Bruce Conner

By: David Smay
November 18, 2012

BRUCE CONNER (1933–2008) is an apostate from the high church of Modernism. His great heresy being that pure forms didn’t interest him; he preferred pulling apart the physical aspects of production to create discomfiting works of recontextualization. Conner pursued his interests almost as a critique of art careerism, abandoning each comfortable niche as he became established in it. He helped found assemblage with his disturbingly funky, sexualized, almost gothic pieces like “The Black Dahlia.” Conner repurposed the Victorian wreckage of San Francisco’s Fillmore redevelopment, wrapping used nylons over his structures to evoke everything from pendulous egg sacks to industrial cobwebs. Then he zagged left into experimental film exploring the American infatuation with war cast bitterly against sex and commercialism, re-editing found footage to new soundtracks, and using film leader itself to organize his films as recurring rhythmic elements. Again and again, Conner exploited media in unorthodox ways, creating iconic photocollages like “MindBomb,” playing with photosensitive paper to create his full body Angels, or toying with inkblots. He picked up the newly invented felt pen, and drew intricate mazelike mandalas, starting in one corner of a paper and filling the entire page without lifting his pen or crossing a line, continuing until the ink faded then ran out. A leading figure among Beat era artists on the West Coast and a close compeer of Wallace Berman and Jay Defeo, he dove headlong into the hippie end of the Sixties as an innovator of light shows, and re-emerged in the mid-Seventies as the key chronicling photographer of San Francisco’s punk scene after seeing Devo at the Mabuhay. Being art nerds and experimental film fans, Devo knew Conner’s work, including Toni Basil’s 1966 proto-video “Breakway,” so they hired him to create the groundbreaking video for “Mongoloid” in 1976. Conner never ceased his restless formal innovations; the last major project he worked on was to convert his bitingly satirical, surrealist photocollages into large Jacquard tapestries that pulled together his comic, bleak, and exalted sensibilities into one final, almost Dadaist gesture.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Kirk Hammett and Wyndham Lewis.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Postmodernist (1924-33) and Anti-Anti-Utopian (1934-43) Generations.


Art, Cuspers, HiLo Heroes

What do you think?

  1. Thanks for this, David. A fascinating, protean artist! But: Toni Basil did a video in 1966?? Must know more…

  2. Well, that’s Toni herself in the above picture, the brunette, and that’s her best buddy Terri Garr in the glasses. When she had her big hit with “Mickey” in 1982 she was pushing 40.

    I wrote a long article about Toni for Kim Cooper’s Scram; she’s had a fascinating career. She and Terri both came to Los Angeles to become dancers and both of them are go-going in The T.A.M.I. show in 1964. Toni established herself as the premier rock dance choreographer during that era, and became deeply enmeshed with the counter cultural Canyon scene that revolved around Wallace Berman. She dated Dean Stockwell, was photographed by Dennis Hopper, she’s in both Head and Easy Rider.

    In the mid-seventies she became intrigued by black teenage kids dancing in South Central L.A. and formed the first Hip Hop dance troupe, The Lockers. They appeared on Soul Train, SNL, opened for everybody including Frank Sinatra. The Lockers included Fred “Rerun” Berry, and Don Campbell (the inventor of locking and popping) and Shabba Doo!

    Through her connections with Bruce Conner and Devo (they played on her first album), she became one of the major innovators of the rock video, most famously directing the “Once in a Lifetime” video for Talking Heads.

    She is a real Hilo Hero.

    Here are some cool clips:

    Conner’s Breakaway vid:

    Conner’s video for “Mongoloid”:

    Her dance scene with Davey in Head:

    And an absolute must-see (you might want to embed this one), Toni and the Lockers on Soul Train:

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