Mushrooms Clouds and Mushrooms

John Haber
in New York City

Bruce Conner and Doug Wheeler's Synthetic Desert

Not everything by Bruce Conner is explosive. So when his art does explode, one had better take notice.

MoMA announces as much, with the image of a nuclear test on the wall outside his retrospective. Yet the real explosion took place in his head. Meanwhile another artist long associated with the West Coast, Doug Wheeler, seeks serenity with his Synthetic Desert, but you may still hear a scream. from Bruce Conner's Crossroads (Conner Family Trust/Museum of Modern Art, 1976)

Paranoia strikes deep

That image of a nuclear test is, of course, already blown up—from military archives of that terrible July day in 1946. And the explosions continue in two of his short films. Both start slowly enough, one in off-kilter footage by Conner himself from his year in Mexico City, starting in late 1961. People meander past close-ups of magic mushrooms. Then the colors take to the sky, in fireworks. The other, from 1976, relies on the dozens of ships and planes off Bikini Atoll to capture the quiet before the cloud rises to encompass everything in black and white.

Is it coincidence that the first is Looking for Mushrooms and the second, Crossroads, of a mushroom cloud? Not one bit, although one is so personal and the other as impersonal as they come. Conner drew for the first on his friendship with Timothy Leary, but he sketched a mushroom cloud as early as 1963—and titled it after a street address in Kansas, where he grew up. Is it a coincidence that the second film's title recalls not just the military's Operation Crossroads, but also a song by Robert Johnson, the blues musician, and then Cream? Probably, but I can imagine his relishing the coincidence. For Conner, the desire to expand experience lived alongside fears of what already lurked in his heart.

He moved all his life between the thrill of motion and hope of a quiet center within, but both carry the creeps. His very first film, A Movie from 1958, cuts rapidly among a succession of speedsters—horsemen, carriages, bicycles, racecars, and sure enough a mushroom cloud. At once comic and exhilarating, it begins with a zeppelin over New York City and ends with a train going off a cliff. Later films revel in a woman's dancing, with the jerky fashions of the 1960s, but also in the Zapruder footage of the Kennedy assassination replayed again and again. Dreams lead to madness, but then paranoia does sometimes follow a trip.

Not that he was a boomer, which may explain why postwar American came as such a shock. Born in 1933, he moved to San Francisco only after his studies in 1957, but he fit right in. He had been working in collage close to abstraction, and soon enough accumulation becomes a sinister habit, much as for a friend, Jay DeFeo. Assemblage starts with Ratbastard in 1958—named for the Rat Bastard Protective Association, a Bay Area artist collective. It takes the form of a filthy handbag lined with newspaper, wire, and nails. It joins everyday possessions and a woman's sexuality, and it takes comfort in neither one.

Hundreds more objects follow, as if Conner were desperate to find release from his fears. Women out of film noir alternate with Christian martyrs, but even a Resurrection is none too pretty. Nor is the Bay Area his only reference point, just as Pop Art everywhere was turning to assemblage. A Last Supper after Leonardo takes the style of color by numbers, just when Andy Warhol used the device as well. A typewriter drawing has its parallel in Carl Andre. Sheet music appears, too, in Romare Bearden, among many others.

Conner keeps returning to music at that. He first set Looking for Mushrooms to "Tomorrow Never Knows" by the Beatles and then to the slow crescendos of Terry Riley's Minimalism. The Beatles hold up just fine in comparison. He found a second wind in punk rock of the late 1970s, when a friend introduced him to Devo. A later film trilogy pays tribute to Ray Charles. Still, these are the artist's obsessions. Three Screen Ray, from 2006, comes off as a music video by someone who could not be bothered to listen to the music.

When the explosions stopped

Mostly, though, the creeps keep piling up, only starting with assemblage around 1960. Women's nylons enclose dark shrines. They evoke both sex and spider's webs, like twin traps that the mind can never escape. They also bind a puppet child to a high chair, as if writing in pain—alluding, too, to a rapist's execution by electric chair. Sculpture in black wax descends that much further into night, including a couch for Sigmund Freud. A hand print stains paper with blood.

Works on paper bring relief, but crafted with a still greater obsessiveness. Ink pierced by points of light gives way to "mandalas" and then found illustrations. Life-size photographs in collaboration with Edmund Shea convert the human body into ghostly angels. Still, Conner kept playing the outsider. When MoMA included him in "The Art of Assemblage" in 1961, he showed up without identification and must have loved it when the museum refused to let him in. He responded by placing an assemblage in front of the museum, not quite barring entrance—and then dumping it in the harbor.

He relished attention getting and anonymity alike, almost to his death in 2008. He exhibited under the name Dennis Hopper, the actor and a friend, and designed buttons proclaiming I Am Not Bruce Conner. (Other buttons omit the "not.") He announced his retirement in 1999, in time for a retrospective at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Yet work kept appearing by, he explained, others that he had hired—including Anonymous and Anonymouse. That said, the explosions had stopped.

For all his eclecticism, he shuffles increasingly between old habits, to the point of superposing a mushroom cloud on a man's head in 1989. Even when he discovers the punk scene at the time of East Village art, he takes it as an excuse to return to bodies distorted by the camera and the dance. The trilogy for Ray Charles recycles old themes as well, from film leader to Mickey Mouse. His last work on paper runs to collage of Victorian imagery after Max Ernst, but without the nightmares, and it says something that he looks back so very long ago. MoMA ends with one final film meditation, Easter Morning from the very year of his death, but expanding on a film from 1966. He is still working with Riley, this time the meditative In C—and still searching for spirituality in the face of death.

Then, too, he was rarely so forward looking all along. The early collage has the grim colors and clotted textures of Kurt Schwitters after World War I, with the addition of ink and gold leaf. The assemblages attain psychological depth, but at the cost of preciousness. They seem far from the energy of Robert Rauschenberg and his combine paintings. They seem further still from formal discipline and experiment. Maybe Conner cared too much after all for the art object, and maybe that is why he comes fully to life only as a filmmaker.

A retrospective called "It's All True" boasts of his ability to disappear before one's eyes. Curated by MoMA's Stuart Comer and Laura Hoptman with SFMOMA's Garry Garrels and Rudolf Frieling, it also makes the case for a major artist. It shows him as painter, sculptor, performance artist, and more. Yet the explosions come only between the mushroom clouds and the mushrooms, with all their majesty and terror, and so at last does release. Crossroads ends with a solitary ship, an empty sky, and a surreal calm. A wild career could almost have ended before it began.

No one can hear you

In space, no one can hear you quote art theory. I am not so sure about in the Guggenheim, but Doug Wheeler would just as soon not hear. He packs the floor of a tower gallery with more than four hundred slim pyramids of the silencing foam used in recording studios, as PSAD Synthetic Desert III. Still more spikes line a wall, pushing you out and onto a platform overlooking the array. If you fall, you can guarantee a soft landing. If you do not, you can hope for quiet. Wheeler would like nothing more.

Doug Wheeler's PSAD Synthetic Desert III (Guggenheim Museum, 1971/2017)He calls it a semi-anechoic chamber, meaning free of echoes. Conceived in 1971, it has taken shape for the very first time. To enter, one must silence one's cell phone and pass three distinct doors. More foam takes the shape of airfoils but with triangular cross-sections, on the entrance and far wall. The remaining wall has nothing but a purplish light. It casts visitors into brightness and the corner pyramids into shade. Anything in-between takes on extra dimensions.

As long ago as the 1960s, Wheeler used white paintings to fuse art with the walls and the room with art. By the next decade, he was working with only the room—as a locus of light, space, and sound. On his last appearance in New York, in 2012, the lighting in a bare white room changed ever so gradually. In place of fine art or industrial materials, it offered an alternative to the course of nature. It was Minimalism without the art object or the rules. It built on Minimalism's attention to the space around the viewer, but with the added dimensions of time and the space within the mind.

Synthetic Desert, too, alludes to nature, only starting with its title. It draws on Wheeler's experience of the northern Arizona desert. Like all his work, it links him to Light and Space, the West Coast movement—but it is not quite so serene as it sounds. It contains plenty of objects, and they point directly at you. They also present a spectacle not so very far from that of another popular artist, Yayoi Kusama. Like her work, too, they belong to a chamber within the larger and more crowded spectacle of the museum.

The room admits just five visitors every quarter of an hour, a tiny fraction of museum-goers. You can take your chances at the ticket counter or online, but either way you are in for disappointment or a wait. You might use the time remembering Kusama's mob scene in Washington, merging with tourists in the Frank Lloyd Wright building, or lining up for yet another spectacle—the solid gold toilet by Maurizio Cattelan. Those who arrive late for their time are out of luck, and I shared the room with just two others and an attendant. I felt privileged. I could think of Wheeler's raised platform as a runway, with me as an unlikely fashion model.

While I explored more restlessly than Wheeler would approve, another visitor sat still, and the third lay down, either rapt or nodding off. Unlike an ordinary guard, the attendant got to sit with his legs spread, too. I marveled, but I still felt that I had entered less a theater of the mind than a public theater. Is this desert transcendent or boring, comforting or threatening, natural or synthetic? Does PSAD stand for post-synthetic art disorder? When you find your answer, try not to scream.

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Bruce Conner ran at The Museum of Modern Art through October 2, 2016, and Doug Wheeler's "Synthetic Desert" at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through August 2, 2017. A related review looks at Wheeler's white room.


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