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.






Steve Waksman Wins 2010 Woody Guthrie Book Award

This Ain’t the Summer of Love cover imageSteve Waksman has been named the winner of the 2010 Woody Guthrie Award for This Ain’t the Summer of Love: Conflict and Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk by the U.S. branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music. The Woody Guthrie Book Award committee, which was comprised of Anahid Kassabian (University of Liverpool), David Brackett (McGill University) and David Shumway (Carnegie Mellon University), considered 22 books for the award that recognizes the most distinguished English language monograph in popular music studies published during 2009.

“The committee voted unanimously for this book, praising its combination of rich historical research and insightful critical analysis of music and performance,” said David Shumway, chair of the committee. “Waksman successfully makes connections between two genres usually understood to have little to do with each other, and in so doing significantly revises the history of recent popular music.”

Waksman is associate professor of music and American studies at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. His research and teaching interests are in the history of U.S. popular music and popular culture during the 19th and 20th centuries, with particular focus on music technology, the musical production of identity, and live music performance in the public sphere. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota.

Waksman is also the author Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience (Harvard University Press, 1999). Waksman’s essays on the guitar have appeared in the Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World and The Cambridge Companion to the Guitar, among other publications, and in 2008 he was the keynote speaker at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s American Music Masters conference honoring the legacy of Les Paul. In 1998, his dissertation on the electric guitar won the Ralph Henry Gabriel Prize awarded by the American Studies Association.

Conflict and Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk

Book PageSteve Waksman is Associate Professor of Music and American Studies at Smith College. He is the author of Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience, and most recently, This Ain’t the Summer of Love: Conflict and Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk (UC Press, January 2009). Please visit Steve’s blog, The Metal/Punk Continuum.

By: Steve Waksman

The cover of This Ain’t the Summer of Love has a great, iconic photo of Iggy Pop surfing the crowd at the Cincinnati Pop Festival, 1970.  I love this photo, as it captures a perfect 1970s rock moment.  Large crowds like the one that gathered that day at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium were becoming more and more common at the dawn of the Seventies.  The age of arena rock was upon us and most observers took that to mean also the age of the rock superstar, whose larger-than-life persona towered above the crowd.  But in this photo, and at this concert, Iggy towered above the crowd in a completely different way.  He wasn’t a superstar and never would be in the sense of Mick Jagger or Robert Plant.  Rather than take his place above the crowd for granted, he tested it, messed with it, and made it tangible rather than an abstraction.  Lester Bangs captured it best in his great 1970 article on the Stooges that appeared in Creem:

“Iggy is like a matador baiting the vast dark hydra sitting afront him – he enters the audience frequently to see what’s what and even from the stage his eyes reach out searchingly, sweeping the joint and singling out startled strangers who’re seldom able to stare him down.  It’s your stage as well as his and if you can take it away from him, why, welcome to it.  But the King of the Mountain must maintain the pace, and the authority, and few can.  In this sense Ig is a true star of the rarest kind – he has won that stage, and nothing but the force of his own presence entitles him to it.”

Since my publisher and I decided to put Iggy on the cover of my book, my sense of connection to the Stooges has grown even stronger than it used to be.  I’ve dug their music for years, although I came to it later than I would have liked.  Back when I was a teenager, I went through a phase when I used the Rolling Stone Record Guide as my main source for navigating through the back history of rock records.  Even though the Guide was co-edited by Michigan rock refugee Dave Marsh, the Stooges were nowhere to be found in there because their records were out of print at the time (late 1970s).  I read about them elsewhere but it wasn’t until the early 1990s when their original albums were being re-released on CD that I finally had my first hearing of Fun House, which definitely blew my head open.  By that time I’d been listening to varieties of hard rock, metal and punk for years, and had also heard my fair share of avant-garde and experimental music, especially free jazz.  Fun House was one of the few albums I’d encountered that seemed to combine the two and I took to it immediately.

For obvious reasons, Iggy gets the bulk of the attention and acclaim for what the Stooges accomplished.  But as with any great band, he didn’t work as a lone figurehead.  The team of brothers who played first guitar and drums, then bass and drums – Ron and Scott Asheton – were the true heart of the Stooges sound.  All you need to do for proof is listen to “TV Eye” from Fun House, which gets my vote for best Stooges song ever and one of the best, most pounding, unrelenting and downright intense rock songs ever released.  Ron’s guitar and Scott’s drums drive the song forward from start to finish, and Ron’s main riff is a stunner, working the powerful combination of an open throbbing. A string with some crashing barre chords, brutal and basic three-chord rock but with added rhythmic crunch and a touch of dissonance to boot.

I was back in Simi Valley, California, paying my annual winter visit to my parents, when I heard the news that Ron Asheton had died, now just a little over two weeks ago.  He will be missed.  Rather than a moment of silence he deserves a moment of unreserved noise, the most suitable tribute for a true metal/punk pioneer.

Here’s a link to some thoughts by Mike Watt on the Stooges and playing with Ron: