Jean Conner was married to Bruce Conner from 1957 until his death in 2008. As a result, she tends to be overshadowed by her husband’s larger than life reputation as an artist, filmmaker, light show pioneer, and all-around conceptual provocateur. But Jean is a major artist in her own right, continuously pursuing her work as a painter and collagist, of which the recently reissued Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle affords only a tantalizing glimpse. Though she appeared in the well-known Spatsa Gallery show Something Akin to Dada in 1959, Jean rarely exhibited her art, but her own reputation has begun to flower in the years since Bruce’s death. Her work currently appears in The Rat Bastard Protective Association show at LA’s the Landing, and she recently shared a collage retrospective, YES! Glue, with Bruce at Sonoma State’s University Art Gallery.
As a writer interested in Jean’s art, I’ve tried to avoid bugging her about Bruce, because she gets enough of that as his lifetime partner and co-trustee, with their son Robert, of the Conner Family Trust, which oversees Bruce’s massive, diverse, and often difficult to conserve oeuvre. What finally broke my resolve was the retrospective Bruce Conner: It’s All True, which opened at MoMA in July and is currently installed at SFMOMA through January 22, 2017. Shortly before the show moved in October, Jean was kind enough to let me come by the Glen Park home she and Bruce purchased in the early 1970s. There we sat at the kitchen table for a good three and a half hours, looking through the retrospective’s catalog as I quizzed her on Bruce’s art and their life together.
The Rumpus: Bruce was a famously difficult customer when it came to dealing with institutions like art museums, and now here he is being shown at MoMA. What do you think of It’s All True and what do you think Bruce would have thought of it?
Jean Conner: Oh, I’m real pleased with it; I think it will be even better in San Francisco because it still looks like a museum show in New York, and I don’t feel it will look quite like a museum show here. They’re going to put more color on the walls so that it’ll be more creating atmospheres and rooms like Bruce liked to do in his shows. With gallery shows, he always created things with atmosphere and was very particular about the lighting and such.
I don’t know whether Bruce would have liked some of it. Well, he probably would have liked it, but I’m sure he would have rejected it. He would have stopped it, because they didn’t have enough time. They probably got to work on it a year ahead of time. There were lots of mistakes in the little cards that are around next to the pictures, mistakes of dates and things like that. There was one thing where the lighting was bad, that would have harmed the piece—I guess it was an inkblot drawing—if they left it that way. It was one that had a reflection on it that would fade it. So little things like that.
Rumpus: One of the many showstoppers in the retrospective is the early assemblage UNTITLED (1954-61), on the back of which is a collage consisting largely of images of nude women, along with his draft card and various labels like “WARNING” and “FRAGILE.” What can you tell us about his practice of hiding things on the back of his art?
Conner: That was the first really big collage that he ever did and the back was never meant to be shown. Peter Boswell [co-curator of the 1999 Walker Art Center show Bruce Conner: 2000 BC] was the person who insisted it should be shown and he convinced Bruce to show it. The thing is, Bruce worked in galleries and museums and such and so he got to see the back of some of the old paintings. He got fascinated by the stickers they had on them, telling where they had been shown and other things that had been put on the back or what somebody had written on the back. So that’s what he decided, to have all these secret messages on the back of things.
Rumpus: The section of It’s All True devoted to your 1962 sojourn in Mexico invokes the surrealist poet Philip Lamantia, whose book Destroyed Works (Auerhahn Press, 1962) features a photograph of Bruce’s no longer extant assemblage, SUPERHUMAN DEVOTION (1959). The section of the show devoted to printed matter features Destroyed Works as well as a photograph of the back of SUPERHUMAN DEVOTION. Can you describe this period of Bruce’s assemblages?
Conner: SUPERHUMAN DEVOTION, I think, was two pieces of glass. Everything was stuffed in between the two pieces. He did several works like that and most of them got destroyed because the glass broke; there was no way to put it back together again. They’re actually window frames he was using, because he’d get these window frames out of buildings at that time they were tearing down the old Fillmore area, when they were moving out all the black people. He would go out at night and take off with the windows. It was sort of like that; it was easy to find old things like that at that time. McAllister Street was just a street of little shops with, I think they liked to call ’em antique stores, but, of course, it was junk stores. He was fascinated by how people arranged things.
Rumpus: The broken glass of SUPERHUMAN DEVOTION and the poem from Destroyed Works “The Bride Front and Back (for Bruce Conner’s ‘The BRIDE’)” make me think of Marcel Duchamp and his famously broken The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even [a.k.a. the Large Glass] (1915-23). Was Bruce alluding to Duchamp with THE BRIDE (1960)?
Conner: Well, it’s more the Dickens story, Great Expectations, where the bride is sitting at the table for years and years, in her wedding dress. Actually, Bruce was showing it at the Batman Gallery, and it caught on fire. He had lit the candles on it. So it’s had some restoration at one point. It was probably much whiter at one time; now it’s pretty grey.
Rumpus: These things must be a nightmare to conserve.
Conner: Well, you’re not supposed to dust them. He didn’t like them dusted. When he was showing them before we went to Mexico at the Geldof Gallery, the first big gallery show he had, he went in one day and Mrs. Geldof was dusting the assemblages. He went in to clean the mirrors, I think, so I guess he put her straight.
Rumpus: Yet even that recalls Duchamp, who let The Large Glass accumulate dust for six months, so he could incorporate it into the paint. Was Bruce thinking much about Duchamp during this period?
Conner: I don’t know. He was showing at the Alan Gallery in New York, and Duchamp showed things at the Alan Gallery. I don’t think he actually ever met Duchamp; he made a box [THE MARCEL DUCHAMP TRAVELLING BOX (1963)] that he had given to the Alan Gallery to give to Duchamp, who kept it for quite a long time. Then Charles Alan at the gallery told this story: one morning when it was a terribly windy day, cold and snowy and really awful in New York, here came Mrs. Duchamp with this box. She said that her husband had insisted that she had to bring it to him right that day and Alan was just really upset because, he said, Duchamp really treated women terribly. It was such an awful day and here she came—I don’t know how old she was at that time—walking there to deliver this box to the Alan Gallery.
Rumpus: Did Duchamp want him to sell it? Or he was just giving it back?
Conner: I don’t think so. He was just giving it back.
Rumpus: The TRAVELLING BOX alludes to Duchamp in multiple ways; the box itself being glass recalls the Large Glass while the twine wrapping the center invokes his assisted readymade With Hidden Noise (1916). The contents of the box are an inkpad and a stamp of Bruce’s signature. While it could be regarded as a reference to the role of the signature in Duchamp’s readymades, the stamp seems much more related to Bruce’s own preoccupation with the role of his own signature in his art.
Conner: Yeah, that was part of the thing with Charles Alan and the signatures. When Bruce would show his artwork in a gallery, people wanted to know about the signature; if he signed it on the back, they couldn’t see it. Bruce didn’t like putting his name on the front and so he would sign his name as small as possible and hide it and then send Alan a map so that he could find the signature. Then he had this stamp made of his name and of his signature and he sent it to Alan and told him that he could stamp anything he wanted to, and he also told Charles that he should practice, that he can just go ahead and sign his name on things. Charles said he really spent time trying to write “Bruce Conner” and he got pretty good at it, but he never used it.
Rumpus: Bruce seemed to wrestle with identity generally as a metaphysical concept—hence his conceptual pieces concerning the name “Bruce Conner”—but also specifically in relation to the value the name and signature of the artist confers on the individual items of the oeuvre. Why did he resort to anonymous and pseudonymous works around the turn of the century?
Conner: Well, he got to a point where he would take out a piece of paper, look at it and realize, this an expensive piece of paper, he has to do something nice, that’s gonna sell, and he just didn’t want to do it. I said, “Look, you like drawing them, just do them. You don’t need to sell them, you don’t need to put your name on it. We can keep them in a drawer.” So he started inventing other names for them and did inkblots where he called himself “Anonymous” and “Anonymouse” and “Emily Feather.” Emily Feather did things in blue. She also did some black and white eventually.
Rumpus: The final period when inkblot drawings become his primary form of expression is fascinating; given their relationship to Bruce’s long battle with sclerosing cholangitis, these inkblots bring to mind late Matisse turning to decoupage after he no longer has the physical capacity for painting and sculpture. What can you tell us about this late period of Bruce’s art?
Conner: The last year he was doing inkblots all the time up until where he couldn’t use his fingers anymore. Tiny, tiny little things that he could do. It’s amazing to look at some of the inkblots and see how tiny they were. The amount of time he must have spent on some of those was fantastic because for every single one he had to fold the paper. It must dry quickly because he worked fairly steadily on them when he was working. He used a quill; it’s a metal point, a pen you have to dip in the ink. They’re all done with ink, even the blue ones are with blue ink. Depending on how thin your ink is, he would thin it down and put water in it, so it would be really thin so he would get a gray. Once he had folded it, he would press it with his finger and depending on the direction he pressed, he could sort of manipulate what it was going to come out like. Even though he couldn’t see it because the paper was so thick. So he pretty well knew how to do it to get just exactly what he wanted.
What he seemed to go through at the end of his life was pretty horrible. He had no control over his hands or his arms or his legs. So he was in a wheelchair for the last couple months. I was pretty relieved when he finally died. It was pretty bad.
Rumpus: Do you think he was ready to die at that point?
Conner: Oh, he was ready to die off and on. He said that he wouldn’t ever shoot himself because it was such a messy way to go. He was really furious about Brautigan. He thought that was terrible. So he talked about it, and he said he couldn’t do it by himself, but he couldn’t involve me because that would get me probably thrown in prison or something.
Rumpus: But he might have, if it was legal, done an assisted suicide at a certain point?
Conner: Probably, yeah, that’s more or less what happened in the end, I think, because the doctors said, “Well, there’s one more thing we can try.” And Bruce said, “No, that’s it.” And they said, “Well, then, you can’t stay here in the hospital any longer,” so he was sent home for hospice, and he was gone within a week.
Photography credits on cover image:
Left column, top to bottom: Courtesy Conner Family Trust; © Edmund Shea Trust, courtesy Conner Family Trust; © Dominic Angerame, courtesy Conner Family Trust; © Kim Stringfellow, courtesy Conner Family Trust.
Center column, top to bottom: Courtesy The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley; © Edmund Shea Trust, courtesy Conner Family Trust; © Edmund Shea Trust, courtesy Conner Family Trust; © Richard Alden Peterson, courtesy beta pictoris gallery/Maus Contemporary, courtesy The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
Right column, top to bottom: © The Jerry Burchard Estate, courtesy Conner Family Trust; Courtesy The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley; Courtesy Conner Family Trust; Courtesy Conner Family Trust.