The ground-breaking and highly influential avant-garde filmmaker, sculptor, painter, photographer, and collagist Bruce Conner died at his home in San Francisco on July 7, 2008, after a prolonged illness. He was 74, and is survived by Jean Conner, his wife of more than 50 years, and his son, Robert.
One of the last of the genuine Beat artists, Conner was born in 1933 in McPherson, Kansas, relocating to Wichita with his family when he was four. At the age of 8 he had an out-of-body experience, which led to a life-long interest in mysticism. As he matured, Conner became a painter and assemblage artist, hanging around with other local artists like Michael McClure (another Beat figure), who became a lifelong friend. By 1956, Conner’s work was being exhibited in New York City; in 1957 he moved to San Francisco, where he would live for the rest of his life.
While a lauded and highly influential sculptor and visual artist, Conner is probably most widely known for his equally esteemed experimental films, most of which were compiled from “found footage” — taken from educational films, B-movies, government documentaries, ephemeral films such as newsreels and old commercials, and even in some instances soft-core porn. Conner’s films were made on 16mm until the mid-’90s, when video became more viable for independent artists.
Conner’s first film, A Movie (1958), was chosen by the Library of Congress in 1996 for preservation in the National Film Registry, reserved by law for works that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” That and many of his other films are regarded as classics of avant garde cinema: Cosmic Ray (1962), Ten Second Film (1965), Report (1967), Crossroads (1976), Mongoloid (1978), Mea Culpa (1981), America is Waiting (1982), and Television Assassination (1995) among them.
In his landmark history of experimental film, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1943-1978, scholar P. Adams Sitney wrote:
…Conner is not naive in his vision of doom. Everything he shows us has the primary actuality of the newsreel or the secondary reality of the images of violence we encounter in popular entertainment. …Conner deliberately and carefully orchestrated the twists and changes of pace within his film[s]. He is a master of the ambivalent attitude; it is the strength of his art and the style of his life. …Conner’s films aspire to an apocalyptic vision by engendering in the viewer a state of extreme ambivalence.
(Side note: Canyon Cinema, the major avant-garde film distributer, used to offer a number of Conner’s 16mm films for rent. But judging by a visit to their web site just now, these have been pulled from circulation. Hopefully this is only a temporary situation, perhaps pending estate probate and/or further preservation efforts.)
Conner was always into adventurous music. He was instrumental in creating the legendary light shows for San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom during the psychedelic era, and a decade later he became a regularly-contributing photographer for Search & Destroy, the seminal punk magazine. (It’s said that he wore knee pads to help protect himself from knocks and bruises while shooting during shows.)
It is not surprising then that Conner was among the first experimental filmmakers to use the music of contemporary artists — Terry Riley, Devo, David Byrne, and Brian Eno among them. Mea Culpa and America is Waiting were set to music created by David Byrne and Brian Eno for their 1981 album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Both the album and Conner’s films were extremely influential in the ’80s — the LP inspired a whole generation of audio collage and sample-based music, and the films were an undeniable aesthetic source for the MTV music video. Ironically, Conner didn’t make another film for 13 years.
Writing in 2006 about their collaboration, David Byrne reflected:
In the course of recording this album Brian and I crossed paths with artist and filmmaker Bruce Connor, who lives in San Francisco. Bruce’s’ legendary “experimental” films are well known for their pioneering use of found footage, so it was natural that we approach him regarding the possibility of working together — which was more like suggesting he use some of the Bush of Ghosts tracks in a film or two, due to the similarities of our working methods. …His work was sampling before that word existed, as was this record. The films gain an additional level of depth due to the fact that you can often guess what the footage was originally used for, and so you see it as an artifact and as something entirely new, both at the same time.
In 1999, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis assembled a major exhibition, 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II, which gathered 150 of Conner’s works in all media spanning 40 years. The exhibition toured to four cities in the United States through 2001. A hardbound catalog was also published.
At this writing, Bruce Conner: Mabuhay Gardens, a collection of 53 of his photographs of the late-’70s and early-’80s punk scene, is on view at the Berkeley Art Museum through August 3, 2008. Meanwhile, several of Conners’ watercolors are being shown at the Nordic Watercolor Museum (Nordiska Akvarellmuseet) in SkÃ¤rhamn, Sweden as part of the Pacific Light: California Watercolor Refracted 1907-2007 exhibition, through September 7, 2008.
Conner’s film work has been important and influential to me personally, and I am saddened to learn of his passing. My heartfelt condolences and very best wishes go out to his family, friends, and colleagues.
Bruce Conner Filmography
- A Movie (1958)
- Cosmic Ray (1962)
- Vivian (1963)
- Ten Second Film (1965)
- A Class Picture of the CCAC Film Class of ’65 Actually Taught by Bruce Conner in the Tradition of LumiÃ¨re (1965)
- Easter Island Raga (1966)
- Breakaway (1966)
- Report (1967)
- The White Rose (1967)
- Looking for Mushrooms (1967)
- Antonia Christina Basilotta (1968)
- Permian Strata (1969)
- Marilyn Times Five (1973)
- Crossroads (1976)
- Valse Triste (1977)
- Take the 5:10 to Dreamland (1977)
- Mongoloid (1978)
- Mea Culpa (1981)
- America Is Waiting (1982)
- Television Assassination (1995)
- Looking for Mushrooms (long version, 1996)
- LUKE (1967-2006)
- EVE-RAY-FOREVER (three screen DVD projection) (2006)
- His Eye Is On the Sparrow (2007)
- Easter Morning (2008)
- Bruce Conner CV (via Gallery Paule Anglim)
- San Francisco Chronicle obituary, by Kenneth Baker
- “Appreciation: Humor was Bruce Conner’s art” by Kenneth Baker, San Francisco Chronicle (July 11, 2008)
- “In Memoriam: Bruce Conner (1933-2008),” Berkeley Art Museum
- Los Angeles Times obituary, by Mary Rourke; plus a fine photo gallery
- New York Times obituary, by Ken Johnson
- “An Appraisal: An Artist of the Cutting-Room Floor” by Manohla Dargis, New York Times (July 12, 2008)
- Washington Post obituary
- “Interview with Bruce Conner Conducted by Paul Cummings in New York, New York, April 16, 1973,” Archives of American Art Oral History Interviews, Smithsonian Institution
- Selected works by Bruce Conner (via Gallery Paule Anglim)
- Bruce Conner tapestries (via Magnolia Editions) — limited edition large-scale tapestry reproductions of original collages, drawings, and photographic works.
- “Bruce Conner in the Cultural Breach” by Kristine McKenna, Los Angeles Times, June 10, 1990
- “Bruce Conner with John Yau” (interview), The Brooklyn Rail (Nov. 2004)
- Photos of Bruce Conner by Larry Keenan, ca. 1965