San Francisco

Bruce Conner: It’s All True

Among the works at the threshold of Bruce Conner: It’s All True, a massive retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), PRINTS (1974) is atypical even for the protean artist.[1] Consisting of a steel lockbox containing photographs, documents, and fingerprints, PRINTS records a protracted dispute between Conner and San Jose State University, which had invited him to teach in its art department. The fingerprints, Conner insisted, were works of art, and thus his intellectual property, for he’d been incorporating fingerprints into his art for a decade. The dispute began with his objection to having to be fingerprinted as an employment procedure, and the compromise was the creation of the PRINTS edition, whereby the university allowed Conner to document the process and receive copies of the fingerprint file to incorporate into the work, in exchange for his submission to the process. Conner’s deadpan touch is seen in a photo of the Xerox machine used in the process, as if exacting revenge on the copier by copying it.

Bruce Conner. PRINTS, 1974; mixed media (steel lockbox with documents, photographs, fingerprints); dimensions variable. Courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Bruce Conner. PRINTS, 1974; mixed media (steel lockbox with documents, photographs, fingerprints); dimensions variable. Courtesy of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

If PRINTS is anomalous, however, it is very much in keeping with Conner’s obsessive questioning of artistic identity, in both the value created by the artist’s signature and the imperative to develop and market a signature visual style. Conner’s reluctance to sign the front of his works led to a shrinking, sometimes hidden autograph that in turn gave way to a thumbprint, epitomized by a 1965 lithograph that reproduces his thumbprint twice, as both the subject of the work and the signature of the artist. Late in life, he would resort to pseudonymous and anonymous works. But Conner’s stubborn resistance to a recognizable style or even medium is ultimately the dominant note of It’s All True, as the viewer is confronted with room after room of almost bewildering variety.

A wall of early, clotted, oil-on-Masonite paintings—UNTITLED (1957), bright red with gold leaf, stands out from the austerely colored group—gives way to two rooms of assemblages, which then lead to rooms dominated by drawings, collages, inkblots, and photographs. The whole is punctuated by six of Conner’s films, a pair of his videos, and thematic rooms, like those devoted to his 1962 sojourn in Mexico or his 1964 TOUCH/DO NOT TOUCH gallery show. The latter—a series of twelve raw canvases with “DO NOT TOUCH” printed in their center, leading to a thirteenth canvas labeled “TOUCH” beneath Plexiglas—derives from Conner’s fur-lined, bead-laden, oil-and-shellac painting DARK BROWN (1959), being the only work with a label instructing patrons not to touch it, in the San Francisco Museum of Art (the former name of SFMOMA). The constant interplay between his conceptual works and his conventional artwork lends the former much weight.

Bruce Conner. UNTITLED, from MANDALA SERIES, 1965; felt-tip pen on paper; 10 x 10 in. Courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Bruce Conner. UNTITLED, from MANDALA SERIES, 1965; felt-tip pen on paper; 10 x 10 in. Courtesy of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

For his conventional work is anything but. Throughout his career, Conner exhibited an inventiveness and virtuosity that places his oeuvre among the high points of late-20th-century art. Take, for example, any one of the untitled black-felt-tip-pen drawings from his 1965 MANDALA SERIES. With their surfaces almost entirely covered in ink, these works turn drawing inside out; figuration emerges from the white unmarked spaces, and drawing becomes the absence of ink, even as the drawn lines provide much of the visual drama. This tendency reached its apotheosis with STARS (1975), a black-ink-on-paper work whose subject becomes the tiny flecks of paper still visible. Similarly, in Conner’s intricate, folded, and manipulated inkblot drawings, which served as the ailing artist’s primary mode of expression in the 1990s, one can trace a line of development from the totem-pole-like columns of individual blots to the later, more crowded examples that blur the divisions between and within columns; these again activate the negative space but to a lesser extent than the felt-tip works. Conner’s drawings alone might have sufficed to secure him a permanent reputation. With his groundbreaking assemblages, meticulous collages, and exquisitely edited films, they contribute to one of the most significant artistic oeuvres of his time.

Bruce Conner. STARS, 1975; ink on paper; 22 ¼ x 18 5/8 in. Courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Bruce Conner. STARS, 1975; ink on paper; 22 ¼ x 18 5/8 in. Courtesy of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Bruce Conner. INKBLOT DRAWING, April 24, 1995; ink on paper; 9 5/8 x 9 1/16 in. Courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Bruce Conner. INKBLOT DRAWING, April 24, 1995; ink on paper; 9 5/8 x 9 1/16 in. Courtesy of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Breathtaking in its scope, It’s All True is still forced to neglect whole bodies of Conner’s work, such as a series of black-and-white acrylic paintings from the early ’90s, alluded to only by Brian Lucas’s 2011 photograph of HOMAGE TO JAY DEFEO (1991), depicting the work installed in a friend’s backyard to set in motion a process that concluded with the painting’s destruction by the elements.[2] The exhibition catalogue, sadly, is a mess. Many of the reproductions are so small as to be worthless, particularly those of the black-ink and felt-tip-pen drawings, whose individual lines are almost entirely lost. The poor-quality images indicate hasty production, which the meticulous Conner would never have permitted during his lifetime. Yet there inevitably comes a time when art is out of an artist’s hands, and the exhibition has done a commendable job with the vast and eclectic nature of Conner’s work to make a case for his enduring importance.

Anonymous (Bruce Conner). HOMAGE TO JAY DEFEO, 1991; acrylic on canvas 91 ½ x 69 ¾ in. Courtesy Brian Lucas. Photo: Brian Lucas, 2011.

Anonymous (Bruce Conner). HOMAGE TO JAY DEFEO, 1991; acrylic on canvas 91 ½ x 69 ¾ in. Courtesy of Brian Lucas. Photo: Brian Lucas, 2011.

Bruce Conner: It’s All True is on view at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through January 22, 2017.

[1] This text complies with the artist’s preferred title style, as documented in the exhibition catalogue: “In keeping with Bruce Conner’s clearly articulated wish, the titles of his works are given in all capital letters without italics.” Rudolf Frieling and Gary Garrels, eds., Bruce Conner: It’s All True (University of California, 2016), 13.

[2] Garrett Caples, “SINCERELY, BRUCE CONNER: A Final Work-in-Progress?” Poetry Foundation, June 29, 2011, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2011/06/sincerely-bruce-conner-a-final-work-in-progress/.

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