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Bruce Conner: Mabuhay Gardens

In Memoriam: Bruce Conner (1933–2008)

Bruce Conner, the great, irascible, and ever-evolving San Francisco–based artist known for his assemblages, films, drawings, and interdisciplinary works, passed away on July 7, 2008. The prototype for much of today’s repurposed art, Conner’s gauzy assemblages of salvaged materials, such as doll parts and nylon stockings, attracted much art-world attention in the late fifties. His landmark film A Movie (1958), made from scraps of newsreels, soft-core porn, and B movies, augured the future of another form, the music video. Conner moved to the Bay Area in 1957 and quickly became a significant member of the lively Beat community, forming his own makeshift group of funk artists, the Rat Bastard Protective Association. In the sixties, Conner could be found at the Avalon Ballroom designing light shows; when the seventies punk scene emerged, Conner was there as well, capturing the dark vitality of the music in photographs taken at the Mabuhay Gardens. Throughout these countercultural trends, Conner continued to work in many media—drawings, photography, films, sculptural objects—creating powerful works summarized in an ambitious 1999 touring survey, 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story, Part II. To further highlight his crucial influence, A Movie was placed on the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.

Bruce Conner’s association with BAM/PFA goes back many years. The museum’s collection contains numerous drawings, including the exquisite felt-pen renderings of the mid-sixties and the much later inkblot drawings. His earliest work is represented by Untitled Collage with Hair Growing Out of It from 1960. Conner was also a MATRIX artist (number 102), displaying his otherworldly photograms, full-scale contact bodyprints on large rolls of photographic paper. Made with Edmund Shea, these towering works seem to capture the trace of one’s spirit. One of these, Angel, is in the BAM collection. Almost all of Conner’s seminal film works reside in the Pacific Film Archive collection, including America Is Waiting (1982), Looking for Mushrooms (1961–67), Marilyn Times Five (1968–73), Mongoloid (1978), Take the 5:10 to Dreamland (1977), and Report (1963–67). The monumental Crossroads (1976), one of Conner’s most ambitious films, was the object of a PFA preservation project assisted closely by the artist. A pristine 35mm print of this uncanny ode to nuclear terror is now housed in PFA’s vault.

Bruce Conner: Mabuhay Gardens, an exhibition of Conner’s photographs of San Francisco’s punk scene that were recently acquired for our collection, is on view at the Berkeley Art Museum through August 3.