New Acquisition: Bruce Conner, Three Screen Ray

April 25, 2012

Bruce Conner was one of the most important artists of the Beat Generation, a visionary whose work simultaneously epitomizes the aesthetics of his contemporaries and looks forward to the sensibilities of younger generations of artists. Conner’s practice points to a postmodernist sensibility well before its time, using both figurative and abstract vocabularies in a wide variety of media, including not only video and film but also assemblage, collage, drawing, prints, and photographs.

Conner’s films are acknowledged to be his most influential legacy, “a new way of imagining visual perception” as groundbreaking as cubist paintings were in the 1910s. Major filmmakers and artists ranging from Dennis Hopper to Christian Marclay have acknowledged the influence of Conner on their own work.  Using the collage aesthetic of his work in other media, Conner’s pioneering films combine found footage from a variety of sources (commercial movies, advertisements, government promotional films, etc.) with his own original footage to create social critiques that are simultaneously seductive and scathing. Born in Kansas, Conner moved to San Francisco in 1957; he remained in the Bay Area (with a brief 1961–62 interlude in Mexico) until his death in 2008.

Bruce Conner, Three Screen Ray (still), 1961/2006, no. 4/6, purchased with funds provided by Brad and Colleen Bell, Victoria Jackson and Bill Guthy, Jane and Marc Nathanson, and Steve Tisch through the 2012 Collectors Committee, © Estate of Bruce Conner

Three Screen Ray is based on Conner’s second film, Cosmic Ray of 1961, the first time he combined found footage with footage he shot himself.  In 2006 he edited the fast-paced, black-and-white collage that is Cosmic Ray into is a three-channel video projection. The central channel of Three Screen Ray is the 1961 film exactly; the left and right channels are edited versions.  Both Cosmic Ray and Three Screen Ray, which has lovingly been called “a cinematic slot machine of disparate images,” are synchronized to a live recording of soul pioneer Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say.” As Conner described it, “I felt that I was…presenting the eyes for Ray Charles …I was supplying his vision.”

Bruce Conner, Three Screen Ray (still), 1961/2006, no. 4/6, purchased with funds provided by Brad and Colleen Bell, Victoria Jackson and Bill Guthy, Jane and Marc Nathanson, and Steve Tisch through the 2012 Collectors Committee, © Estate of Bruce Conner

Three Screen Ray is a funny yet serious social critique juxtaposing hundreds of images ranging from nude women and fighter airplanes to cartoon figures, firing cannons, and Conner’s signature use of commercial film countdown leader. It also includes visual references to non-Western cultures including a many-armed Hindu deity and tribal dancing from an ethnographic film. Conner even tipped his hat to abstract expressionism—at its peak in 1961—by marking and staining the actual celluloid of the original Cosmic Ray with ink and corrosive chemicals so that moments of it look like an action painting akin to Jackson Pollock’s drips.

Bruce Conner, Three Screen Ray (still), 1961/2006, no. 4/6, purchased with funds provided by Brad and Colleen Bell, Victoria Jackson and Bill Guthy, Jane and Marc Nathanson, and Steve Tisch through the 2012 Collectors Committee, © Estate of Bruce Conner

Both Cosmic Ray and Three Screen Ray represent a critical link between early twentieth-century avant-garde cinema—particularly the black-and-white films of Hans Richter and Fernand Léger—and music videos, which came to the fore towards the end of the century.  

Carol S. Eliel, curator, Modern Art


Edward Biberman’s Conspiracy

December 7, 2011

I was a double major as an undergraduate, in art history and political science, and have always loved the intersection of art and politics. I think that was what first drew me to Edward Biberman, particularly his 1955 painting Conspiracy, currently on view in the Ahmanson Building as part of a focused installation of LACMA’s Biberman holdings.

Edward Biberman, Conspiracy, c. 1955, LACMA, purchased with funds provided by the Judith Rothschild Foundation; Hansen, Jacobson, Teller, Hoberman, Newman, Warren & Sloane, L.L.P.; Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser; the Frederick R. Weisman Philanthropic Foundation; Dr. Judd Marmor; Paul and Suzanne Muchnic; the Reese E. and Linda M. Polesky Family Foundation; and Marvin and Judy Zeidler

The image is a very striking one, infused with a creepy quality. No one’s face is fully visible—indeed two of the four men are only seen from the rear—and the strangely paired hands seem almost cadaverous. The thinly painted surface and odd, slightly acidic palette add to the tension of the scene depicted.

What exactly is the subject here? The painting’s title offers a hint; Biberman’s biography supplies the rest. One of the best California painters working in a modernist idiom, Biberman was born in Philadelphia in 1904. Rather than joining the family garment business, he chose to study art, first in his hometown and then in Paris. After settling temporarily in New York, he followed his screenwriter brother Herbert to Los Angeles in 1936 and established himself as a portraitist. Edward increasingly incorporated social concerns into his paintings, his political consciousness heightened by the Spanish Civil War and the international rise of fascism. Then, in 1947, disaster struck the Biberman family. Edward’s brother Herbert was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, D.C. to testify about his allegedly politically subversive acts. Citing his first-amendment rights to free speech and assembly, Herbert refused to testify (he and nine other filmmakers who similarly refused were dubbed the Hollywood Ten), and as a result later spent five months in prison and was blacklisted from the film industry.

His brother’s experience had a profound impact on Edward. He stopped painting for a while, explaining later that “during the specific period…that my brother was imprisoned and denied the opportunity to do his work, I, in good conscience, could not just go normally into my studio and carry on my profession.” Edward himself came under official criticism for his leftist leanings during these years, and he resigned from his teaching position at Art Center to avoid being dismissed. After he returned to painting in the early 1950s, Biberman created Conspiracy, clearly a reference to his brother’s harrowing and anxiety-inducing experience before the HUAC. The power of the image is heightened, however, by its very lack of specificity. While its roots lie in one individual’s personal history, its “moral,” if you will, is much broader. In fact, it could just as easily refer to current events such as the Chinese government’s 81-day detention of artist Ai Weiwei this past spring. Eternal vigilance truly is the price of liberty, and art can play an important role.

Carol S. Eliel, Curator of Modern Art


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