Fall 2016

It's All True

As an artist, Bruce Conner explored some of our world's most soaring contraries: the sacred and the profane, good and evil, light and shadow. A survey of his artworks is more like looking at a group show than the creations of one mind.


He didn’t take to being likened to a vulture. Not even the grand California condor, one of the largest birds to soar
the North American skies. But he gave way to my conceit.

It was 2004, four years before his death on July 7, 2008, and I was working on the last of a series of four articles about the Wichita Group for this magazine. In art circles, the Wichita Group has come to mean, strictly speaking, a trio of artists primarily associated with America’s Beat movement who grew up in Wichita: Michael McClure fs ’53, David Haselwood ’53 (1931-2014), and Bruce Conner fs ’55.

In the early 1950s, the three studied – and played – at the University of Wichita. Birds came into the picture in the first article of the series, “Against the Grain,” which is, in general, about WU’s notable and most assuredly unique offerings to the Beat movement.

Specifically, it detailed some of the Wichita Group’s collegiate activities, both in and out of the classroom. I was told about Manning’s Lunch, for instance, located just off-campus at 1745 N. Fairmount, with its reputation for attracting WU’s more non-conformist students – those variously labeled bohemians, hipsters or beatniks. McClure, Haselwood and Conner were among Manning’s habitués.

It was Haselwood who told me, “Looking back on it, we must have seemed a little like exotic birds. You have to remember that the university’s Congregational ties were still strong. Dr. McKinley, who taught chemistry, still gave sermons in class. Our little coterie stood out in that kind of environment.”

Independently, McClure, Haselwood and Conner left Kansas and found home in San Francisco, where they made art history. McClure, in 1955, was one of five poets who read their works at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, the reading at which Allen Ginsberg first read Howl. Haselwood garnered his acclaim through printing. His Auerhahn Press published the works of many Beat writers – in beautiful, hand-made books. 

And Conner, whose multifarious art is currently the monographic focus of “Bruce Conner: It’s All True” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through Jan. 22, 2017, began his flight in the face of convention to becoming an influential figure in American art and film, his nylon-shrouded assemblages breeding international acclaim, his independent films capturing instant renown in avant-garde film circles, his work in so many forms (painting, conceptual art, drawing, sculpture, collage, assemblage, photography, printmaking and film) attracting large, if sometimes bemused – even shocked, audiences.

The swirl of people McClure, Haselwood and Conner eddied about with in California included too many notables to mention, but here are a few: Dennis Hopper, David Byrne, Timothy Leary, Jim Morrison and Jack Kerouac, who, in his novel Big Sur wrote of McClure as “Handsome Hawk McLear.” Thus, in the second article of the series, “Once Upon a Velvet Eternity,” which dials in on McClure – well, you can see where the idea of McClure as a hawk comes from. When it came time to write about Haselwood in “… and then you go deeper,” his bird was easy. The name of his publishing business was Auerhahn; the auerhahn is a rare European grouse, a bird of the forests. The bird conceit was working.

But up next, the last in the series, was the piece about Conner. At first, there wasn’t an obvious choice of bird for him. During one phase of his artmaking, to make a point about authorship and labels, he refused to sign his name and exhibited under a numer of false names: Dennis Hopper and Anonymouse were two; Emily Feather was another, but that feather didn’t exactly get me to California condor.

There was his actual name, of course. Conner sounds a bit like condor. It wasn’t enough. But there it was, the linking item: Conner had founded the Rat Bastard Protective Association, a by-invitation-only group of creatives whose meetings were primarily parties in one another’s studios. The name has three wellsprings: the slang term “rat bastard,” the 19th century Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Scavengers Protective Association, an organization of San Franciso garbage collectors.

Once a prolific painter, Conner had mostly left the medium behind by the time he took to film and assemblages, for which he scavenged his environs for raw materials: scraps of wallpaper salvaged from derelict buildings, the spoked wheel of a broken bicycle, cast-aside costume jewelry, the feathered wing of a bird. His works, whatever the medium, are tinged with his fascination with the detritus of society, and with death, sex, fragility, absurdity, texture, pattern and mind-blowing detail. The wingspan of his body of work is stunning.

When Conner, who’d asked to see my article before going to print, called me about it, I was scared; he had a fierce reputation for contrariness. I remember his sigh, sounding only slightly aggrieved at my effrontery, before he said, “A vulture? Hmmm, well, okay.”


It's All True

As an artist, Bruce Conner explored some of our world’s most soaring contraries: the sacred and the profane, good and evil, light and shadow. A survey of his artworks is more like looking at a group show than the creations of one mind.