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.

 

 

 

 

 


Uncovering Agnes Martin

For years, seeing Agnes Martin’s celebrated paintings required a pilgrimage. In the mid-1970s, a visit to Martin’s home and studio on a remote mesa in Cuba, New Mexico was not for the faint of heart: Martin could often be seen barreling across arroyos in her pick-up, rescuing lost visitors. Over time, the difficulty of seeing Martin and her paintings became part of the appeal of her work. Martin’s drawings, paintings and prints could increasingly be seen in museums in the United States and Europe, but she remained an “artist’s artist” and her critical reputation eclipsed her popular renown. For many fans of Martin’s work, including Terry Castle, who wrote of her own pilgrimage to see Martin’s paintings in Taos, Martin’s “semi-obscurity [wa]s sort of the point.”

No longer. Thanks to a recent spate of books, exhibitions, and magazine articles, Martin is finally having her moment. A long-overdue retrospective of Martin’s work, co-curated by Frances Morris and Tiffany Bell, closes at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on September 11th and opens at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York on October 7th. The first traveling retrospective of Martin’s work since 1992/1993, the exhibition is part of a critical re-evaluation of Martin’s work and her legacy within the history of art. Indeed, three museums currently have entire rooms devoted to Martin’s paintings—the Harwood Museum; DIA:Beacon; and, most recently, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

For those of us who have studied Martin’s work for years, all the fuss is a welcome change. I first encountered Martin’s work in a museum’s storage room, and was struck by the care with which Martin marshaled her artistic materials to create a drawing of uncommon power and sensitivity. Who was this artist? Why wasn’t she a household name? Why was her work in storage? It certainly wasn’t a question of quality. Martin was notoriously ambivalent with regard to her views on gender and sexuality, though there is no doubt that both worked against her in the art market. And while Martin often resisted large-scale exhibitions—for years, she declined to have an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art because she did not want a scholarly catalog produced—she was surprisingly savvy in the promotion of her art. To attract the notice of the New York dealer Betty Parsons in the late 1950s, for example, Martin rented an abandoned storefront outside of Taos and put up an exhibition of her own work—a solo show to compete with the best of them.

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Drawing the Line: The Early Work of Agnes Martin uncovers the ambition, determination and grit that characterized Martin’s rapid creative evolution, arguing that the germs of Martin’s artistic success can be found in her early work. It’s essential reading for anyone who visits the retrospective, and proves a useful companion for visitors who spend time with her paintings in museums across the globe. If seeing Martin’s art no longer requires a four-wheel drive vehicle, the rewards are no less spectacular.


Christina Bryan Rosenberger is an art historian living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is a contributor to Tate Modern’s 2015 exhibition catalogue Agnes Martin and recently wrote on Martin’s 1978 film Gabriel for Artforum. She has taught modern art at the University of New Mexico and has served as Research Coordinator for the Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art at the Harvard Art Museums.


Enter to win one of two copies of Drawing the Line: The Early Work of Agnes Martin in our Goodreads.com giveaway through August 20th.


BRUCE CONNER: IT’S ALL TRUE opens at MoMA this weekend

Defying strict classification and transcending the limitations of any single genre, multimedia artist Bruce Conner is being celebrated in an extensive retrospective which opens this weekend at MoMA NY, before coming to the newly-opened San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this Fall (October 29, 2016–January 29, 2017), followed by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain in 2017.

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BRUCE CONNER: IT’S ALL TRUE, co-published with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Referencing the artist’s inimitable and ever-changing methods, the subtitle of the exhibition — IT’S ALL TRUE — was derived from a letter that the artist wrote to his friend and collaborator, Paula Kirkeby, in 2000, listing the many ways he had been characterized in the media (see a portion of the letter in the catalogue frontispiece pictured below).

Conner, who died in 2008 after having lived in the Bay Area for more than fifty years, is not only a seminal figure regionally, but also nationally and beyond. His avant-garde film work remains a touchstone in the international film scene, as well as across a spectrum of contemporary art. The exhibition at SFMOMA will be the most comprehensive view of Conner’s work to date and will include more than 300 works from all media. We are hometown proud to be co-publishing this extraordinary catalogue.

At the recent press preview in New York, MoMA director Glenn Lowry discussed the opening of this unprecedented exhibition with curators Stuart Comer and Laura Hoptman, captured in the video below.

Should you be in one of the three venue cities be sure to see the exhibit, and to get a copy of this impressive catalogue visit your local bookstore, or purchase online at SFMOMAIndieBoundAmazonBarnes & Noble, or UC Press (to save 30% on ucpress.edu, enter discount code 16M4197 at checkout).

You can also enter to win a copy in our Goodreads giveaway through July 7, 2016.