Quick cuts and an explosion of images flash and pulse across the screen, sometimes repeating, sometimes edited into the staccato rhythm of jumping backward and forward in time. Slow and steady movement is hardly what artist and experimental filmmaker Bruce Conner was after in his movies. At least that’s true of the three films from the 1960s — Breakaway, Looking for Mushrooms, and Report — that screen this month at the University of New Mexico Art Museum. The latter two films are being shown back to back on a continuous loop through Saturday, April 6, and Report starts screening on Tuesday, April 9, and runs through May 4.
Conner (1933-2008) was devoted to expressing his art in a wide range of media. He was a sculptor, printmaker, painter, and assemblage artist. In these arenas, he was a groundbreaker. In fact, it’s difficult to look at the eruption of music videos that hit the airwaves in the MTV era and not detect his influence in the blending of music and film, as well as the use of quick cuts. The 1960s was an era of psychedelia and rock ’n’ roll, and Conner was plugged in.
He was a Bay Area artist. That provenance, in the words of Mary Statzer, the UNM museum’s curator of prints and photographs, means he’s not as well-known as East Coast contemporaries such as Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey. But with an upsurge of interest in the West Coast art scene, that’s changing.
“He’s part of a movement called Bay Area Funk,” said Statzer, who curated the selection of films. “Funk art really had this irreverence for materials.”
The exhibition Please Enjoy and Return: Bruce Conner Films from the Sixties is a counterpart to the museum’s rotating show of work from its permanent holdings of more than 30,000 objects, Hindsight/Insight: Reflecting on the Collection, which is ongoing. The current selection of Hindsight/Insight focuses on the art of the 1960s and ’70s, and several of Conner’s artworks are on display. These are mostly mixed-media pieces that exhibit the artist’s flair for creating elaborate compilations of paint, found objects, items of little value, and organic materials.
“One of the things that’s really evident in all of his work is just a density of imagery or materials, and that plays out in his films, as well,” Statzer said. “One of the things that’s exciting about Conner is the diversity of the ideas, the range of ideas, and the range of materials. I got the idea to show his films because it would round out what we have in the collection and give people a little broader view of Conner’s work in general and because he’s really a key figure in experimental filmmaking in the United States.”
Conner was born in McPherson, Kansas. He re-ceived his art training at the University of Nebraska, where he obtained a BFA in 1956 and spent the next year studying at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, and the University of Colorado, Boulder. In 1958, he moved with his wife, fellow artist Jean Conner, to San Francisco.
“Conner had some success in New York, even when he was still in college, but hated New York,” Statzer said. “His wife finished her MFA in Boulder. They got on a plane and flew to San Francisco and never looked back. So he’s definitely a Bay Area guy.”
In San Francisco, he fell in with other artists who would become associated with the funk movement, including Jay DeFeo, Joan Brown, and Manuel Neri. All of them were also involved in a collective, founded by Conner in 1959, known as the Rat Bastard Protective Association. DeFeo was a painter, known primarily for her monumental painting The Rose, an almost sculptural work that took eight years to make and weighs over one ton. In 1967, Conner made a film called White Rose about the artist’s efforts to remove it from her San Francisco apartment. Statzer said that it was DeFeo’s work that inspired Conner to try his hand at assemblage.
He prowled the streets of the city, mining his materials from abandoned buildings and digging through the garbage. In Conner’s mind, anything could be transformed into art. By way of example, the museum is showing The Clock (1960) in its permanent collection show. It’s an assemblage with traces of feathers and fur, costume jewelry, elements of architectural ornamentation in the form of wood-carved bas-reliefs, and numbers collaged along the edge of the clock face — a circle with images of butterflies but no second or minute hands. Stretched over it all like a veil, a nylon stocking lends the work an aura of mystery, obscuring some of its detail. The Clock’s images of nature suggest a world where time isn’t measured by the ticking off of hours, minutes, and seconds, or constrained by the same measurements that dictate how people conceive of it.
By the early 1960s, Conner received recognition of his video work as well as his assemblage. His career was on an upswing. “He was really freaked out by it,” Statzer said. “At the same time, he was really freaked out by geopolitics, the nuclear threat, and the U.S. role in the world. It was right around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Cold War was really heating up.” Conner sold some paintings to finance a move to Mexico. He and Jean spent the next year living in Mexico City.
In Looking for Mushrooms (1959-1967), travel footage from that visit, as well as footage shot in San Francisco, was edited into an abstract montage in which a rush of images — including glimpses of a hunt for psychedelic mushrooms — is set to a rhythmic, hypnotic soundtrack by composer Terry Riley. Conner edited in several frames of each shot, lending the work a cadence similar in appearance to stop-motion animation. The nearly 15-minute film is a luminous, impressionistic work that captures, perhaps, something of the experience of tripping out on psychoactive drugs. Like all of his work, it does not tell a distinct story.
Breakaway, a five-minute black-and-white film from 1966, is similar in that it’s composed of quick cuts that speed by in a barrage of fitful flashes and bursts. But, in this case, the subject is a single semi-nude figure — singer, actress, and choreographer Toni Basil — dancing wildly and sensuously to the title song “Breakaway,” which she also wrote. To match the imagery, Conner distorted the audio track, abstracting it as the film crescendoes to a hallucinatory, ecstatic vision.
“Conner had a strong relationship to music throughout his career,” Statzer said. “He became really interested in punk and did a huge photo project where he recorded the punk scene in San Francisco, and he worked with composers on a lot of his films.”
In the mid-1960s, Conner also collaborated on light shows for music performances at the city’s fabled Avalon Ballroom. “He was really interested in that kind of immersive environment.”
The three films — digital transfers from 16mm and 35mm prints in the possession of the Conner estate — are presented with exceptional fidelity to the originals. But Conner himself resisted transferring his films to a digital format for many years until the technology developed enough to match their quality.
The last film, Report, is a biting 13-minute commentary on the media’s response to the John F. Kennedy assassination and its role in the idolization and myth-making surrounding JFK and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Composed entirely of found footage, it’s edited into a repetitive montage that includes imagery from the moment of the assassination set to a soundtrack of the news broadcasts as they relayed the event in real time. Spliced together with product advertisements, the film draws a parallel between American society’s wanton consumerism and the media’s exploitation of Kennedy’s death.
Conner was, if anything, an iconoclast who continually upended artistic norms, embodying the very spirit of what the counterculture was about. These films stand as testament not only to the artist but to the time. ◀
▼ Please Enjoy and Return: Bruce Conner Films from the Sixties
▼ Exhibit through May 4 (Breakaway and Looking for Mushrooms through April 6)
▼ University of New Mexico Art Museum, 203 Cornell Dr. NE, Albuquerque, 505-277-4001, artmuseum.unm.edu
▼ No charge for admission, $5 suggested donation