Degree Date



Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


History of Art


This dissertation examines the films of Kansas-born, San Francisco-based artist Bruce Conner (1933-2008) over a period of fifty years, and contextualizes these works against the backdrop of Cold War American culture, politics, and history.It offers close readings of Conner’s films and related activities, from his pioneering work with found footage, to the visionary works he shot with his own camera, as well as his involvement in psychedelic light shows and in the Bay Area counterculture. Throughout, I explore how Conner’s films, situated at the historical “crossroads” of the Cold War, negotiated the cultural politics of race, nation, gender, and sexuality during this fraught period, with particular attention to their complex, and often ambivalent, engagement with popular culture.

The dissertation is loosely chronological, with each chapter focusing on a specific cross-section of Conner’s filmmaking practice. It begins with Conner’s first film, A MOVIE (1958), a densely packed montage of found footage fragments that is widely celebrated as an incisive critique of both Cold War ideology and the cinematic medium itself. A MOVIE is the first instance in which Conner used the iconic image that would reappear in his films over the following two decades: the atomic mushroom cloud. Footage of atomic explosions resurfaces in many later films, culminating with CROSSROADS (1976), an extended motion study comprised of archival footage of the Bikini Atoll underwater atomic tests. CROSSROADS supplies the title of this dissertation, as well as its central metaphor—“cinema at the crossroads”— and its primary hermeneutic, the “atomic sublime.” Throughout, I argue that Conner’s films visualize the tense oscillation between dystopian anxieties and utopian aspirations that epitomized the atomic age. These tensions, I propose, are encapsulated in the aesthetic category of the “atomic sublime,” which describes the paradoxical experience of “terrible beauty,” prompted by the visual spectacle of an atomic explosion. By providing an in-depth examination of Conner’s distinctive body of films, this study ultimately aims to expand the narrative of postwar American art to account for the pivotal roles played by both avant-garde cinema and West Coast artists in that history.


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