Rumor has it that Bruce Conner (1933–2008) worked at SFMOMA in the 1950s. “He once said that he’d been a guard,” says Head of Conservation Michelle Barger. “But recently I heard that his widow, Jean, said he helped with putting up labels, and ‘polished the head of Brancusi’s The Blond Negress (1926),’ and I had to laugh, because you might say polishing that head is my job now!” An internationally renowned artist whose career spanned more than fifty years, Conner is currently the subject of the retrospective Bruce Conner: It’s All True.
If the records are murky on exactly what Conner did at the museum in those early days after art school, they’re crystal clear on his significance to the art world, and to San Francisco, the city he called home for most of his working life. Notably, he was also one of the first living artists to collaborate with SFMOMA to conserve their works, an impulse that has since been institutionalized.
Barger’s first arrival at SFMOMA in 1998 coincided with preparations for a Conner retrospective at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The Walker requested loans of several of SFMOMA’s Conner works, and at first, Barger recalls, “we had to say no, unfortunately, because they are so fragile. But then I started looking at our files, and came across a transcript of a 1986 conversation between Conner, Graham Beal, who was then a curator here, Will Shank, then head of conservation, and Carol Rosset, a registrar. Conner was sharing his thoughts on materials, preservation, and the like, and I realized that, given his feelings about his works, maybe we could be a little more confident and bold with them.”
In 1986, the idea of inviting an artist to participate in conservation efforts for his or her artworks was radical, and Barger recognizes it as a precursor to The Artist Initiative. Generously funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Artist Initiative (among other activities) brings together artists represented in the collection with curators, conservators, and art historians to explore the care, interpretation, and display of their artworks.
“With Conner, for instance,” Barger explains, “many of the works have elements that degrade over time. Nylon loses elasticity. Volatile polymers, like cellulose nitrate, deteriorate, sometimes in ways that also degrade whatever is near them in a piece, as in AFTER PEYOTE (1959–60). The most notorious example is the wax figure in CHILD (1959–60). Not only is the subject matter intended to be horrific and controversial—it’s a response to the infamous criminal Caryl Chessman being electrocuted—but early on in its lifetime, it started to lose structural integrity, and eventually sort of collapsed into itself.”
Conner proved to be of two minds about the situation over the years, alternately volunteering to advise on CHILD’s restoration and (at one point) announcing that CHILD had ceased to exist. (CHILD is on view in the SFMOMA retrospective, in a gallery with other significant black wax works. Conner always hoped to see a display of them together, but it never happened during his lifetime.)
In the 1970s, a number of conservation labs on the West Coast were launched as revenue generators for their respective museums. In this self-sustaining approach, art collectors would pay for their privately owned works to be cleaned or repaired, and in the balance of their time the conservators would work on pieces in the institution’s collection. That evolved, and today, conservators at SFMOMA give their full attention to the particular needs that come with a museum specializing in modern and contemporary art; they’re specifically trained to deal with the fraught questions in this field.
Consider for example artists like Eva Hesse, who deliberately used latex and other synthetic materials that would degrade with age. Her works require novel approaches to traditional conservation methods. Should degraded nylon be replaced with taut new nylon? When should a work be declared “dead”? And who decides that, especially if the artist is no longer living? Bringing artists into the equation during their lifetime is key.
“Today,” says Barger, “we’re very proud to be leaders in the field in this respect. Some conservators are not inclined to engage with artists. They might think it’s a slippery slope, leading to the artists having carte blanche. But to be clear, what we’re doing is getting artists’ voices on record as a tool to guide the care of their work. That didn’t really happen for Eva Hesse, and today, it’s extremely hard to make decisions about some of her works that are falling apart.
“When you have the privilege of speaking to an artist while they’re still alive, you have a rudder to make future decisions when they’re gone. And we don’t speak with an artist only once, because their thoughts about a work—and ours as caretakers, I might add—can change over time. Conner contradicted himself even in that one 1986 conversation. And that is okay.”
Barger has contributed an essay to the It’s All True exhibition catalogue on exactly these questions as they pertain to Conner’s particular oeuvre. Another tricky matter that arises in dealing with his sculptural works is their display in the gallery, specifically whether or not to enclose them in a vitrine. Exposed pieces get dusty in a way that is nearly impossible to clean, and look increasingly decrepit. And we know that Conner, true to form, waffled over the years, promoting dust accumulation for some works, while wanting the fragile materials of others protected behind glass.
Conner even encouraged physical participation in some works. MUSIC (1960) is intended as a musical score to be played (John Cage performed it on one of the three known occasions). When it’s being performed, its cloth cover is supposed to be raised. Underneath there are many intricate collage elements—a letter, a Band-Aid, a thumbprint, a filmstrip—that you only notice upon prolonged looking, and that are only visible in a specific viewing situation. “We can’t let visitors open and close the cover, of course,” says Barger. “So how do we show the ‘whole’ work? We settled on half-open—a perpetual performance, in a sense.”
Barger points to LOOKING GLASS (1964), Conner’s last assemblage and a work in the museum’s collection: “I’ve spent so many hours with this piece over the years, as the courier for it on various occasions and working on it in the studio. And yet just recently, I learned for the first time that it includes a voice box from an antique talking doll.”
At some point, she says, she plans to pull the string and make the voice speak. “Supposedly it says something like ‘Hi, what’s your name?’ in that creepy old doll way. We’ll have Steve Dye, exhibitions technical manager, on hand ready to record, knowing that that one play might be its last; there is a real possibility that it’ll never work again. But at least we’ll know, and be able to share with visitors a glimpse into a vintage Conner experience.”