Bruce Conner (1933-2008) worked in a variety of media, including assemblage, sculpture, painting, photography, and film. As a leader of the San Francisco Beat movement, he became known for making assemblages of broken dolls, old furniture, nylon, wax, rope, and shoes. He was inspired by Surrealism and Victorian aesthetics and often confronted ideas about death in his work. His assemblages were usually politically-charged and critical of consumerism in mainstream American society. In a letter to his friend Paula Kirkeby, Conner wrote, “my work is described as beautiful, horrible, hogwash, genius, maundering, precise, quaint, avant-garde, historical, hackneyed, masterful, trivial, intense, mystical, virtuosic, bewildering…” He concluded, “It’s all true.”
After earning a B.F.A. from Nebraska University, Bruce Conner continued his studies at the Brooklyn Museum of Art on a Max Beckmann Memorial Scholarship. His first solo exhibition was at the Rienzi Gallery in New York in 1956. A year later, Conner and his wife, artist Jean Sandstedt, moved to San Francisco where they became immersed in the Beat movement. His neighborhood, the Western Addition, was undergoing urban renewal at the time, resulting in piles of trash and building materials on the streets. Inspired by overflowing garbage trucks, Conner was instrumental in founding the “Rat Bastard Protective Association,” a counterculture version of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. As beatniks, the RBPA group celebrated their distance from mainstream values and made work with littered material. Members, in addition to Conner, included Jay DeFeo, Fred Martin, Michael McClure, Manuel Neri, Joan Brown, Wally Hedrick, Wallace Berman, Jess Collins, and George Herms.
During the late 1950s, Bruce Conner began a career in experimental film-making, which was influential in later years. His first and most known movie, A Movie (1958), is a compilation of re-edited old newsreels and found footage, and was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry at the Library of Congress in 1991. Other landmark films include Report (1967), a response to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and Crossroads (1977), an avant-garde edit of a hydrogen bomb explosion on Bikini Atoll.
Conner often explored the concept of mortality, even faking his own death via exhibition announcement; the exhibition Works by the late Bruce Conner was presented at Spatsa Gallery in 1959. That year, he made more headlines when his terrifying sculpture Child was displayed at San Francisco’s de Young Museum. It is a black wax figure wrapped in nylon stockings, seated in a wooden highchair. Resembling a tortured human screaming in pain, the sculpture was inspired by Conner’s opposition to the impending execution of convicted criminal Caryl Chessman. The sculpture eventually deteriorated due to its ephemeral materials but was restored by the Museum of Modern Art in New York on the occasion of a major posthumous retrospective titled It’s All True, 2016.
Bruce Conner lived in the Bay Area for more than 50 years until his death in 2008. His work has been in numerous exhibitions, including the 1997 Whitney Biennial and the 2008 Carnegie International. In 1999, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis organized a traveling exhibition titled 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story, Part II, which he deemed a “non-retrospective.” Bruce Conner: It’s All True was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and traveled to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2016. It was the first major retrospective after the artist’s death and featured more than 250 assemblages, paintings, and drawings. Conner’s work is held in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others. His estate is represented by Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. The Conner Family Trust is represented by Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco.