BRUCE CONNER & JAY DEFEO:
(“we are not what we seem”)
On ViewPaula Cooper Gallery
September 9 – October 23, 2021
In the annals of great artistic friendships, the one between Jay DeFeo and Bruce Conner ranks among those that were truly symbiotic. The two traded works and also dedicated pieces to each other, much as they dedicated many hours to late-night phone calls buoying each other’s spirits and talking through ideas. BRUCE CONNER & JAY DEFEO: (“we are not what we seem”) is a testament to this singular relationship, cultivated over decades, between these two stalwarts of the post-war San Francisco cultural scene.
The exhibition is impressive in scope, comprising nearly 80 works of art by Conner and DeFeo. Both were polymaths, working across a wide scope of media that included sculpture, film, painting, drawing, photography, and collage. This full range is on display, highlighting where the concerns of the two artists dovetail. A mutual interest in Surrealism is evident, particularly in their collage work. An untitled collage by DeFeo from 1976, for instance, seems to stretch out and elongate an image of a skull through photomechanical reproduction, causing the teeth of the skull to obtrude grotesquely at the forefront of the work. Elsewhere, in an untitled series of collages from around 1990 (the year after DeFeo’s death), Conner photocopied the various pieces that make up the assemblages, then once again photocopied the entire whole. There is a melancholic echoing to these works that underscores the self-aware separation from the original source material that the photocopying necessarily creates.
The notion of impressions, both in the sense of an idea formed by feeling as well as the literal sense of one leaving a mark upon someone or something else, is a thread that runs through the show. One room of the exhibition is dedicated to both artists’ explorations of handprints. Both DeFeo’s and Conner’s own handprints are represented, DeFeo’s in chemigram on photo paper in two untitled works from 1973, and Conner’s from eight years earlier in his macabre work HANDPRINT (FEBRUARY 16, 1965) done in his own blood stamped on paper. Other small collages by DeFeo depict a silhouetted form that is frequently arrayed by hands, while at the center of the room hangs Conner’s large photogram SOUND OF TWO HAND ANGEL (1974), from which DeFeo replicated the form used in these smaller collages. Of particular note in this gallery is the vitrine of archival documents that chronicle a fascinating circumstance in Conner’s career when, as an incoming lecturer at San José State University in 1962, he was asked by the school to be fingerprinted as part of its pro forma onboarding policy. Conner, who frequently signed his works with his own thumbprint, requested the return of his fingerprints after processing, to which the school objected. The incident ignited a 12-year debate between Conner and SJSU that eventually resulted in the school allowing Conner access to his fingerprints, from which he in turn made a series of lithographic prints. It’s a story that provokes questions not only surrounding surveillance and capital, but also the very idea of personal identity, and what kind of value can and cannot be placed upon it.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is Conner’s seven-minute film The White Rose (1967), which documents the removal of DeFeo’s iconic painting from her San Francisco apartment in 1965. It is, unquestionably, the piece for which she is best known, a behemoth that stands over 10 feet tall and weighs nearly a ton. DeFeo began the painting in 1958, and worked on it for eight years until she was forced out of her apartment, necessitating its removal. From the mournful, opening notes of “Concierto de Aranjuez (Adagio)” from Miles Davis’s album Sketches of Spain (which provides the soundtrack to the wordless film), the viewer becomes instantly absorbed in the emotional and physically exhausting experience of getting the art work out of an upper story window, whose sash had to be sawn open in order to accommodate the painting. We see the movers strategizing, and passersby on the street stopping to witness the spectacle. DeFeo calls down to the movers on the street below, she lays on the painting before its removal, and she sits in the bashed window frame afterwards, smoking a cigarette and watching the men sweep the sidewalk of debris as her painting is hauled away in an open-backed truck. Conner’s film did much to bolster the lore that subsequently surrounded DeFeo’s masterpiece, but as Rachel Federman puts it in her catalogue text that accompanies the show, he also “experienced the removal of the painting as an enormous personal loss.” The film is a singular instance of one work of art being created from the happenstance of another. It unselfconsciously illustrates just how deeply DeFeo impressed upon Conner, and how he in turn impressed upon her. Two artists, making impressions, deeply intertwined.