As the artist’s first comprehensive retrospective moves from coast to coast, we’ve got Bruce Conner on our minds. Bruce Conner: It’s All True opened first at the Museum of Modern Art (and closed in early October) and now travels back to Conner’s old stomping grounds in the Bay Area to open on October 29 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Ashley Stull Meyers’ 2014 review of Conner’s work at the Ulrich Museum of Art provides an excellent framing of his practice, whether you’ve recently discovered the artist or have admired his work for years. This article was originally published on October 7, 2014.
Sympathetic magic—the use of a surrogate object to magically influence the person or circumstance it represents—has long been one of my favorite subjects. The Ulrich Museum of Art’s current exhibition, Bruce Conner: Somebody Else’s Prints, is an impressive collection of prints, etchings, and lithographs, a number of which Conner attributed to pseudonyms. The show inventively chronicles the artist’s use of surrogate figures for a variety of political and conceptual gains. In the exhibition are works produced during his brief time as a student at Wichita State University, and also during his initial years in the Bay Area at Magnolia Editions, Kaiser Graphics, and Collectors Press. The result is a mix of fine art and commercially printed work that cheekily micromanages art-historical expectation.
Conservators and historians have always been fascinated by matters of provenance, from potentially inauthentic signatures like the one on Rembrandt’s Self Portrait as a Young Man to underlays of handprints in Jackson Pollock paintings. Bruce Conner, consistently aware of these issues, used pseudonyms and editions to manipulate his place in that system. Conner’s style of sympathetic magic makes a metaphorical voodoo doll of artist-attributed prnts, ultimately inflicting pain on those who trade on the conventional practice of the lower-right-hand corner signature. His refusal to be “marketed” under his own name effectively stuck a pin of uncertainty in the value of his works as salable commodities. Curator Jodi Throckmorton focuses this show on Conner’s many dalliances with markers of authenticity and compiles them into one of the most comprehensive retrospectives to take place outside the Bay Area.
After producing myriad works that reference the horror of the atom bomb, BOMBHEAD became one of Conner’s most well-known pseudonyms. The original collage (of the same name) dates back to 1989, and became an inkjet print in 2002 with the aid of frequent collaborator Don Farnsworth of Magnolia Editions. (The enlarged copy is the most widely circulated image of the exhibition.) Conner had a well-documented history of being fascinated by atom bombs, beginning with influential film Crossroads in 1976. Crossroads featured a 36-minute loop of mushroom clouds and the uncomfortable formalist beauty of explosions. On view in Somebody Else’s Prints are a large number of prints featuring puffs of smoke as a central, emotionally charged theme.
Also featured in the exhibition are examples of Connor’s play with his given name. In addition to exploring issues of the “nom de plum” as political commentary, Conner also had a keen curiosity for the adage, “What’s in a name?” In 1964, after researching the others named “Bruce Conner” in his local phone book, the artist conceived a convention wherein they would all meet and comically blend in their plurality. The Ulrich has managed to secure the buttons Conner produced for such a convention, which aptly read: “I AM BRUCE CONNER, I AM NOT BRUCE CONNER.” The convention remains nothing more than a conceptual gag, and the buttons were never used. They were, however, readopted for Conner’s 1967 run for San Francisco Supervisor. Posters and bumper stickers from the campaign are also featured in Somebody Else’s Prints as a self-appropriation of Conner’s artwork from prior years.
Another of the exhibition’s ingenious uses of ephemera is the display of slides produced for North American Ibis Alchemical Company light shows. During the mid-1960s, Conner engineered painting-laden light projections for psychedelic events and bands that included the Grateful Dead. The artist and his cohort (including filmmaker Ben Van Meter) were known to improvise sequences based on the music, becoming a supplemental, site-specific performance of its own. On loan from the Conner Family Trust, a rare sampling of these slides (now digitally scanned) are projected as the opening work of Somebody Else’s Prints. Conner, naturally, did not engage in this endeavor under his own name, preferring to remain semi-anonymous as part of a collaborative effort.
The final, rarely seen element of the exhibition is biographical evidence of Conner’s attitude toward fingerprinting. Interestingly, Conner refused to be fingerprinted for the faculty files at San Jose State University, at which he briefly taught painting in 1974. His correspondence with SJSU Professor of Art History Kathy Cohen is on view in a vitrine, accompanied by the steel lockbox that would later house the given fingerprints and documentation from the exchange. Conner argued that fingerprints granted inherent value to an object, similarly to a signature. He argued that such objects should not be property of the university without consent. He eventually relented, conceptualizing a compromise wherein the fingerprints would be dually represented as a work of art. In cooperation with the Palo Alto Police Department, Conner made an edition of twenty sets of printed fingerprints meant to parallel the precipitous drop in value that occurs when one object is replicated into many. The Ulrich Museum of Art has allowed visitors the opportunity to leave their fingerprints on the surface of the exhibition’s opening wall text, perhaps as an amusing gesture of solidarity.
Conner announced his “retirement” from the art world on several occasions, but continued to make work each time, a significant portion under the false monikers BOMBHEAD, Emily Feather, Diogenes Lucero, Anonymous, and The Dennis Hopper One Man Show. With Somebody Else’s Prints, the Ulrich Museum of Art has gathered a venerable compilation of all that was eccentric, politically concerned, and conceptually rigorous about the late Bruce Conner. “Sympathetic” proves a key word when evaluating his dedication to a creative class and its collective idealism—as does “magic” in his ability to manifest those concepts as notable work without the benefit of name recognition. Of any enduring artistic legacy Wichita, KS, will provide, Bruce Conner is to date its heaviest hitter.
Bruce Conner: Somebody Else’s Prints is on view at the Ulrich Museum of Art through December 14, 2014.
 Then the University of Wichita.