Before the tragedies of September 11 were endlessly analyzed and theorized, artists responded to the event in ways that were by turns fearful, optimistic, impassioned, unresolved, and complex. As the decennial of 9/11 approaches, these intuitive, virginal artistic responses begin to resurface across the city’s galleries and museums. Late artist and filmmaker Bruce Conner’s Falling Leaves: An Anonymous Memorial is merely one of many elegiac pieces the tragedy’s aftermath engendered. In conjunction with a Bruce Conner retrospective at the American University Museum, Chelsea’s Paula Cooper Gallery showcases Conner’s drawings through September 24. They are juxtaposed with HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW (2006), one of Conner’s later short films. Together, the works provide an introspective look at how the American conscience weathers loss.
Conner was an artist of reaction and dissension. He harbored a fascination with the found object, and, as a child of the Beat generation, his works often disparaged America’s rampant consumerist impulse. He’d take nylon stockings and tear them apart to create odd, hallucinatory sculptures. Working in 1950s San Francisco, he surrounded himself with the likes of Stan Brakhage and Dennis Hopper. Around this time, he, too, began a prolific career in experimental filmmaking. Conner’s first film is perhaps his most famous: A MOVIE (1958) is often credited with precipitating MTV’s music videos, replete with jump cuts and rapid montage editing.
Though Conner officially announced his retirement in 2000, he continued to make art under numerous pseudonyms. Vehemently opposed to traditional notions of authorship, Conner toyed with the idea of the artist’s public persona. He would, for example, publicize his death twice before his real passing in 2008. One of Conner’s more prominent alter egos was Anonymous, the purported author of Falling Leaves. After listening to the radio on the morning of 9/11, Anonymous communicated the depth of his grief through a series of inkblot drawings on cloth and paper with careful arrangements of leaves.
“It’s something of a foil to his earlier work,” comments Steven Henry, Paula Cooper Gallery’s director. “There is a wonderful chaos to Falling Leaves, but his delicate hand comes through in everything.” The seven compositions in Falling Leaves are characterized by an odd, entrancing meticulousness, as if Anonymous seeks to make order out of disorder. The leaves are arranged on paper in ways that convey a subtle confusion and uncertainty.
The exhibition couples these compositions with Conner’s HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW. A four-minute-long, 16mm film, it is composed of remnants from a feature documentary film Conner planned to make nearly three decades earlier on The Soul Stirrers, a 1930s Gospel group. The film sets a recording of the Soul Stirrers’ “His Eye is on the Sparrow” against archived footage from the Depression-era South. From a purely stylistic standpoint, the film has much in common with the rest of Conner’s filmography, at once both energetic and lyrical. He depends upon the viewer to construct meaning from its fragmentary structure, and yet the film’s tone is more plaintive than much of Conner’s earlier work.
The connection between Falling Leaves and SPARROW is clear. As Conner responds to national-scale human tragedies, both works show him at his most precise and minimalist. They are free of the blatant dissent to which his work has often been pigeon-holed. “Appreciation of artists tends to ebb and flow,” Henry commented, speaking of critical discourse surrounding Conner. “But he has enjoyed a rather broad and deep appreciation amongst curators, so I think, yes, it’s definitely changing.” Conner has been mythologized as a rebellious anti-hero figure. Because his characteristic radicalism became muted in his later years, these works occupy an unusual niche within his oeuvre. They offer a clear-eyed, tough, and unsentimental message of optimism.