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The Oracle in the CARDS: Robert Rauschenberg, Bruce Conner, and Michael McClure

Taylor Zakarin

In the late 1940s, Bruce Conner and Michael McClure were considered odd outsiders at their Wichita high school for their shared interests in art, music, and poetry.1 By 1970, both were living in San Francisco, Conner working as an artist and McClure as a poet. That year, the childhood friends collaborated on CARDS (CAT. 17). An elegant, yet unassuming, small fabric-covered box with a tiny hinge clasp, it contains twenty-five cards, each printed on one side with a lithograph of a Conner mandala drawing and on the other side with a poem by McClure, comprised of one word on each of the card’s four edges.

CAT. 17  Bruce Conner and Michael McClure (1933–2008 and b. 1932), CARDS, 1970–71. Lithograph in colors on paper, fabric-covered box; edition 19/50; box closed: 5/8 x 4 3/8 x 4 1/8 inches (1.6 x 11.1 x 10.5 cm), 3 1/2 x 3 1/2 inches each card (8.7 x 8.7 cm). Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Promised gift of anonymous donor, L.13.2012.4. © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, New York.

Before meeting again in San Francisco, both artists also had studied at Wichita State University (WSU) where, Conner remembered, they had staged a “Dada” event in “1952 or 1953.”2 Conner explained that their show followed an exhibition of faculty works and took place in a hallway:

[We served] lukewarm tap water and soggy pretzels. The show had some gilded soup bones that Coleta Eck had made. Dave Haselwood had a toothbrush framed in an ornate frame and it was called “Professor Emeritus.” Michael McClure had a sculpture that he had started to do at one time. . . . I had a painting called Old Nobodaddy, and some of my recent drawings, and a collage that I had done in high school.3

After two years at WSU, Conner's good friend Corban Lepell convinced him to transfer to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln where Lepell was studying. It was there that Conner met his future wife, the artist Jean Marilyn Sandstedt. After graduating, Conner received a scholarship to the Brooklyn Museum Art School and began showing at the Alan Gallery in New York. Then, with a scholarship to the University of Colorado, he joined Jean, who was working on her MFA. They married in 1957 and immediately after the wedding boarded a plane to San Francisco, where McClure had moved several years earlier. Conner was twenty-two. 

McClure had already participated with poets Philip Lamantia, Philip Whalen, and Gary Snyder in the now legendary “Six Gallery Reading” on October 7, 1955, the event at which Allen Ginsberg first read his poem Howl (1955). Howl begins: 

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving 
        hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an 
        angry fix, 
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the 
        starry dynamo in the machinery of night, 
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking 
        in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops 
        of cities contemplating jazz, 
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan
        angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated . . .

With Beat poets Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Kenneth Rexroth in attendance, this event marked the advent of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance and is a hallmark of the Beat Generation to which Conner also belonged. The Beats rejected the hypocrisy of normative materialist culture exemplified by the fantasy of the American dream, and explored spiritual and sexual liberation, ecological consciousness, experimentation with mind-expanding drugs, and Eastern religion and mysticism.4 

During this period, Conner was involved with the poets while producing such works as WHEEL COLLAGE (1958; see CAT. 8). In 1959, Conner founded the “Rat Bastard Protective Association,” a loose group of artists including Wallace Berman, Joan Brown, Jay DeFeo, Wally Hedrick, George Herms, Manuel Neri, and Michael McClure. Conner also planned to do a poetry book using “a whole series of drawings” that he had made, each “ten by ten inches using felt tip pens.” He explained:

The drawings all had large, central mandala shapes with circles in the corners. It changed from one drawing to the other. I related to them as a kind of writing like the symmetry of the image. I imagined that they were transparent. I thought of several drawings in a book and it would be as if you could see from one page through to another, one area of one drawing relating to another drawing . . . I was thinking to position the words symmetrically . . . I suggested to [McClure] that he make a deck of cards. He put the words at the top of each card as well as down at the other end of the card. They could be shuffled and they would have all variety of combinations. He selected the words that he wanted to be in the deck. He produced one, within a week and a half. I think he gave me a copy of it. He did another one which was printed. He has actually done several of them since then. Shuffle them and then put them down, like you're playing a game. Put one in the center, at the side, in the middle and so on.5

McClure had begun working on his “word sculptures” in 1966.  His first consisted of thirty individual cards, all encased in a glassine envelope. The first two cards in the deck list information such as the title and author, followed by the remaining twenty-eight cards, each of which has two words, one printed on each end. On the flip side, the cards have images of a lion and trees paired with small squares in each corner. Words range from “space” and “empty” to “swirl” and “rainbow,” and some words are repeated multiple times. By arranging the cards in different ways, the deck serves as a mnemonic device for remembering a dream.6 

McClure worked with Conner on his next word sculpture, increasing the number of words per card to four and printing a single word on each edge of the square card. Additionally, no words are repeated such that the deck of twenty-five bears 100 different words. The words McClure selected range from names for various objects, body parts, and aspects of nature to descriptive poetic terms. No two words are repeated either in image or text. When Jean Conner asked McClure how these words were selected, he responded, “The words were mine. They were simply intuitive.”7 Removing the cards from their box, a participant may arrange them in different poetic phrases. On the verso of each card is a print of a Conner felt-tip pen mandala drawing.

The word “mandala” refers to a circle in Sanskrit, and is a ritual symbol in both Buddhism and Hinduism. The mandala is used as a visualization device for meditation, or to indicate a sacred space. When discussing Conner’s MANDALA drawings, the art historian Kevin Hatch notes that the limitations of the felt-tip pen as a medium (a small variety of strokes) create a “dizzying oscillation between ground and figure” that keeps “the eye, for however long it looks . . . in constant motion; denied a cohesive image.”8 Hatch also points out that the MANDALA drawings represent a “sublime temporality, a time beyond measure.”9 As such, these drawings serve as vehicles for spiritual contemplation. As the mandala traditionally appears as a circle within a square space, Conner’s mandalas within the square shape of CARDS transform the work into a meditative instrument.10 Conner and McClure created two editions. The first consisted of two-inch, black and white cards enclosed in a glassine envelope. The second (in this exhibition) is comprised of the brown, lithographed cards encased in the brown box that Conner covered in fabric with the simple word CARDS printed on the front.11  

CARDS unite both McClure’s and Conner’s aims and oeuvre, despite the differing mediums in which they worked. Just as Conner’s collages, assemblages, and films often brought together disparate objects that had been discarded or overlooked, asking the viewer to imagine these elements in a new light bereft of cultural stigmas and normative associations, McClure’s use of words eliminates hierarchy in language, bestowing each individual word with integrity and importance, and harmonizing all the elements of the work. With this in mind, Conner’s contribution can be viewed as a physical manifestation of McClure’s poetry, and McClure’s poetry the textual corollary of Conner’s mandalas. Conner combined distinct elements in such a way that subverted and transformed them by juxtaposition with something surprising, just as McClure’s “word sculptures” brought into conversation qualities of words that might otherwise have been disregarded. Together in CARDS, the artist and the poet produced something beautiful, unexpected, and evocative.

In late 1974, four years after completing CARDS, Conner and McClure, along with Robert Rauschenberg and other artists and poets, participated in the groundbreaking exhibition Poets of the Cities: New York and San Francisco, 1950–1965, which opened at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibition catalogue for Poets of the Cities provides a veritable trove of information about the overlap and intersection of East and West Coast artists of the period, and is a valuable publication for thinking about the relationship between Conner and Rauschenberg.12

In his catalogue essay, Neil A. Chassman, art historian and curator of the exhibition, discusses how and why he drew the artists and poets of the period together. All these figures, in unison but in different ways, sought something akin to Ginsberg’s concept of “ecstatic radicalism,” meaning a joyous embrace of radical change.13 Chassman explained that while the Beats criticized “the American dream, the dream of science, with the actual sordidness of human relationships and the environmental realities,” some also embraced a broadminded acceptance of the world as it is, and he cited Rauschenberg and Ginsberg as such individuals:

The particular objects incorporated into a work (at certain times actual objects) do not serve primarily formal ends, nor do they, as is sometimes maintained, continue to present their unusual associational context. Instead they hover between context and something else. The non-judgmental acceptance of them (Rauschenberg does not think of these objects as ugly or debased no matter how sordid or mundane their origins—an aspect of approach quite similar to Ginsberg) places them in the realm between art and life—it’s like coming to terms with the impossible which is really nothing more than an attitude of allowing directed towards the possible.14

The attitude of “the possible,” Chassman felt, related to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s “notion of releasement towards things, of letting things be, through an uncovering, [which] is the process of Rauschenberg [and] Ginsberg.” Chassman added, “They don’t like to boss the work around too much. Uncovering can only occur in a non-judgmental atmosphere which, through the mode of acceptance and incorporation, lets lights come on.”15 For Chassman, the best examples of Rauschenberg’s mode of acceptance were his matte black paintings (see CAT. 56). “They are very important,” Rauschenberg had explained to him, “they first taught me to see.”16 Fifteen years earlier Rauschenberg had expanded this idea when he told John Cage that he was “trying to check my habits of seeing, to counter them for the sake of greater freshness. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I’m doing.”17 Reinforcing the idea of re-envisioning the world, Lana Davis noted that, “Rauschenberg considers himself successful only when he does something that resembles the lack of order he senses.”18

Exhibiting Rauschenberg’s expansive approach to the assemblage of objects, Poets of the Cities included Oracle (1962–65; fig. 13). Davis offers a succinct account of the evolution of this complex multimedia sculpture/installation, a description that reveals Rauschenberg’s working process: 

The following developments began in 1962: that of a silkscreen painting and a “concert piece” which grew out of an earlier paintings of 1959, Broadcast, in which three radios were incorporated. The concert project was originally conceived as five paintings with remote controls. Rather than a merge, a separation occurred. The five panels became Ace, a basically flat painting (1962), with a minimum of combine matter or collage elements; these became absorbed into the surface, representing a transition to another medium which would allow the same possibilities of collaboration and discovery.19  

Through such transitions, Rauschenberg eventually arrived at Oracle, which consists of a console with steps that one can mount; a length of industrial duct in funnel form; a window frame with duct; a car door; and a cistern that pumps water through a shower spray into a tank.20

As the electrical engineer Billy Klüver remembered, “[Bob] wanted to build an interactive environment, where the temperature, sound, smell, lights etc. would change as you moved through it.”21 The technology to achieve the environment Rauschenberg imagined did not exist at the time. But, as Klüver points out:

After many discussions, and years of work, in 1965 on the 15th of May, Oracle opened at the Leo Castelli gallery. It ended up being one of Bob Rauschenberg’s most beautiful works and is now at Beaubourg in Paris. Oracle is a sound environment made up of five AM radios, where the sounds from each radio emanates from one of the five sculptures. The viewer can play the sculpture as an orchestra from the controls on one of the pieces, by varying the volume and the rate of scanning through the frequency band. But they can not stop the scanning at any given station. The impression was that of walking down the Lower East Side on a summer evening and hearing the radios from open windows of the apartment buildings. All of the material for the sculptures Bob had found on the streets of New York. Although this sounds simple, the electronics behind the piece as it now works at Beaubourg is very complicated.22

Together, Klüver’s and Davis’s descriptions of Oracle inform on how Rauschenberg “releases towards things” in such a way as to enable art to evolve over time and to permit the objects to lend themselves to his changing and ordering selections. 

fig. 13  Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), Oracle, 1962–65. Five-part found-metal assemblage with five concealed radios: ventilation duct; automobile door on typewriter table, with crushed metal; ventilation duct in washtub and water, with wire basket; constructed staircase control unit housing batteries and electronic components; and wooden window frame with ventilation duct; dimensions variable. Centre Pompidou, Paris, France. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, New York.

Of equal significance, in the context of Conner and McClure’s collaboration, is how such a visually different installation as Oracle compares conceptually with CARDS, in so far as both works provoke and emphasize the prophetic role of an object. From Conner’s mandalas and McClure’s solitary words to Rauschenberg’s installation, in which each object issues its own sounds, these two dissimilar works are both interactive, enabling viewers to become users who may enter altered mental states with prescient potential. In this way both Oracle and CARDS “turn on the lights” of the mind, releasing viewers’ thoughts “towards things,” unfettering language and vision from their instrumental use to their imaginative role in meaning making. Finally, while Davis described the affect of Oracle as an “epiphany of the everyday,”23 her formulation may be expanded to include Conner and McClure’s CARDS. For Oracle (in its enigmatic combination of sound-making objects) and CARDS (in its juxtaposition of word and image) both offer the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Notes
  1. Bruce Conner, “Oral history interview with Bruce Conner,” interview by Paul Cummings, Smithsonian Archives of American Art (16 April 1973): http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-bruce-conner-12017
  2. Ibid. 
  3. Ibid. 
  4. For an expanded definition of the Beats, see Allen Ginsberg, “A Definition of the Beat Generation,” Friction 1 (Winter 1982), revised for Lisa Phillips, Beat Culture and the New America: 1950–1965 (New York: Whitney Museum of Art, 1995). 
  5. “Oral History Interview with Bruce Conner.” 
  6. According to Jean Conner, “In 1966 Dave Hazelwood printed an untitled book. The cover and pages were 10” x 10”. The cover was the 25 mandalas that were later enlarged and became the 25 cards for the boxed edition. Inside the book was a seven page untitled poem by Michael McClure interspersed with 10” x 10” mandalas (five) drawings by Bruce.” Jean Conner, letter to the author, 26 May 2014. 
  7. Jean Conner, letter to the author, 26 May 2014. 
  8. Kevin Hatch, Looking for Bruce Conner (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012), 236. 
  9. Ibid., 245. 
  10. Tom Anderson, “Mandala: Constructing Peace through Art,” Art Education 55 (May 2002): 33–39. 
  11. On July 17, 1976, McClure and Ginsberg gave a talk at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. At this lecture, McClure discussed a 1976 deck he created with Conner, titled DREAM TABLE, which utilized Conner’s inkblot imagery. At Naropa, McClure presented the concept of the Personal Universe Deck, which is effectively what he and Conner had created together. “I don’t use [the cards] as seeds for poems and I don’t consider the deck to be a poem,” McClure explained, adding, “Decks are word sculptures. I consider them to be a way of creating spontaneous, subjective, stochastic imagery reflecting the personal self. It is better not to think of this as poetry. Remove yourself from that aspect of it. This needs alchemical, transformational possibilities. . . . Think of it as an alchemic word experiment.” In his commentary McClure also noted that, “a word that sounds bad to your ear by itself may sound beautiful in combination with ninety-nine other words that enable the word to express its beautiful aspects.” Michael McClure, “Michael McClure Poetry Workshop, Class 3,” Naropa Archive Project (3 July 1978): https://archive.org/details/Michael_McClure_Poetry_Workshop_class_3_July_1978_78P088
  12. In addition to artists like Conner, Rauschenberg, Lee Bontecou, George Brecht, John Chamberlain, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, and Jackson Pollock, dancers, musicians, and filmmakers were also included in the exhibition along with poets not only from New York and San Francisco, but also from Black Mountain College like Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and others. Indeed, Olson was the rector “and dominant spirit” of Black Mountain during its halcyon days and, as Calvin Tomkins points out, was “a six-foot-seven-inch, two-hundred-and-fifty-pound poet whose enormous energy was committed to turn Black Mountain into the true ‘arts center.’” See Tomkins, Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1980), 72–73. Olson was rector during the period that Rauschenberg created his black and white monochromes. 
  13. Neil A. Chassman, “Poets of the Cities: Levelling of Meaning,” in Poets of the Cities: New York and San Francisco, 1950–1965 (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1974), 27. 
  14. Ibid., 27–28. 
  15. Ibid., 30. See Martin Heidegger, “The Thing,” in Vorträge und Aufsätze, trans. Fred Kersten (Pfullingen, Germany: Neske, 1974), 64. 
  16. Ibid., 27. 
  17. Rauschenberg quoted in John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 106. 
  18. Lana Davis, “Robert Rauschenberg and the Epiphany of the Everyday,” in Poets of the Cities, 41. 
  19. Ibid., 49. 
  20. Ibid. 
  21. Billy Klüver, “Oracle (1965)” in ArtMuseum.net: http://www.w2vr.com/archives/Kluver/04_Oracle.html
  22. Ibid. 
  23. Davis, “Epiphany of the Everyday,” 41. 

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