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Tribute to Bruce Conner (1933-2008)

Portrait of the artist by Phong Bui. From original photograph by Kim Stringfellow.

Bruce Conner died on July 7, 2008. He was seventy-four and had been in bad health for as long as I knew him. His friend Steve Fama called and told Eve that Bruce had left the hospice when nothing more could be done, and that he died at home. At some point, he had told Steve that he was proud of being a fully paid member of the Neptune Society, which meant that he would be cremated and his ashes scattered at sea. Bruce’s life could have been prolonged, but years earlier he had signed forms that he was not to be put on any form of life support. I imagine that Conner signed these forms around the time he first had problems with his liver, which required that he adhere to a special diet, take pills every few hours, and periodically go to the hospital to replace a shunt.

We tried to see Bruce in March, when we were in Berkeley; Eve called him at the convalescent home, but he said that it was too chaotic there, and that we should not visit him. After Eve told me about their conversation, I knew that we would never see Bruce again, and that he wouldn’t live to be eighty-five and get to ask our daughter, Cerise, out on a date (“You never know, she might be interested in an older man,” he said with a dry demonic cackle).

Steve said that even though Bruce was unable to use a scissors to make collages, he got people to help make them while he was in hospital, and was looking forward to going home. I don’t know when his condition started to deteriorate, but death was always knocking on Bruce’s door. I am reminded of the time he called me right after he woke up from a nap—this was in the late ‘90s. He told me that he had had a dream about the rock concert impresario, Bill Graham, who made the Fillmore famous, and promoted such groups as The Grateful Dead and Country Joe Macdonald and The Fish. Conner knew Graham from the old days because he helped put on light shows at the Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom during their heyday. It seems that Graham, who had died in a helicopter crash in 1991, had returned from the dead because he found heaven boring, and asked Bruce to help him put on a concert. “It seems like he was trying to tell me something,” Bruce concluded with a chuckle, and then said good-bye.

I first wrote to Bruce Conner in the late 1980s, after spending an afternoon with Paul Cummings (1933–1997), a passionate book collector, lover of poetry, and curator of drawings at the Whitney Museum of American Art. We had talked a lot about Conner’s work while looking at a drawing of his that Paul had bought and had in his apartment. I knew Conner’s felt tip marker and ink blot drawings, but this delicate pencil drawing, “23 KENWOOD AVENUE” (1963), which is now in the collection of MoMA, was unlike anything of his that I had ever seen. This was typical of Bruce. He made discrete bodies of work in different mediums and moved on, never looking back. He also made work, including paintings that I saw in his house, that he never exhibited nor ever expressed the slightest interest in exhibiting. When I later mentioned these paintings to Bruce, he said that he only did a few before getting tired of them.

In my letter I asked Conner if he knew where I might find earlier catalogs of his (this was before you could find books on the Internet). In his letter back, he said that if I wanted to know more about his work, I should look in “the dust bins and storage closets of museums,” and signed the letter with, “A rolling stone gathers no broth.” I didn’t write back.

In 1994, I moved to Berkeley to teach in the Asian American Studies department at the University of California. A few weeks after I moved into my sublet, my phone rang. The man said that he was Bruce Conner—at first, I didn’t believe him, because our contact had been the initial letter and response. He said that he wanted me to come to his house promptly at 7:00 the next day to see some movies. He asked me if I liked peanuts, and then gave me his address in San Francisco, and how to get there from Berkeley. I was a bit skeptical, but I showed up on time the next day—something I seldom did—and so began my friendship with Bruce and his stalwart wife, Jean, an artist in her own right. There were many things that I knew about Bruce before I met him. I hadn’t exactly stalked him, but I had tried to see anything of his that I could—and this included assemblages, films, collages, and drawings, as well as read whatever I could find about his work and his life. This is how I pieced together that Conner knew Timothy Leary, and that he and Jean had lived with Leary in a communal house in Newton, Massachusetts, in the early 1960s.

My interest in this part of Bruce’s life was personal. I was in high school at that time (1963-1967), lived in Brookline, which was next to Newton, and in 1963 two of my friends met Leary and Richard Alpert, who gave us our first experience with LSD.

When I mentioned this to Bruce, he said that was one reason why he had a falling out with them. He believed that Leary was interested in becoming famous, and that was why he was indiscriminate about who gave he LSD to. Conner believed that LSD should have been given only to people who were ready for it, and that no one should have talked about it. Had that happened, LSD would never have become illegal. In LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS, his film about trying to find hallucinogens in Mexico in the late 1950s, which took years to make, Bruce eventually cut Leary’s part down to a few seconds, showing him from behind. Given their different views, he felt that this was the right thing to do.

Before he let me see any of his own films that night, Conner showed some virulently anti-Japanese cartoons of Donald Duck that were made during World War II. After they were finished, he asked me if the act of showing them made him anti-Asian.

The day after Bruce died, I read an interview conducted by Paul Cummings posted on the Web ( ). In it, Bruce mentions the screening of a film that I have never seen listed in his filmography and certainly don’t remember hearing him talk about it. The film was made entirely of leader, and had a soundtrack derived from a movie about American G.i.s captured by the Germans during World War II. Conner did various things to distort the soundtrack, which basically repeated phrases such as, “Let’s get out of here.” “We can’t stay here, we have to escape.” The audience, of course, took the cue and didn’t stay to watch it through to the end. According to Conner, he was the only person still in the room each time he showed it.

Bruce was innovative in a wide range of mediums, including filmmaking, drawing, photography, and sculpture. He possessed an impeccable logic that he would follow through on, no matter the consequences. When there was a movement to return Golden Gate Park to its natural habitat, he put up posters inviting people to join a club that would promote the introduction of mountain lions and other predators into the park, and wondered why no one had called the number he listed. In the late 1950s, after a well-known New York critic praised his work while suggesting that there was something psychologically disturbed in his choice of subject matter, Bruce sent a photograph of a naked woman with a letter saying that he knew the critic praised his work only because he was having an affair with Bruce’s wife. He followed this up with a letter from a “psychiatrist” who asked the critic not to try and contact Bruce anymore because it was making his patient distraught.

Another memorable prank involved having a writer friend carefully document the artist making a sandwich and eating it, and then submitting the piece to Art News to be published in its long running series, “So and So Paints A Picture.” After it was rejected, he sent it to Artforum, where it was published. According to Bruce, Art News stopped publishing the series a few months later. And when the editor of Art on Paper asked me for Bruce’s address and said that he wanted to invite him to write “A Letter to A Young Artist,” I told him that he would have to publish whatever Bruce sent or be willing to pay the consequences. Of course, they didn’t accept the letter, which was published in The Brooklyn Rail (See September 2005) along with the original invitation Art on Paper sent Bruce. After that, the editor of Art on Paper—for all the right reasons—decided I should no longer write for that publication, and we have never spoken again.

Bruce cared deeply about art and his fellow artists: shot over two days, his seven-minute film THE WHITE ROSE helped keep alive the awareness of Jay DeFeo’s monumental painting, which was unseen for years and is now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. He did other things to help insure the painting’s survival, but never wanted credit for any of it. Sometimes it felt like Bruce knew every artist and poet in the Bay area. Once, when I told him that a friend of mine was interested in an utterly esoteric film by Larry Jordan in which the reclusive poet Philip Lamantia acted, he told me the name of the film—Triptych in Four Parts (1958)—and Jordan’s address, and said that my friend should contact him.

Bruce was irascible and lovable. There were times when he drove me crazy, and I know I wasn’t the only one. But Eve and I loved Bruce and we weren’t about to be driven away. And just when I got exasperated enough, and was wondering what he would say or do next, he would surprise me, as he did with the excursion he organized to the beautifully restored carousel in Golden Gate Park; I have photographs of him and Cerise waving from the horses as they passed us.

One of the last times we saw him, he sold us a drawing for a very modest price on one condition, that we send the money to an artist friend of his who needed it more than he did. The drawing is signed “Emily Feather,” one of the many alter egos Bruce used in the last decade of his life. He said that he had retired from making art at 65, and his helpers had been making the work under his direction ever since. Some of them, he said with a rueful smile, were angry because they hadn’t received their due and were threatening to stop making art. No doubt, they patched up whatever differences they had with Bruce, and helped him make his last works while he was in hospital.

On a bookshelf near the spot where the Bruce’s drawing now hangs is a row of DVDs that he sent me over the years, all starring either Boris Karloff or Peter Lorre playing an inscrutable Asian detective, Mr. James Lee Wong (Karloff) or Mr. Moto (Lorre). This was Bruce in a nutshell.


John Yau


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2008

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