Bruce Conner and the Making of a Community

by Anastasia Aukeman, author of Welcome to Painterland: Bruce Conner and the Rat Bastard Protective Association

About sixteen years ago, as the artist Bruce Conner and I were leaving his favorite restaurant in San Francisco, we began talking about the Rat Bastard Protective Association. I had been working with Bruce for about three years by that time, as director of the art gallery that represented him in New York City, and had already mounted the show “Dead Punks and Ashes” for the gallery, of Conner’s photos and photocopy collages that memorialize punk rockers from his Mabuhay Garden days in the late 1970s. I had also worked with him on an exhibition of his inkblot drawings from 1975-1997. Now I wanted to know more about his early career.


“Perhaps we could do a show of your assemblages,” I told him, pronouncing the word with a French inflection. He stopped in his tracks and shot me a withering look. “Assemblage?” He practically spat the word. “Assemblage? This is not France. San Francisco is not the Paris of the West. It’s assemblage. Here, we say assemblage.” For someone who didn’t know Bruce, the outburst might have ended the conversation. But I had learned that his impatience often stemmed from the frustration of having his work misinterpreted, so I simply made a mental note of the correction and charged on.

I asked Conner if the assemblages (no French inflection) he was making in the 1950s were influenced by the work of Los Angeles-based artist Edward Kienholz, who was also making assemblages around that time. The answer was a resounding no. In fact, Conner said, Kienholz was influenced by his work, not the other way around.

Conner went on to say that he was deeply influenced by the work of his friends in San Francisco, and that it was his desire to unify this small group of artists and poets that led him to create the Rat Bastard Protective Association soon after moving there in the fall of 1957. To formalize the group, Conner made what he called the “approved seal of the Rat Bastard Protective Association,” a rubber stamp designed to be used by members to sign their artworks and anything else they deemed worthy of their approval. Like so much of Conner’s works, the rubber stamp was multivalent: it signaled belonging, it commodified, it spoke of hubris, and it was funny. Most of all, though, the stamp was designed to unify a group of artists who felt alienated from the mainstream and deprived of institutional acceptance (if only because few knew about them).

The sense of community that Conner described that day caught my imagination and I recognized—and Conner affirmed—that an entire book could be written about the Rat Bastard Protective Association, these young artists and poets who were working on the margins in San Francisco and whose story outlines the subversive beginnings of the Beat Generation in the 1950s. Welcome to Painterland: Bruce Conner and the Rat Bastard Protective Association is the culmination of that long-ago conversation.

Listen to the Modern Art Notes podcast interview with Anastasia Aukeman and Gary Garrels, curator of the ‘BRUCE CONNER: IT’S ALL TRUE’ exhibition currently at MoMA, and opening at SFMOMA on October 29, 2016.  Gary Garrels is also one of the editors of the impressive exhibition catalogue UC Press published in association with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

You can enter to win a copy of Welcome to Painterland in our Goodreads giveaway through August 26, 2016.

IMG_9532Anastasia Aukeman is an art historian and curator who teaches at Parsons School of Design in New York City.