Batman’s holy grotto: The psychic resurrection of Bruce Conner

The Batman Gallery, image courtesy of Ecliptic Gallery

Batman’s holy grotto: The psychic resurrection of Bruce Conner

By Thomas Crow

Bohemian San Francisco gained a new gathering place in 1960 when the deep-pocketed aspiring painter Billie Jahrmarkt and his wife Joan decided to found a gallery for the benefit of their artistic and literary friends. Two such, artist Bruce Conner and poet/playwright Michael McClure, took the project in hand, Conner finding premises and overseeing the refit of the interior while McClure saw to public relations, which included naming the space. Inspired by the raffish proprietor’s habit of dressing in sinister black, The Batman Gallery it became, prospective visitors assured that “All imitators and ‘cocktail’ painters are banned from showing.”

The first Batman exhibition, not surprisingly, showcased Conner’s own recent output, with McClure extending the noir-ish vein in the show’s announcement: “His new black-wax and collage sculptures, collages, and paintings show intense grappling with the harmony of pure beauty and the breakthrough to a fiery consciousness of human injustice, and deep anarchic humor. The show is monumental and extremely shocking.” For all the fanfare, however, Conner soon pulled away from the enterprise, as he and his artist-spouse Jean readied a move to Mexico City the following year. As he later reflected: “Billy Jahrmarkt and Joan opened the gallery. They had shows. But it was hardly ever open. They hardly sold anything. Mainly it was because Bill was an awful lot into drugs and into junk. And it wasn’t happening.”[1]

The Conners’ move to the Mexican capital, in search of new stimuli and low living expenses, also occasioned an ambivalent alliance with the psychedelic entrepreneur Timothy Leary: “Lots of drugs and pyramids…,” as Conner once summed up the sojourn.[2] From there, the couple found themselves residing by spring 1963 in the communal house occupied by Leary’s Harvard entourage, then staying on in the Boston suburbs for two more eventful years. Of the Leary house, a local artist-habitué enthused: “It was about more than getting stoned. These were ideas about exploring inner space… That seeing God and tripping would somehow expand consciousness and lead to a new visionary art.”[3] In the Conners’ abandoned San Francisco home, obviously, such aspirations had already become far more prevalent, converging on the city’s Haight-Ashbury district. That allure began drawing them back toward the west—with the Batman Gallery again playing its part. 


∗ ∗ ∗

That space had acquired a new lease on life when the hopeless Jahrmarkts sold out in 1962 to a very different, but still drug-oriented, owner, physician Michael Agron, who had established himself in a vanguard of West-Coast psychiatrists using psilocybin and LSD as therapeutic tools. Despite his elevated academic standing, Agron appears to have been open-handed in dispensing psychotropic substances, as a young Conner friend recounts: “The pure LSD that came along first was very good. I was fortunate to have some of the first doses of that with friends and then psilocybin from Mike Agron, the psychiatrist, who gave it to volunteers and then recorded our experiences.”[4] In taking on Batman, Agron announced a program advancing the capacity of certain artists to parallel these experiments via non-chemical means: “Once you start working at that level with these substances,” he posited, “your appreciation of the depths and extent of the human being and human consciousness is just staggering. My interest in art were people who were unafraid to go into their own greatest depths and have the technical skill in art to paint and draw what they found deep inside themselves.”[5]

Both Bruce and Jean Conner seem to have begun working with him by 1960 and had stayed in touch during their travels. In a convergence of trajectories for both gallerist and artists, the Conners’ permanent return to San Francisco announced itself with a complicated installation at Batman, ostensibly credited to Bruce Conner but centrally involving Jean Conner, both as point of reference and physical participant. As a landmark event, the 1964 exhibition posted some remarkable, if overlooked, firsts on any art-historical scorecard, but the arena of competitive avant-garde feats was not one in which the Conners had the slightest investment. Nor did any of its innovations stand alone; each gained its salience from its interrelation with the other components of the installation, all of them coordinated in such a way as to strip away the artists’ defenses, prerogatives, and disguises: a goal very much in the vein of the contemporaneous human-potential movement, with which Agron’s Freudian precepts nonetheless had a great deal in common.

Bruce Conner occupied the space for the entire three days the show was open; during one twenty-four-hour period, anyone could walk in the door. Prominent in the installation was a horizontal jeweler’s vitrine, large enough to hold two people—on one occasion holding Bruce and Jean Conner, who rendered themselves open to visitor’s scrutiny in vulnerable undress. Red marbles were said to have rolled like jewels inside and outside the glass case. The physical and psychological discomfort occasioned by this exposure can only be imagined, especially for Jean, who had made the trip from Boston for this three-day event. But so had a woman named Vivian Kurz, by all indications a domestically disruptive romantic interest of Bruce, who likewise would take her place (alone) inside the tomb-like vitrine.

On the occasion of Conner’s first Batman outing, one local reviewer had likened its effect to “some magic grotto, full of things that have been put under enchantment and left for years to the bats and spiders, but still alive and waiting to be revivified.”[6] Dominating the space on his return in 1964 was a work shared between the two exhibitions, THE BRIDE: a collapsed and decayed cascade of dusty nylon stockings with other flotsam, hung over a shrouded humanoid armature. The latter signals the theme of marriage, to be sure, but in a moribund condition that Conner once likened to the aged Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, sitting in the rags of her wedding gown amid the uncleared setting of the banquet decades after being left at the altar. But the sculpture RESURRECTION rested on a nearby pedestal, and a glowing talisman of revival and redemption stood altar-like at the center of the room in the shape of a collage he had fashioned from a suitcase in Mexico. Affixed to its side was a mystical folk image of three Christs set within a lozenge of fringe, while the interior contained a hidden resumé of the Conners’ life there in the form of a chair cushion and an infant’s mattress. Centered on a pedestal in the middle of the gallery, candles burned like an offering along the top of SUITCASE throughout the three days of the exhibition.

Along each flanking wall marched a uniform sequence of new quasi-paintings. As he told a local reporter in the gallery, “They’re big canvases that I bought pre-stretched, primed and white. I never handled them at any time even when the gallery hung them. Someone else printed the words on them that I supplied: ‘Do not touch!’ But the 13th canvas, bought and delivered in the same way, … I myself printed on it the word, ‘Touch!’ Then I covered it with glass.”[7] Divided into two groups of six, the DO NOT TOUCH panels lined a processional path like a Mexican gallery of saints leading to the blocked admonitory injunction TOUCH. In the presence of the likewise glass-clad display case, Kurz climbing in and out with youthful insouciance, a subtheme of the show became not just what could be touched or not touched, but whom.

For Conner to arrange for a show at the Batman that summer of 1964 was to stage their imminent return to San Francisco more as a therapeutic intervention than as any passive display of art. To achieve personal transformation, so ran the consistent credo of the both psychedelic and human-potential practitioners, an emotional and mental ordeal had first to be overcome. As Bruce Conner had persistently likened his sculptures to dramas, the Batman exhibition amounted to a scenario unfolding in real time, complete with human actors. Back in 1960, McClure had extolled the capacity of his best friend’s art to shock the spectator. It still can scandalize: to see it in all of its countercultural glory and messy human reality is to mock the cerebrally bloodless attitudes that still inform prevailing accounts of the advanced art that distinguished the 1960s, even or especially by those writers who profess to esteem this lately fashionable artist—while the world just begins to catch up with the estimable Jean Conner.

Thomas Crow is the Rosalie Solow Professor of Modern Art at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. His many books include The Long March of Pop: Art, Music, and Design, 1930–1995 and The Hidden Mod in Modern Art: London, 1957–1969.



[1] Bruce Conner, quoted in Rebecca Solnit, Secret Exhibition: Six California Artists of the Cold War Era (San Francisco: City Lights, 1990), 74

[2] Bruce Conner, interview with Paul Karlstrom, “Oral history interview with Bruce Conner, 1974 August 12,” Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, https:// view-bruce-conner-12989#transcript.

[3] Charles Giuliano, “Remembering Bruce Conner, 1933-2008: A Leading Artist of his Generation,” in Berkshire Fine Arts, July 13, 2008.

[4] Yvonne Bond, quoted in Jack Loeffler and Meredith Davidson, Voices of Counterculture in the Southwest (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2017), 41

[5] Michael Agron, interviewed in “Iconic Images of the Beat Era,” RN Radio, July 12, 2012; with thanks to Megan Kincaid for the discovery

[6] Alfred Frankenstein, The Batman Makes its Bow with Modern Junk,” San Francisco Chronicle (1 January 1960),

[7] San Francisco Examiner (12 August 1964), clipping reproduced in Joan Rothfuss, “Escape Artist,” in Peter Boswell et al, 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story, Part II (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1999), 164