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.

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“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.

 

 

 

 

 


Avant-Garde Art in Japan and Brazil

Rio de Janeiro’s Paço Imperial is currently hosting an unusual retrospective of Japanese postwar art, ‘The Emergence of The Contemporary: Avant-Garde Art In Japan 1950-1970‘. Curator Pedro Erber is the author of Breaching the Frame: The Rise of Contemporary Art in Brazil and Japan, which similarly examines the uncanny contemporaneous trajectories of the Japanese and Brazilian postwar avant-garde art movements.

The exhibition’s introductory text is below, and Artinfo’s coverage of the exhibition includes an image slideshow as well as an interview with Erber:

BLOUIN ARTINFO spoke with curator Pedro Erber on the eve of the opening to find out more about the existing and underappreciated affinities between the Japanese and Brazilian postwar avant-garde art movements, the fertile yet turbulent situation in Rio in the run-up to the Olympics next month, and the contemporary significance of re-enacting certain seminal performance pieces from 1960s Tokyo as part of this exhibition.

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In the decades that followed the Second World War, Japan was the stage for some of the most radically innovative avant-garde movements of the twentieth century. Visual artists, critics, writers engaged in a common effort to reinvent the place of art in a society that rebuilt itself after the devastation of war and years of cultural censorship under the fascist regime of the Japanese empire.

In 1963, Miyakawa Atsushi, one of the most acute theoreticians of postwar art in Japan, observed that the reach and nature of the transformations taking place in artistic expression was such that the modern paradigm had become obsolete and in its place emerged a new paradigm, which he termed, in almost premonitory fashion, “contemporary art (gendai bijutsu).” Miyakawa’s observation referred not only to Japanese art, which could not be regarded as an isolated phenomenon. Rather, it resonated a general effort to think contemporaneity as the sharing of a common historical time across national, linguistic, and cultural borders.

The Emergence of the Contemporary presents the panorama of avant-garde art in Japan between 1950 and 1970 focusing on artists whose practice and theoretical reflections marked the transition from painting towards three-dimensional space, performance, and conceptual art. The exhibition brings together some of the most representative works of the period, besides documentary photographs, movies and other historical documents. It contextualizes the trajectory of the avant-garde in its dialogue with events that shaped the history of the postwar era, such as the movements against the renewal of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan (ANPO) in 1960 and 1970, the Expo ’70 in Osaka, and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in particular.

Frustrating desires of exoticism, postwar avant-garde art from Japan reveals deep affinities with the trajectory of the Brazilian avant-garde, from painting to the object-based art and spectator participation. In addition, in the recurrences and resonances between 1964 and 2016, between Olympics past and present, another meaning of the contemporary emerges, in which the radical creativity and the impetus of social intervention of Japan’s postwar avant-garde art echo here and now, suggesting possibilities and limits for present day art.

Through a division more thematic then chronological, the exhibition highlights three moments of avant-garde art in Japan: Politics of Abstraction presents 1950s abstract and its discursive context; Art and Social Engagement approaches the transformations of politically engaged art from social realism to direct action and urban intervention; Matter, Concept, Act focuses on the inflection of political art into philosophical inquiry, the question of matter and dematerialization of art.

Get your own copy of Erber’s book, Breaching the Frame: The Rise of Contemporary Art in Brazil and Japan, online at IndieBoundAmazonBarnes & Noble, or UC Press (to save 30% on ucpress.edu, enter discount code 16M4197 at checkout).


Pedro R. Erber teaches in the Department of Romance Studies at Cornell University. He holds a Ph.D. in Asian Studies from Cornell University, M.A. in philosophy from Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro, and B.A. in philosophy from Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. Erber is the author of Política e verdade no pensamento de Martin Heidegger and articles on intellectual history, art, literature, and aesthetics.