick-Tock Jelly Clock Cosmotron” by Bruce Conner
The multimedia piece “Tick-Tock Jelly Clock Cosmotron” by Bruce Conner Conner Family Trust, San Francisco

“Great art remains a pointing finger, a material object, tracing the outlines of a constellation, an illusion, in a night sky. Too often, like animals, we look only at the finger.” These words by the late Thomas Albright, noted San Francisco Chronicle art critic, help locate the transcendent art of Bruce Conner (1933-2008).

Spanning decades, Conner’s art embodied the San Francisco Beat ethos, the 1960s counterculture and the late 1970s West Coast punk scene. He was both a legend and a secret. Conner was widely acknowledged as a leading practitioner of assemblage and a seminal innovator in 20th-century experimental film.

Nevertheless, he did not receive the attention and institutional respect from East Coast curators and critics that was his due. The East Coast has traditionally determined an American artist’s relative status. “It’s All True,” the first comprehensive retrospective since the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art reopened in May, reveals Conner’s importance, and rights history’s wrong. The scope and range of his work and the existential themes it touches on genuinely approach greatness.

The viewer more than “sees.” The viewer walks into a searching, visionary world of masquerades, dark desire, mordant wit and spiritual transcendence. The exhibition is roughly divided into four bodies of work: assemblage, drawings, photograms and collage. Conner’s groundbreaking films are threaded throughout the exhibit. They amplify the stationary work and envelop the viewer in an irrational, mythical, moving embrace.

Conner first arrived in San Francisco in 1957. He immediately connected with Jay DeFeo, Wally Hedrick, Wallace Berman, Robert Duncan, Joan Brown and childhood friend Michael McClure, artists and writers shifting the Beat movement into high gear. Unlike their East Coast counterparts living in the glare of commercial spotlights, they had no expectation of making a living at their art.

Free of market expectations, their work was an amalgam of performance, scavenged materials and poetry. Conner scouted for riches in the rubble of the Western Addition, then San Francisco’s downtown ghetto and first major reconstruction project. “Spider Lady” (1959) combines an old, painted-wood window frame, window shade, window screen, garter belt, bicycle wheel, metal Band-Aid box, twine, cigarette butts, filmstrip, thumbtacks and a nylon stocking into an erotic evocation of time and death.

“Child” (1959) presents a corroding child’s corpse sprawled and decaying in a highchair, covered in a shroud of torn stocking. Made of wax, nylon, metal, twine and wood highchair, the work had been stored in pieces until its state-of the-art restoration in 2015. It hasn’t been seen in decades. Hugely controversial in its time, “Child” was made to protest the expansion of violence in our culture, and the execution in California of convicted rapist Caryl Chessman in particular. It is a mesmerizing horror. It points to our darkest heart, an abiding warning of our persistent will for unspeakable power.

In the 1960s Conner turned away from assemblage to focus on film, drawing, light-show collaborations and photography. Despite the often shambling, crude and ad hoc construction of his assemblage, Conner was a meticulously focused artist. This is never more evident than in his astonishing, even mind-blowing ink drawings. While time spent doesn’t of itself equal quality in art, Conner’s impossibly tiny dashes and squiggles in felt-tip marker accrue a writhing energy and coalesce into visionary black mandalas. The drawings are both microscopic interrogations of the mystic and phenomenal spectacles pointing to the macrocosm.

But if Conner had made only films, he would still have a lasting place in art history. Beginning with “A Movie” in 1958, he made 24 films. He was the first to splice together fragments of found stock footage such as government education films with bits of his own footage. He was also among the first to use pop music as a current of sound that moved parallel to the film’s content. Conner’s montages were brilliantly composed edits of collision and flow. “Crossroads,” a 30-minute silent unfolding of atomic and hydrogen bomb tests, is an operatic outcry at the nuclear arms race, a spectacle made in protest against our global destruction.

Artists of Conner’s vision and power are rare. Words cannot do his work justice. You must see and experience this staggering exhibition for yourself.

Bruce Conner: It’s All True

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Fridays-Tuesdays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays; through Jan. 22

Where: SFMOMA, 151 Third St., San Francisco

Cost: $25 general, $22 senior, $19 ages 19-24, 18 and under free