By Murray Schneider
Jean Conner’s art once adorned the walls of Higher Grounds, Bird and Beckett Books and Records and the Glen Park branch library.
Now until Labor Day three of her collages will grace a wall on the second floor at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Each collage has been purchased by SFMOMA and will be a part of its permanent collection.
Conner has lived in Glen Park since 1974, her Sussex Street backyard overlooking Penny Lane. Until he passed away in 2008, she and Bruce Conner, her renowned artist husband, enjoyed the rutted path’s rustic charm.
Conner still does, often seen tending plants along its bucolic byway.
She and Bruce met at the University of Nebraska. They arrived in San Francisco during the halcyon days of the North Beach Beat scene that flourished along Columbus and Grant Avenues. While at the university in Lincoln, she earned a B.F.A, eventually burnishing it with a M.F.A from the University of Colorado where she had further training in oil painting, watercolor and printmaking.
Her medium of choice, though, is the collage, to which she had dedicated most of her career.
As undergraduates, the Conners befriended poet Michael McClure. They followed him to San Francisco in 1957, where City Lights Books anchored their avant-garde social and creative lives. Several of Conner’s collages hung there, background to the many poetry readings heard at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s iconic bookstore.
It was during these years that Jean Conner created the three pieces now on display at SFMOMA. They are best understood through the kaleidoscopic palettes of contemporary artists and visionaries such as Jay DeFeo, Joan Brown, Jess Collins and Wallace Berman, all of whom shaped the artistic sensibility of the underground art community of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
“Bruce and I took an apartment at Oak and Divisadero,” she said recently, after several hours volunteering with the Recreation and Parks Natural Areas Program in Glen Canyon. “We used one of the rooms as a studio. It was small so we never worked there at the same time.”
Conner had a part-time day job. Until she retired, she worked as a clerk in the women’s clinic at UCSF Hospital beneath Mt. Sutro.
“I didn’t have any subject in mind,” said Conner, pointing to a photograph of her collage, “Voodoo,” which she created in 1960. “The atmosphere was more important, the title always secondary.”
Atmosphere indeed. “Voodoo” melds a phantasmagorical allegory of topsy-turvy supplicants above a magus, who is seemingly cracking an egg yoke. In fact, the egg yoke flows from a man’s hands. It cascades between an oversized head of another woman grafted onto a smaller female body, her left hand perched introspectively upon her chin, her right hand grasping an aristocratic fan. She is dressed in what could be possibly described as 18th century romantic finery.
Conner began leafing through magazine photos as early as 1958, particularly art magazines and National Geographic, even McCall’s and Ladies’ Home Journal, mining material for her surreal visions. “I’d see an interesting photo,” she said, “tear it out, shuffle and paste and see what worked.”
Apparently a great deal worked because before SFMOMA obtained her trio of dreamlike juxtapositions, which often celebrate religious and natural themes, she’s been showcased in prestigious galleries such as the Michael Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles, which also represents the estate of Bruce Conner.
“Jean Conner’s goal is to make her collages as seamless as possible,” described a Kohn curator in 2008. “She takes images out of their original context and merges them together to create one imaginative composition.”
Conner was born in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1933. As a member of Friends of Glen Canyon Park, she continues volunteering each Wednesday in Glen Canyon, supports Bird and Beckett and is an active member of the Yerba Buena chapter of the California Native Plant Society.
Conner’s “Temptation of St. Wallace” (1963) is a tribute to artist Wallace Berman, a painter, photographer and poet, whose hand-pressed, loose-leafed journal Semina continues to attract attention 36 years after Berman’s death. He was a catalyst for a group of mid-twentieth century artists that included both Jean and Bruce.
Her “Temptation of St. Wallace,” a profusion of medieval enticements, depicts a saint allured by a cornucopia of coins, a clock and a naked woman, all the time overseen by an omnipresent eye dwarfed by an even larger fantastical beetle.
In 2007, a traveling show Semina Culture appeared in Greenwich Village at the Grey Art Gallery. Neither of the three Jean Conner pieces presently hanging at SFMOMA traveled to Manhattan with the show, but one of Conner’s early oil paintings, “Floating Head” (1960) and a drawing, “Young Woman with Skull” (1963) joined it when it travelled.
Conner’s third collage, “Mercury,” (1960) follows suit with the two others. It is a mixed-media tapestry that hopscotches around a mosaic of images, combining dreamlike personas of two women, one appearing Latin, another Asian. Beneath each, Mercury pirouettes.
Make of it what you will.
Modest to a fault, Jean Conner is the last to own up to the fact that she traveled in the same orbit as Allen Ginsberg, Richard Brautigan, Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell and Russ Tamblyn, all of whom fell under the spell of Wallace Berman.
When she was contacted by SFMOMA’s curator and told she had commandeered some of its coveted wall space, she said in her self-effacing way: “Nice. I was very excited when I found out.”
A Glen Park friend was impressed. “Oh,” she said, “I’ve never known anyone who had a work of art work in SFMOMA!”
Jean Conner’s art is on display at SFMOMA at 151 Third Street until Labor Day. Telephone number is 415-357-4000. Hours: Mon-Tue, Fri-Sun 11-6 p.m. Wed – closed, Thu 11-9 p.m.