This great American artist, who passed away in 2008, is still renowned for his work in painting, drawing, sculpture, assemblage, collage, photography, and performance, among other disciplines. Though primarily a visual artist, Conner is perhaps best known for his work as a film maker. His short 16mm and 35mm experimental films like “Report” (1963-1967), “Breakaway” (1966), and “Crossroads” (1976) are each a mini tour-de-force. And so is his first work in the field, a 16mm non-narrative short titled “A Movie” (1958). In 1991, it was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.
Conner is currently the subject of a major retrospective exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (through January 22, 2017). The exhibit, "Bruce Conner: It's All True," opened at the New York Museum of Modern Art, where it received a rave review in the New York Times, which called it an "extravaganza" and "a massive tribute." Times critic Roberta Smith called Conner a "polymathic nonconformist" who was "one of the great outliers of American Art" and who "fearlessly evolved into one of America’s first thoroughly multidisciplinary artists."
After having seen the exhibit in San Francisco, I wrote about it in the Huffington Post.
It's worth noting that Conner had a not uncritical nostalgic affection for old Hollywood. He obliquely appropriated imagery and themes from pulp and pop culture. Witness the works in "Bruce Conner: It's All True" with titles like "St. Valentine's Day Massacre / Homage to Errol Flynn" (1960), “Homage to Mae West” (1961), “Homage to Jean Harlow” (1963), and "Son of the Sheik" (1963), as well as others not includes in this retrospective. Granted, these works are not "about" the movie stars or films they reference, but that doesn't mean they are not an intentional oblique nod.
Conner also had a lifelong interest in his fellow Kansan, Louise Brooks. On more than one occasion, he told me so. They both grew up in Wichita. Conner was also familiar with the biography of the actress by Barry Paris.
Back in 1997, I mounted a small exhibit about Louise Brooks at a small neighborhood cafe here in San Francisco. Conner, who lived in the next neighborhood over, read about it in the local paper and visited the exhibit. (So did the artist known as Jess.) Conner must have appreciated my little exhibit, which was made up of film stills, vintage magazine covers, sheet music, and other ephemera I had collected. Conner even wrote a note in the guestbook. I was wowed, and flattered, to say the least, as I had long been interested in Bruce Conner's art. (I can't really fix a date on the beginning of my deep interest in the artist, but it could date to around the time I read Rebecca Solnit's brilliant 1990 book, Secret Exhibition: Six California Artists of the Cold War Era.) Well, anyways, here is that note.
Sometime later, Conner and I got in touch, at first by phone and then in person. Eventually we met, and he had me over to his San Francisco home, where at his kitchen table and in between phone calls from friends like Dennis Hopper, Conner told me of his "near encounter" with Brooks. Conner also told me of his involvement with early showings of her films in San Francisco. It was information, it seemed to me, he was desirous to pass on.
Their near encounter took place around 1942 (as best I can date it), after Brooks left Hollywood and returned to Wichita, where the one time world famous film star moved back in with her parents. It was not a harmonious scene, as Brooks was flat broke and the world (including gossiping locals) had deemed her a failure. As a former Denishawn dancer and Ziegfeld showgirl, Brooks knew how to move with grace, and so, she opened a dance studio in downtown Wichita in a half-hearted attempt to earn some money. Conner, still just a boy, was aware that a movie star was in town (there were articles in the local paper), and he told me he took to keeping on eye on her dance studio. Conner admitted to spying on the studio, watching Brooks come and go. Conner even drew a map of the area, marking the location of Brooks' studio in the Dockum Building on East Douglas and its relationship to the theaters where Conner would go to the movies.
Conner also told me how, at one point, he wished to take dancing lessons from Brooks, but his parents would not allow it. Conner told me that it was because of Brooks' scandalous reputation, something no doubt talked about by neighbors. If I recall correctly, he also told me that his parents and other neighbors or friends knew Brooks' and her family, and that this social circle of friends and acquaintances once encountered one another at a Wichita party, and a punch was thrown. Conner himself never got up the nerve to make contact with Brooks, telling how he once almost rang her doorbell.
In 2006, the Louise Brooks centenary was celebrated by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival when they showed a restoration of Louise Brooks' most celebrated film, Pandora's Box. I was asked to introduce the film, and to introduce Bruce Conner; the artist spoke about what the actress meant to him and his near encounter with this singular silent film star. Somewhere, there is video of this occasion at the Castro Theater in San Francisco before a sold-out audience of more than 1400 people. Here, at least, is a photograph.
In a sense, Louise Brooks is one of the great outliers in film history. And her films, like the art of Bruce Conner, has touched many. John Lennon, a kindred spirit to both, once wrote to Conner, “You don’t know me but I know you and you are my fave rave.” Happy birthday Bruce Conner.