Welcome to Painterland: Bruce Conner and the Rat Bastard Protective Association

A very useful and thorough study of the Bay Area art scene from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, especially timely with the current exhibition of Bruce Conner’s work at SFMOMA that I’ve been dipping into a bit each week. Writer Anastasia Aukeman takes San Francisco artists as her focus, with a backdrop of LA artists to round out the tale. Quick and way-too-limited summary is that the lack of an art market in SF led to freedom for these artists who were more interested in doing than in the end result, with the added bonus of the GI Bill giving some of them the ability to go to art school and in 1965, the creation of NEA grants allowing them to retreat from the art world further.

Poet Michael McClure, a childhood pal of Bruce Conner’s, was the first to arrive in SF in 1953, moving into “Painterland”—the building at 2322 Fillmore St.—in 1956, which was also occupied by Jay DeFeo & hubby Wally Hedrick and soon Joan Brown with hubby Bill (then new hubby Manuel Neri). The Browns & the DeFeo/Hedricks were so close that they cut a door-sized hole between their apartments to be able to come and go more freely. This was the building that was partially dismantled in order to haul away DeFeo’s The Rose painting in Nov 1965, also effectively ending her marriage with Hedrick (they were evicted by their landlord after rent was raised 5x, the same rent hike that closed down the gallery Batman down the street). Random bit: DeFeo spent $5,375.51 on paint from Bay City Paint Co (2279 Market St.) for The Rose, more than a ton of paint.

DeFeo stopped painting for awhile after the piece was removed, and when asked what she was doing from 1966 to 1969: “Freaking out, mainly. This was my ‘happening’ period. Everyone else was staging happenings during that period. I was living one… I was escaping things, but also, I just needed some time to mend. I lost myself in all kinds of activities—just doing all kinds of crazy, nutty things—meeting all kinds of people. Leading what everybody else would consider an absolutely meaningless, destructive existence. But in retrospect, it’s like painting, too. You have to destroy a little bit in order to build a little bit.”

The group rejected success or labels. When the beats became famous, the owner of Vesuvio’s hired Wally Hedrick to sit in the window with full beard, turtleneck, sandals, and draw and paint. He also sold a “Beatnik Kit” that included black-rimmed glasses, a beret, sandals, black turtleneck, and a fake beard. One of my favorite stories about Hedrick’s art is the Xmas Tree piece he exhibited at SF Museum of Art (now SFMOMA)’s Christmas show in 1958 that gave an electric shock to a woman:

He had connected the work to a timer so that precisely at eight o’clock, during the exhibition’s opening, the tree would flash its lights, honk its horns, and play its records. The work also had “an aoohgah horn out of a very old automobile, and it only went off about once every twelve hours… Well it went off right next to this woman and she backed right into it and got tangled in the mechanism because there were machines going around it in all the time. Her fur got tangled in it and it also gave her a shock. She was going to sue the museum. Then it just blew up.” Hendrick, not one to court public approval, was thrilled with the response. He recalled that “it caused quite a sensation; not because of its artistic merit, but because it attacked this lady, which I thought was very nice.”

Jay DeFeo’s Christmas presents wrapped and hung from the ceiling inspired Conner that year, leading to his assemblages.

Joan Brown was successful early on, but resisted pressure from her NY dealer to keep making the same stuff that was selling. He also pressured her to change the dimensions of her work into something “easier to handle, sell, and hang.” I love her response to this idiotic request: “I understand your concern for me to paint smaller pictures, but it is very necessary for me to paint my large ones and I hope some day I can paint huge ones in a bigger studio… The point I’m making is that I never intended to make a living off of painting, and it is a wonder that I can, but I would never sacrifice what I want to do and what is necessary for me to do, even if I have to collect garbage for a living.”

In 1968 she had a breakthrough year of creativity that she attributed to the sudden death of her parents, her father’s heart attack followed quickly by her mother’s suicide, which Joan somehow intuited. “I woke up that morning and I felt different, before I called my mother… I felt like a loud noise had stopped. I felt freer, I felt better—I felt all of these things, and I felt different.”

The 1960s were what Aukeman calls the “woodshedding years” where the artists disappeared from the scene to dig deep and focus on their art or collaborate.

Other spots the group lived in: 707 Scott St. on Alamo Square (still around), 1350 Franklin St. (The Ghost House, torn down in 1953), 1205 Oak St (Bruce Conner’s spot)

Got a whole bunch more books to read now, thanks to mentions from this one. Also: Bruce Conner discussing Jay DeFeo’s The Rose and also his 1967 film about the removal.