New York

Bruce Conner

Curt Marcus, Susan Inglett

For Bruce Conner, it seems, esthetic boundaries are like so many sliding walls in a conjurer’s box: not only has he worked in a range of media with equal fluency, but the repetition in his collages and drawings suggests an amorphous expansion; his found-footage films seem to bleed at the edges; and his assemblages are so loosely conceived that even those that are now decades old and caked with dust seem extraordinarily immediate—even fresh. In 1968 P. Adams Sitney noted in Visionary Film, his seminal book on American avant-garde cinema, that Conner is a “master of the ambivalent attitude; it is the strength of his art and the style of his life.” This insistent ambivalence renders Conner’s work at once elusive and energetic, beautiful and brutal, mysterious and ironic.

Two of Conner’s unsettling, allusive assemblages were presented in the exhibition at Curt Marcus. One was a pair of shoes he wore between 1960 and 1964, and then nailed together when he moved from Mexico City to Wichita, Kansas. Hanging inside a glass box, they were festooned with delicate beads, feathers, bits of fur, fringe, and embroidery thread, filled with a dried snakeskin and a lightbulb, and decorated with patterns reminiscent of ’60s body-painting. In the other—a jellyfishlike assemblage entitled Lady Brain, 1960—a nylon stocking dangled from a box covered with shells, fringe, and layers of more nylon now dark with grime. Heralding the exhibition of similarly fetishistic objects in Artforum in 1962, Phil Leider noted how Conner’s works are inflected by an acute awareness of death: “The death symbol in Conner’s work is always the dead object,” he wrote, “and the dead object is always present.”

Many of the works on paper are arrayed with Rorschach blots, elegant but oddly morbid hieroglyphs that seem the result of careful planning, while others contain obsessively detailed masses of what resembles atmospheric matter, vegetation, and even flesh. Collaged engravings—which hauntingly refer to Max Ernst’s collage “novels,” though they are perhaps even less narratival—are riddled with esoteric references, inevitably recalling the work of fellow underground filmmakers Kenneth Anger, Wallace Berman, and Harry Smith. Although Conner’s alchemically inflected universe is particularly reminiscent of Berman’s most memorable works (the collages incorporating cabalistic symbols), Conner seems even more likely to defer the possibility of transformation or resolution. His intermit-tent deployment of Masonic imagery, for example, suggests more an invocation of the obsession with lost truths one finds in esoteric doctrine than an attempt to borrow from the intensity of its symbolism.

The concurrent exhibition at Susan Inglett also presented a selection of Conner’s films in video format, but focused on editions and works on paper. Two of the works on display seemed emblematic of Conner’s independent artistic stance: a handprint in blood from 1965 made in defiance of the orthodoxies of printmaking, and a lockbox containing documents including a Xeroxed “edition” of 20 sets of fingerprints. The latter was produced in 1974 in reaction to a demand by the California State University at San Jose for a set of fingerprints (a condition of employment). Insisting that the fingerprints were his own artistic property, Conner offered to settle the matter by donating one set from the “edition” to the university.

Conner’s found-footage films—which remain inimitable despite their considerable influence—perhaps embody his elusive esthetic in its purest form. His faux-epic, A Movie, 1958, riddled, like much of his work, with flashes of dark comedy and equally dark poetry, pictures a universe that is structured only by an indelible rhythm and characterized by the ambiguous beauty of images such as the slow bloom of a mushroom cloud, or the sinking of a ship that marks the film’s close.

Kristin M. Jones