In 1960, three years after Bruce Conner dropped out of a graduate program at the University of Colorado and moved to San Francisco, he opened the Batman Gallery with his childhood friend Michael McClure and patron, and an artist in his own right, William “Billy Batman” Jahrmarkt. Located at 2222 Fillmore Street, the Batman Gallery was the heart of Beat Generation visual arts production in the Bay Area as well as the center of the “Witchita Vortex,” a group of artists like Conner who came to the West Coast to participate in the beat-hippie’s cultural zeitgeist. When the Batman Gallery faced financial and operational hardship (as did many of the artist-run spaces in San Francisco in the early 1960s), Dr. Michael Agron, a psychiatry professor at the University of California, San Francisco Medical School who was testing the effects of hallucinogenic drugs in the treatment of addiction and mental illness, took over operations until the gallery closed in 1965.
The Batman Gallery was the spiritual home for the avant-garde San Francisco artists, hosting poetry readings, film screenings, painting workshops and lectures on art, science and natural history, in addition to monthly exhibitions, and was also Conner’s artistic home while he was in San Francisco. During the lifespan of the gallery, Conner produced some of the finest works from his most prolific period, creating approximately 120 assemblages. He would eventually stop working in this medium in 1964 to explore other cutting-edge artistic opportunities, especially in film.
The Batman opened on November 3, 1960 with a one-man show of Conner’s paintings, drawings and assemblages set against walls painted black to better showcase their haunting dynamism. Conner used whatever was on hand including nylon, wax, found film footage, engravings from old publications, detritus and other unconventional materials. As director, Agron had access to the choice of select pieces such as Cannabis Collage, which coincided with the psychiatrist’s research interests. Where many of Conner’s assemblages are busy expressions of the artist’s thoughts and feelings, Cannabis Collage is quietly introspective as the drug-enabled Conner reached within himself. When curator John Humphrey wrote to Agron in 1968 asking to borrow the work for the exhibition Looking Back, Bay Area Painting and Sculpture, 1945-1962 at what is now known as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, he described it as a “high point in the artist's career, … truly representative of his achievements."
Floating Head continues Conner's exploration of metaphysical consciousness. A painted counterpart to his masterpiece Crucifixion, 1957, which presented a headless Christ-like figure in sculptural form, Floating Head is one of the artist’s last works in paint and uses deep textures and very limited areas of color to portray Conner's discovery of a deity within himself. (Conner grew up in a severe religious background in Kansas and it is believed the woman who rests her head in the drawing, Untitled # 9, was likely a family member because of the intimacy of the scene). As the artist stated, “I am interested in the moment of wonder, of not comprehending all of my experience in an adult context. We are born with millions of brain cells, more than we will have for the rest of our lives, and sensory awareness. We confront this total unknown entity in the world. The world starts to be fabricated into categories and a sense of wonder soon starts to disappear. I like to recreate that moment, the moment when you are confronted with something that is a surprise. It is a delight, a mystery, maybe an unsolvable mystery. Unsolvable mysteries are much more attractive to me” (B. Conner quoted by G. Garrels, "Soul Stirrer: Visions and Realities of Bruce Conner,” It's All True, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, 2016, p. 343).
Gary Garrels, curator of It’s All True, Conner’s 2016 retrospective exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, wrote, “For Conner art was a spiritual quest. It provided a means to approach realities beyond normal apprehension, to find a release from the confinements of society, to attain redemption from the inhumanities that plague human existence. He had little interest in art as an instrument of commerce, as a way to achieve fame, as a means to be memorialized. He was wary of the market and distrusted Institutions that removed art from life as it is lived. He believed art was a means to awaken the senses and deeply probe the potential of human existence “(G. Garrels, ibid.).