04 August 2013


Finally getting around to reading Kevin Hatch's Looking for Bruce Conner. I'd known about Conner for the better part of three decades, but there wasn't much to know since little information about him and very few of his works circulated for many years. Mostly, I knew of his work as an experimental filmmaker, and some limited exposure to his photographic work. Much of the attention his work has received has occurred only in the past several years, following the artist's death in 2008. Add to that the recent publication of Hatch's book.

The portrait that emerges by Hatch's account suggests that Conner's obscurity and elusiveness was to some degree by design -- mostly the result of a deliberate strategy on the artist's part. It's a portrait that reveals an artist who worked across a variety of media, who associated with few other artists outside of a small community of friends and colleagues in the Bay area, acknowledged almost nothing in the way of artistic trends or history, and put a fair amount of effort into confound reception of his work. For example, take Hatch's retelling of an occasion in 1965 when Conner was collaborating on a series of prints with an L.A. lithography press:

"Conner’s liminal position allowed him to play the role of the obtuse questioner masterfully, often with pointed results. The artist’s relentless refusal to conform was prone to alienate even those authorities ostensibly sympathetic to his cause. During a fellowship in 1965 at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles, for example, Conner commenced a series of violations of lithographic best practices that simultaneously deconstructed the nascent printmaking renaissance (in which Tamarind was a principal player) and infuriated Cal Goodman, the acting director of the Workshop. During his two-month fellowship, Conner produced fourteen lithographs, among them CANCELLATION (a print marked with a large 'X,' conventionally denoting a canceled or ruined print); THIS SPACE RESERVED FOR JUNE WAYNE (a sign for the parking spot for the chief director, for whom Goodman was substituting while Wayne was away in Europe on business); and THUMB PRINT, a giant print whose only markings consisted of the artist’s own thumbprint, doubled: once in the composition's center and once in the place of a signature in the print's lower right corner. This was in keeping with Conner's policy at the Workshop, where he insisted on signing things only with his thumbprint (in a lithographic studio, where the presence of a fingerprint would ordinarily lead to the discarding of a print). Goodman became so aggravated that he stopped production on all of Conner’s work, which was only reinstated upon Wayne's return."

There's a fair amount of proto-conceptualism to be found amidst the multimedia hopscotching of Conner's early career, much of it the result of Conner's strong and irreverent sense of humor. Such as the images at the top of the post, which are from his 1967 contribution to Artforum (back in the days when it was a West Coast publication). The spread is a spoof of a famous recurring feature that ran in Art News for many years; the installment "So-and-so Paints a Picture," which detailed how artist x or y creating a work from start to finish.

Some of Conner's work that's received the most attention in recent years is his early assemblage-type pieces, which he made in the early half of the 1960s...

Which, admittedly, could be said to be his most "conventional" output, since it shares so many similarities with the contemporaneous "neo-dadaist" work done by Rauschenberg and others, as well the Nouveau Réalisme "accumulations" of Arman -- artists who made it a point to work from rubbish heaps, to create pieces out of society's refuse. The difference being that Conner's works in this vein seem to eschew the more common attempts to "prettify" such stuff, and more often look like junk shops that have collapsed under their own weight.

* * * * * *

The "_____ Paints a Picture" feature in question has been parodied numerous times over the years. Early on, Elaine DeKooning once contributed an installment to the Art News series entitled "Mr. Pure Paints a Picture," which was a thinly-disguised jab at the monochromist Ad Reinhardt. And if I recall, the British conceptual art group Art & Language published their own satire of the feature in an edition of their journal some time in the early 1970s, using themselves as the subjects.

And as I recently discovered by happenstance, there was one other sandwich-related satirical item that appeared in a major art journal. That being the piece "The Sandwiches of the Artists", which was included in the 1981 "Art World Follies" edition of October, contributed by art historian and curator E. A. Carmean Jr.. Featuring sandwiches as made by Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and perhaps one or two New York School canonical heavyweights.

As for myself, I'm having the sturm-und-drang on rye. Who's with me?

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