A Retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


I am an artist, an anti-artist, no shrinking ego, modest, a feminist, a profound misogynist, a romantic, a realist, a surrealist, a funk artist, conceptual artist, minimalist, postmodernist, beatnik, hippie, punk, subtle, confrontational, believable, paranoiac, courteous, difficult, forthright, impossible to work with, accessible, obscure, precise, calm, contrary, elusive, spiritual, profane, a Renaissance man of contemporary art, and one the most important artists in the world. My work is described as beautiful, horrible, hogwash, genius, maundering, precise, quaint, avant-garde, historical, hackneyed, masterful, trivial, intense, mystical, virtuosic, bewildering, absorbing, concise, absurd, amusing, innovative, nostalgic, contemporary, iconoclastic, sophisticated, trash, masterpieces, etc. It’s all true.

-Bruce Conner (1933-2008) in a letter to friend and collaborator Paula Kirkeby in 2000

Note: I was staying away from the renovated San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) which I figured was providing more empty wall space for its vacant modern paintings, but I couldn’t resist the Bruce Conner retrospective IT’S ALL TRUE (Oct. 29, 2016 – Jan. 22, 2017). I went to the museum on a night with free admission (in honor of those who died in the Oakland Ghost Ship warehouse fire). Otherwise it costs $25 – which is well more than a ticket to the Louvre or the Vatican museum, and with far less substance in the permanent collection.



CROSSROADS (1976) (36 minutes)

I was sitting in a dark room with a few others. On the opposite wall were atom bombs blooming in slow motion. The circle of a shock wave expanded over the water. A split-second expansion. Who bombs the ocean? A cloud of white noise engulfed one destroyer after another. The boats were empty, being obsolete or broken down. They were placed near the explosion to see how much damage it could do. An enormous column of water vapor rose up and spread out at a certain altitude. The mushroom cloud from the bomb that fell on Hiroshima was over 60,000 feet high.

To put it in perspective: one kiloton = 1,000 tons of TNT. The Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons. 90,000 to 146,000 people died — either immediately or within a few months from the after-effects. Later nuclear weapons are 80 times more powerful.

I was watching black and white footage from the National Archives which Bruce Conner acquired in the 1970s. It showed the nuclear tests in the Bikini Atoll in 1946. There were hundreds of cameras set up recording the explosions, often in slow motion, with the bombs going off 90 feet below the surface of the water. It was silent footage, but Conner had a couple of composers, Terry Riley and Patrick Gleeson, provide a soundtrack. It is meditative with a droning and repetitive bass line.

The effect is soothing, even though you’re looking at a weapon of mass destruction. It reminds me of a certain religion which aestheticizes an instrument of torture (a crucifix) with soft organ music in the background. (There was an Italian fascist bomber pilot in the 1930s who wrote a poem about how the bombs he dropped on Ethiopia looked like blooming roses.) That doesn’t mean that Conner was prettifying mushroom clouds to the point they didn’t bother him. In fact, he and his wife moved to Mexico in 1961 because they were so disturbed by the prospect of nuclear war. It was a distinct possibility in those days. (“Bomb,” a poem by Gregory Corso, was written in 1958. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb came out in 1964 and does not have a happy ending.) There are far more nuclear weapons now, more countries have them, and the bombs are vastly more powerful, but most people aren’t so worried (some of them are medicated). The fact that it wasn’t militarily necessary to drop atom bombs on civilians in Japan is even more disturbing.


The last part of the film is a long serene view of the ocean with its Brownian motion and an overcast sky. When I first walked in it was near the end of the film and it looked peaceful. I didn’t realize how many explosions had preceded it.

Watch an excerpt of CROSSROADS (1976) here

When I walked out of the room I was surrounded with Angels – the life-size shadowy silhouettes made when Conner stood between photosensitive paper and the light. Anything touching the paper, like an open hand, was white (like a negative).

Conner was born in Kansas in 1933 (he went to high school with the poet Michael McClure). He studied art and moved to San Francisco in 1957 where he was part of the Beat community. He made assemblages with the ragged hermeticism of objects wrapped in torn nylons, like Spider Lady House (1959). His sculptures have a psycho-morbid look. There is a semi-deteriorated corpse melting into a piece of furniture (Couch, 1959). Child (1959) is another waxen horror story (the film Psycho by Hitchcock came out in 1960). Crucifixion (1960) is not a happy ending.


He does have a certain wit, however. In the middle of a collage of pin-up photos from the 1950s he put his Order to Report for Armed Forces Physical Exam. An assemblage in memory of a silent movie star (Valentino) has two nylon stockings stuffed with pearls and hanging in a manner of testicles.

Around this time he was making short films, throwing together frenetic sequences of found footage – old newsreels, commercials, military training films, and adding music. He is considered the father of music videos, but says it was “not my fault.” Dennis Hopper was a friend and colleague and gave Conner credit for expanding his own awareness of what film could do. He said the hallucinatory sequence in Easy Rider was inspired by Bruce Conner’s work.

There were also drawings with the most painstaking detail as if done by a loner in a dark closet. That is in contrast to the extroversion of his movies. He goes from tiny inkblot drawings looking like the pelvic bones of mice to massive explosions and screaming pre-dead punks. His work is delicate, eclectic, and electrifying, full of sudden death and sodden with the gravitational pull of the unconscious.

A MOVIE (1958) (12 minutes)

A collage of found footage set to “Pines of Rome” by Respighi. There is a countdown, 10, 9, 8, etc., interrupted by a stripper, and a few seconds later, “THE END.” A man on a submarine looking through a periscope – cut to a naked woman – cut back to a torpedo being fired. Later on there is more military footage and cartoons where guns appear as phallic objects (he’s being satirical). I think guns are anal. A phallus doesn’t kill people, it’s full of life. As for it having any resemblance to a missile – there are not many men who want their organ to take off and explode in the distance… There is plenty of destruction in the film, but I think it defies analysis. Conner considered it an “anti-movie,” but it has the basic function of a strip of celluloid passing rapidly over a beam of light: hypnotizing humans who are sitting in the dark.

COSMIC RAY (1961) (4 minutes, 43 seconds)

As if a song like “What’d I Say” is not infectious and intense enough, Conner throws a lot of manic cuts and splices at it. It’s like looking at a stripper through a kaleidoscope (overlapping and colliding with herself from different angles). Not surprisingly a naked woman leads to fireworks and guns are going off.

BREAKAWAY (1966) (5 minutes, 16 seconds)

After being blown away by the atom bombs (a nuclear screen test) I wandered into another dark room and stood there while a woman (Toni Basil) was dancing with abandon on the wall. This was footage that Conner shot himself and turned into a kind of four-dimensional cubism with lots of fragmentation and blurred movements. At times the woman seems to have six arms. She is in various stages of undress and there are glimpses of a dark bush (the 60s were so primitive). The music is one of her songs, though distorted.

MONGOLOID (1978) (3 minutes, 41 seconds)

Here’s an example of Bruce Conner using old commercials, scientific experiment films, and other found footage to make a music video for Devo. I saw Devo at the Mabuhay Club in North Beach in 1977. I think it was their first appearance on the West Coast. Conner was taking photos of the local punk scene around that time and they were printed in Search and Destroy (by Vale). I was probably standing around with him on various nights in a dingy club and like a fool I never tried to meet him. The museum had a room for his photos. I ran into a couple of ex-girlfriends on the wall (in photos from 1978).

EASTER MORNING (2008) / EASTER MORNING RAGA (1966) (10 minutes)

Conner reworked some old footage from 1966, adding a composition by Terry Riley, “In C.” I saw Riley many years ago on an antique ferryboat in Sausalito. He had long white hair and played a synthesizer to a small adoring crowd.

From the description in the museum:

… [H]e expanded it in duration… and set it to the hypnotic modular structures of music by Terry Riley. Elegiac, fluid imagery of nature, interiors, and exteriors, combined with a trancelike edit and soundtrack, evokes spiritual and Christian motifs of renewal and transcendence of body and mind. This serene example of Conner’s lifelong exploration of cinematic language is linked to his intense drawings and photograms, extending his abstracted depiction of light to the medium of film.

I don’t mind watching an “abstracted depiction of light” for ten minutes, especially when it is accompanied by ancient Chinese instruments. Here and there you can make out the outlines of leaves, the flame of a candle, but most of the time you’re in the dark (literally, with much of the screen remaining dark while furtive lights are toying with the possibility of recognition). What I’m not sure about is how it constitutes “Christian motifs.” If there is “renewal and transcendence” it may be due to spending ten minutes without thinking about the usual things while staring at images which are mostly non-figurative and which do not engage the mind on a rational level. I’m not sure if the absence of something means it was transcended, or if human beings are renewed by being in a trance (reviewing his work is a bit like interpreting dreams).

For Conner the film was a “metaphysical quest for renewal….” He died not long after it was finished.

Watch a short interview with Bruce Conner (SFMOMA):

Photo Credit:
Bombhead 2002/1989 (Magnolia Editions)
Couch, 1963 (

Steven Gray has lived in San Francisco since the 1970’s.  His most recent book of poetry is Jet Shock and Culture Lag. He writes reviews for