San Francisco multimedia artist Bruce Conner
of natural causes at the age of 74. He was one the increasingly fewer surviving figures associated with the Bay Area's 1950s and '60s countercultural renaissance, alongside
, Richard Diebenkorn, and
, along with a whole slew of poets, filmmakers, musicians, and writers. (Conner moved to San Francisco in 1957, and by 1959 he founded the Rat Bastard Protective Association, a loose artists association that included Brown, DeFeo, Collins, Hedrick, Wallce Berman, George Herms, and Manuel Neri.) And his
I was fortunate enough to be living in Dallas when the
hosted the 2000 traveling show
2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II
, a thoughtful, mammoth (some 150 pieces), and sublimely witty exhibition organized by Minneapolis'
. I knew Conner's name only through his short films--deliriously inventive assemblages of various footage--specifically 1958's
and, being a big music dork, his 1978 "Mongoloid" (which uses Devo's song of the same name) and 1981 "America Is Waiting" (which uses a piece of music from the David Byrne and Brian Eno album
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts
; you can watch another Conner film using music from this album
But inventive as his movies are, I wasn't quite prepared for the breathtaking scope of his output, which ranged from collage to drawing to sculpture, and how he managed to inject his daft, beguiling sense of humor and disarming observations into everything he did. (As in, there was no
to this show; everything in this show constituted the next phase of his life.) His collages and assemblages especially were surprisingly resonant, working with the same sort of cultural and intellectual archeology that informed Robert Rauschenberg's combines but venturing in more insouciant directions.
Which is not to say that Conner was merely a cynical prankster, only that he could zero in on the absurdity of the normal, recognizing associations that we sometimes take for granted. His 1989 photocopy collage "Bombhead" (pictured above) is one of the images I'll never shake from
: a torso in what could be military dress uniform whose neck and head is the mushroom cloud of an atomic explosion. It's an image that's obvious, unsettlingly prescient, and invitingly cheeky at the same time. It's a visual idea that needs no explanation.
And that economy of communication is what stuck with me from that show. Here was an artist exploring the fears and anxieties and lives of his time, and doing so in a language that was instantly accessible. For a great overview of Conner's own thoughts about his life and work, check out
from 1974 with Paul Karlstrom.