Artists & Designers

Bruce Conner (1933-2008)

Bruce Conner was born in McPherson, Kansas, in 1933, and passed away in San Francisco in 2008. He attended the University of Nebraska where he studied painting. In 1957, he and his wife Jean moved to San Francisco where he became part of an artistic community associated with a west coast branch of the Beat Generation. Beat artists were working contemporaneously with the Pop movement in New York and LA, and Conner is also often associated with the latter movement as well. Similarly to other artists placed under this heading, he commented on contemporary culture by employing found materials from the popular realm. Conner, however, aligned himself with neither the Beat movement nor Pop. In fact, he never aligned himself with any particular style or movement. Over the course of his career Conner worked in a variety of media. His output covered sculpture, film, collage, painting, photography, printing making, and conceptual events.

Conner began producing assemblages soon after his 1957 move to San Francisco; and his work was included in the 1961 Museum of Modern Art, New York, exhibition The Art of Assemblage, which later traveled to the Dallas Museum of Contemporary Art in January and February 1962, and then on to the San Francisco Museum of Art in the spring of the same year. The curator of the show, William Seitz, defined assemblage as a post-World War II practice that evolved out of art historical precedent not only in terms of materials and processes, but was in keeping with an increasingly refined attempt to 'picture reality' through the use of materials from the popular realm. Seitz traced its roots back to the early 20th century collage practices of artists associated with Cubism, Futurism, and Dada; Marcel Duchamp's readymades; the collages and constructions of Kurt Shwitter's; Surrealist objects; and American Joseph Cornell's shadow boxes, among others. Seitz placed Conner within this postwar trajectory pointing out Surrealist influences in his works.

At the same time Conner was attracting attention in the late 1950s with his dark, erotically charged and Surrealist-tinged assemblages, he began making short films. Conner had not formal training in film. According to the artist, he learned about making movies by going to movies as a child (his uncle managed theaters in Wichita). He was influenced not only by experimental films, but also Hollywood movies—in particular how the latter relied on stock footage and by trailers. He was also fascinated by all the unseen images, letters, numbers, and black leader at the beginning and end of films that were only known to the people who handled film presentation.

Conner's equipment for his early films consisted of a splicer, a rewind, and a viewer; and the source material he worked with was found footage. Developing a singular style of movie making that parallels his assemblage practice, Conner became one of the most important figures in postwar independent filmmaking. His innovative technique can be seen in his first film, A MOVIE (1958), an editing tour-de-force made entirely by piecing together scraps of B-movie condensations, newsreels, novelty shorts and other pre-existing footage. Rapidly edited, it interweaves sex, death and violence, themes Conner saw as central to the American culture and psyche. A filmmaker friend eventually taught him use 8mm and 16mm cameras, and Conner would go on to combine shot and found footage in his films. In 1964, following a gallery show in London, England, Conner abandoned making assemblages altogether and focused on filmmaking.

Conner was among the first to use pop music for film soundtracks and his films have inspired generations of filmmakers and are now considered to be the precursors of the music video genre. His editing techniques have also been influential in mainstream movie making. Dennis Hopper, a longtime friend of Conner's, stated, "Bruce's movies changed my entire concept of editing. In fact, much of the editing of Easy Rider came directly from watching his films, and, when I look at MTV, it seems they all must've been students of his." Conner did cross over into the world of commercial film and did pre-production work on Peter Fonda's 1970 film The Hired Hand and rock videos for Devo and David Byrne during the heyday of punk, but found Hollywood "devastating" and "the hazards of fame extreme."

Throughout the 1960s and 70s his multimedia work included performances and photographs, assemblages, collages from 19th-century engravings, and inkblot drawings in a large range of formats and sizes. Towards the end of his life he was producing intimately scaled works that reflected his interests in found objects, symbolic and chance meetings of forms and images, and the human psyche.

Drawn from

  • Claire Rieflj, Suzanne Weaver, and Charles Wylie, "Acquisition Proposal," December 6, 2004. In Collections Records object file (2005.6).
  • Claire Rieflj and Suzanne Weaver, "Acquisition Proposal," March 16, 2005. In Collections Records object file (2005.6).
  • Hatch, Kevin. Looking for Bruce Conner. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012.
  • Matt, Gerald and Barbara Steffen, eds. Bruce Conner: The 70s. Nürnberg: Moderne Kunst Nürnberg, 2011.
  • Seitz, William. The Art of Assemblage. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1961.
  • 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1999.

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