I’d never seen Bruce Conner’s work and had no idea what to expect, when all of a sudden a small San Francisco gallery advertised a show of his. I went up to see it (this was in the late 1950s, when I was running the old Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles with Ed Kienholz). I could see the work through the gallery’s windows, but on the glass there was a notice that said “Presenting the work of the late Bruce Conner”—as though, sadly, he had died, and the work was being put up regardless. On exhibit were a few of the early Ratbastard-type assemblages. Everybody figured, Well, whoever the hell Bruce Conner was, he’s already dead. It was all fake, of course—he hadn’t died. But Bruce was living in the Midwest at that point, and although we’d heard about him through the poet Michael McClure, who was a friend of his, nobody on the West Coast really knew what he looked like. So Bruce got to see how people reacted to his work assuming that he was deceased. Later, after we became friends, he attended an opening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as me. After that, I sort of took the cue from him and went to social events as someone else on occasion, and once sent someone else out to California as me.
We started showing Bruce at Ferus in 1959. In 1961, he moved with his wife down to Mexico, and shortly afterward I joined him there. I wanted to go down to where my relatives were in Mexico City. (My grandfather, Walter Hopps Sr., went to Tampico to seek his fortune in 1880. He was a character much like the old man in Treasure of the Sierra Madre—except tall instead of short.) While Bruce and I were there, ruins were discovered on my relatives’ property outside of Puebla, south of Mexico City, on the side of a mountain. We wanted to go down and excavate with some workmen and see what we could find. We dug up some old pots and artifacts—nothing spectacular, no gold or anything. It was dusty and difficult work, but quite an adventure. Bruce had been on an expedition once when he was in college, in North Dakota or someplace, trying to excavate Native American relics, so he was really interested in doing this. You could say he generally wanted to be in touch with the old. We found a human skeleton, which we ended up giving to my relatives who owned the property. There was an old stone building and we slept in there in sleeping bags. It wasn’t always easy to get a normal night’s sleep with Bruce around. Stoned, he had visions and thought strange things were going on in the night sky, winged beings coming after him and so on.
I stayed with him at his place in Mexico City for a while, and during that time I helped him edit Cosmic Ray, the movie he made about Ray Charles. He had me cutting up pieces of film. He was quite fun to work with, but he could be crazed as well. One Sunday, we went to my aunt and uncle’s house for an afternoon soiree. We had a late lunch, and then people played croquet in the garden. Bruce refused to play croquet like a normal person, and he was driving everybody nuts by going around and hitting the wrong balls and goofing off.
While he was in Mexico, Bruce was finding things—really raggedy stuff—on the streets. The work he made there took a different turn; it was certainly influenced by the scene in Mexico City and what he was finding. It looked more handmade than the earlier assemblages, a little more crude. Wherever he is, Bruce somehow gets connected with what’s going on. I get the feeling that in certain periods of his work, even when it’s changing, he has a strange instinct for what it is he’s looking for. In terms of the work he made in Mexico, there is a kind of fragile quality to a lot of the materials he used; an almost fugitive quality—fugitive in the sense of being impermanent. Fabrics, cardboard, melted wax—these are vulnerable materials. And in his very best work he tends to use a lot of that, giving things a mellow, often rather dreamy surface—in the assemblages, the inkblots and also the Angels series of photograms, which are life-size versions of what Man Ray had done on a much smaller scale; silhouettes of objects on light-sensitive paper.
Some of Bruce’s drawings from early on are also very faint—strong, but not bold. The more bold graphic works are these strange Rorschachs and repeating patterns, which are mysterious and unclear but nonetheless beautiful abstractions; inchoate symbols or emblems that, if they can be compared to anything else, they would remind me of the French Symbolist Odilon Redon.
Bruce Conner is an original. His art has a quality and a look all its own—even in its several different ways. Bruce has always had a certain mystique, and he’s a terrific contradiction. He’s from Kansas, and when you meet him he can seem like the most normal Midwestern man—like a classically constructed Kansan house. But then there are all these odd corners and nooks; he’s got quite an attic stuck on him, and there are strange things going on in it.