New YorkPaula Cooper Gallery
May 7 – June 21, 2013
My initial encounter with the work of Bruce Conner happened in the mid-’60s when I was invited to see the short film A MOVIE (1958), screened in a church basement somewhere off a highway near Wellesley, Massachusetts. It was a chilly, dark, concrete place, but somehow it didn’t matter. My experience with this film was a formidable one. It had a remarkable impact on my thinking, serving as my introduction to semiotics. For one, I was stunned by Connor’s use of unpredictable juxtapositions. A MOVIE is both non-narrative and experimental, made largely from found and recycled footage, including scenes from old Westerns with Indians on horseback chasing covered wagons; to motorcycle and stock car races, which often ended in violence or fatality; to African tribal women carrying monumental, totemic structures on their heads.
Over the years, I have viewed this film no less than 30 times (often in relation to other films by Conner), only to discover that his selection of footage does not use a score added after the fact. Rather, his choice of music functions parallel to the film’s inherent structure; his editing decisions were made in accordance with the music, rather than the other way around. In A MOVIE, for example, the artist chose Respighi’s Pines of Rome. In many of Conner’s films—A MOVIE and CROSSROADS (1976), in particular—there is an ironical air of apocalypse. But this is not his only message. EASTER MORNING (2008), selected for screening during the current exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery, is less existential than most of Conner’s earlier films. Although the majority of the footage was shot in 1966, the completion of the film, including the in-camera editing and precision multiple exposures, did not occur until shortly before the artist’s death in 2008. Those familiar with Conner’s films might consider this 10 minute tour de force, which depicts the subtle effects of natural light entering his studio with a brilliant segue of uncannily defined exposures devoted to a female nude model, his masterpiece. The score employed to parallel this ecstatic and abstract cinematic celebration is a composition by minimalist Terry Riley, played on ancient Chinese instruments by the Shanghai Film Orchestra.
In addition to the films, Conner’s proto-structuralist aesthetic can also be found in his various ink drawings, which include a complex application of inkblots—as in Rorschach images (both small and large)—and a sizeable assortment of loosely constructed felt-tip marker drawings. Spanning a 50-year period of work from 1962 through 2008, the exhibition includes variously sized works of this order, discreetly mounted throughout the gallery, lending a dimension of contemplation to Conner’s work that in many ways corresponds to his films. The drawings are both abstract and linear, and usually completed in a single day. Thus, they appear to embody a sense of time. The works on view include an early ink on paper study, “SEPTEMBER 3, 1962,” that reveals a large organic shape, which is different than the slightly later drawings, such as “UNTITLED (SEPTEMBER 1969),” where the artist began to cover the entire surface and to use a felt-tip marker. Also included is a later atypical geometric drawing, “TEN OF SQUARES (March 21, 1983),” in which 10 blank squares are symmetrically placed with a pattern of lines surrounding them.
By the mid-1970s, the ink used in some of the drawings became a dense array of spots and lines on the surface of the paper, making it difficult to discern the logic or the patterns used in their making. The intensity and directness of these works is astounding. While Conner revealed hints of these qualities when discussing his work, he was an artist who worked in solitude and craved his privacy.
Conner and I met on three occasions: initially, after the opening of his exhibition at the Wichita Art Museum, later at his studio in San Francisco, and finally in New York, at a time when serious attention to his work was on the rise. During our discussions, I found him profoundly equivocal in his philosophical point of view, consistently skeptical as to where the weapons industry or any other form of “advanced” technology was going to end up. While he made several important, powerful, poetic, and often incendiary films on this topic, his drawings leaned towards a kind of ontological abstraction. In this sense, his prolific output in these and various other genres—including photography, assemblage, and graphic design—reveals a masterful self-containment. Conner was a deeply committed artist, content to move in pursuit of what he believed was important. In the process, his work obviated the unessential and exposed the truth as he chose to understand it.
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ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is an artist, critic, and art historian.