Artist Bruce Conner, 74; Avante-Garde Filmmaker

Bruce Conner assembled films from other people's images.
Bruce Conner assembled films from other people's images. (Courtesy Of Gallery Paule Anglim - Courtesy Of Gallery Paule Anglim)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 10, 2008

Bruce Conner, 74, a filmmaker-without-camera who spliced together old newsreels, commercials, pornography, educational movies and other "found footage" to create powerful social commentary and became a leading craftsman of the avant-garde, died July 7 at his home in San Francisco. He was reported to have had a liver ailment.

David Sterritt, chairman of the National Society of Film Critics and an expert on avant-garde movies, said Mr. Conner was "the greatest master of 'found footage' cinema," and his surrealistic short movies, among them " Valse Triste" and "Take the 5:10 to Dreamland," had a major influence on early music videos.

Since the late 1950s, Mr. Conner had been a central figure in San Francisco's Beat scene of counterculture artists that included poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and visual artists Jay DeFeo and Wallace Berman. Mr. Conner described a "spiritual quest" behind their endeavors that contrasted with what he called the more cynical approach of Andy Warhol and the Pop Art movement.

A hallmark of Mr. Conner's work, now common to commercials and music videos, was the use of rapid editing of stock images -- scenes of B-list starlets, race-car accidents, soft-core pornography, propaganda films and old Westerns -- to create silly, absurd, erotic, lyrical and always disorienting juxtapositions.

He addressed progressive themes as a filmmaker, including women's liberation in " Breakaway" (1966) through quicksilver editing of singer-dancer Toni Basil; and the dehumanizing aspects of Cold War society in " Mongoloid" (1978), featuring the punk music of Devo.

"He was a social critic who deplored the materialism and conformity of modern life, and many of his films attack these vices in angry and witty ways," Sterritt said. "His 1967 classic 'Report,' for instance, uses images and sounds surrounding President John F. Kennedy's assassination to show how the media will exploit even the greatest tragedy to boost their ratings and sell their products."

Besides his filmmaking, Mr. Conner was a gifted photographer, sculptor and painter and grew fascinated by the use of detritus -- nylon stockings, broken dolls, costume jewelry -- that were objects of utility and beauty in an earlier American age.

His collages on film or canvas were assembled to make biting or poignant statements about nuclear war, violence against women and other themes. He never won a mass audience but won a corps of enthusiastic supporters in the art world.

Michael Duncan, writing in Art in America in 2000, called Mr. Conner "the consummate cult artist. . . . With his artistic restlessness and ornery integrity, Conner has found little time for the hype machine of the art world, scorning its emphasis on signature styles and artists' biographies. At the same time, he has repeatedly explored themes and techniques that other artists have come to later."

Bruce Guldner Conner was born Nov. 18, 1933, in McPherson, Kan., and raised in Wichita.

As a young man, he befriended Michael McClure, a poet and playwright who became an intimate of Beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. McClure helped lure Mr. Conner to San Francisco after the latter's graduation from the University of Nebraska.

Mr. Conner established himself as a leading assemblage artist, a practitioner in found objects that would otherwise be carried away by dump trucks.

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