Bruce Conner : Embracing Contradiction

Installation view of BRUCE CONNER: IT’S ALL TRUE. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 3-October 2, 2016. © 2016 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck

Installation view of BRUCE CONNER: IT’S ALL TRUE. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 3-October 2, 2016. © 2016 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck

I’m not sure how you describe work that is indescribable, except by declaring it as such, so that’s exactly what I’m going to do. And I’m also going to strongly recommend that you see the Bruce Conner (1933-2008) show IT’S ALL TRUE  at MOMA.  From the get-go it’s clear you’re going to see a body of work that defies categorization –   at the entrance, you’re greeted with a sign that says:  BRUCE CONNER – I am an artist, an anti-artist, a romantic, a realist, a postmodernist, a beatnik, subtle, confrontational, accessible, obscure, spiritual, profane.  IT’S ALL TRUE

That seems to be a pretty good summation of his oeuvre, which comprises drawing, painting, collage, assemblage, photography and film; the show of some 250 works is divided along these categories.  Most of it is abstract, non-linear and non-narrative, and many pieces are “untitled” which makes it difficult to describe particular ones.  The show begins with his Early Paintings, abstract oils, with thickly layered paint into which he’s layered, carved or scratched flowers or geometric shapes. I especially liked Dark Brown (1959) — out of a swirling expanse of shades of brown emerges a white, whale-like shape with a group pearls embedded where an eye might be – calling to mind stories of mysterious, elusive sea creatures. (He took the title from a book by Michael McClure, to whom he gave the painting).

Bruce Conner. UNTITLED. 1966. Felt-tip pen on paper. 38 × 25 1/2 in. (96.5 × 64.8 cm). Courtesy Conner Family Trust. © 2016 Conner Family Trust, San Francisco / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Bruce Conner. UNTITLED. 1966. Felt-tip pen on paper. 38 × 25 1/2 in. (96.5 × 64.8 cm). Courtesy Conner Family Trust. © 2016 Conner Family Trust, San Francisco / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

From there the show moves quickly to Conner’s collage and assemblages, made mostly when he was living in Mexico in 1961 and 62.  Of varying sizes, these 3-D works make ingenious use of wood, paper, mirror fragments, buttons, trinkets, fabric, wallpaper, and various objects, many of which are wrapped in light tan nylon fabric. While clever, I wasn’t overwhelmed by them, and I found his black wax sculptures rather creepy.

For me, it’s Conner’s works on paper that really captivate.  Black and white – pencil, ink, felt-tipped pen – they’re clearly the work of an obsessive spirit – it must have taken a lot of time and enormous concentration to create each one of these pictures.  His Star & Ink series starts with drawings where the page is covered with black ink from which tiny white specs emerge, then gradually, over the course of the series, the white specs come to predominate. In his Mandala series, he uses felt-tipped pens to draw short lines  of varying widths, and again plays with the black & white spaces and the varying depths of the blacks and the grays from which various geometric shapes – especially circles – emerge clearly, while others are hinted at.  There’s a group called Drawings, which are dense but delicate cross hatchings, composed around geometric shapes.  In this section you’ll find some works done with purple, red, and green felt-tipped pens.  In the Late Work on Paper, Conner employs an ink-blot technique (which he kept a secret) that involved intricate and precise paper folding techniques, which he used to create patterned backgrounds for geometric shapes that resided in the negative space.  Most of these images are small and delicate, reminding me variously of insects, masks, and calligraphy.  In the Illustrations section, you’ll find a different kind of inkblot – large, flat, high contrast black-ink images that made me think of shadow puppets.

Bruce Conner. 23 KENWOOD AVENUE. 1963. Ink on paper, 26 x 20″ (66 x 50.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase and partial gift of Achim Moeller in memory of Paul Cummings. © 2016 Bruce Conner / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Bruce Conner. 23 KENWOOD AVENUE. 1963. Ink on paper, 26 x 20″ (66 x 50.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase and partial gift of Achim Moeller in memory of Paul Cummings. © 2016 Bruce Conner / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

One wall is given to photos Conner took at the Mabuhay Gardens punk club in San Francisco.  These black & white images, mostly single portraits of club goers and performers, capture the spirit, energy, and loud, in-your-face feel of the era.

The Late Engraving Collages are wonderful works where Conner cut up and re-combined fragments of late 19th and early 20th century engravings – landscapes, interiors, portraits – to which he often added his own touches.  There’s a lot of dark humor in this section, as well as social commentary.

There’s much more to see here – be sure to leave yourself plenty of time, especially if you want to see his films.  But be sure to see this exhibit!  Before it closes on October 2nd.

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