On the Infinite Plane

Geeta Dayal on Tony Conrad at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Tony Conrad performing Bowed Film, 1974. Photo: Tony Conrad Archives.

TONY CONRAD PASSED AWAY in 2016 at the age of seventy-six, leaving behind a sprawling and idiosyncratic body of work that spanned over five decades. His voluminous output was not always legible to the mainstream; it wasn’t always legible to the avant-garde either. The remarkable recent exhibition “Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective” at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York—with additional works on display at the University of Buffalo, where the artist taught from 1976 until shortly before he died—is wide-ranging and ambitious in scope. Was Conrad a composer, a sound artist, a filmmaker, a video artist, a theorist, a conceptual artist, a sculpture artist? He encompassed all of these things, and more, as the immensely varied exhibition demonstrates.

Conrad didn’t merely dabble in these many forms; he was an expert at all of them. His work is cleverly subversive—at times hilariously contrarian and anti-authoritarian, to be sure—but it is also profoundly moving, channeling and reflecting history, and the slow procession of time. Music is a useful lens through which to investigate his practice, especially his experiments in duration. In the mid-1960s, Conrad, then a young, strapping man in his twenties with a degree in mathematics from Harvard, had already accumulated serious musical credentials. He was a founding member of the Theatre of Eternal Music, a legendary ensemble with John Cale, La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, and Angus MacLise among others, which spun out transcendent music exploring specific mathematical intervals, repetition, and luminous, seemingly unending drones. (Much of this music is sadly unheard, due to a complicated battle with Young, who has not released the tapes.) In 1963, Conrad put together the soundtrack for Jack Smith’s infamous film, Flaming Creatures. In 1964, he composed a densely layered, visionary piece titled Four Violins.

Tony Conrad, Golf Club Sleeve Chimes, ca. 1983, Electric Bass, ca. 1996, Hairstring, ca. 2009, and Phonarmonica, 2003. Installation view, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, 2018. Photo: Tom Loonan and Brenda Bieger. 

In 1966, he unleashed his first film, the stroboscopic, trippy The Flicker, now considered a masterwork of structural cinema, made from a prescient gift of 16mm film stock from Jonas Mekas. The materiality of film was a subject Conrad explored to an extreme. He pickled film stock in mason jars (Pickled 3M 150 from 1974 and Pickled E.K. 7302-244-0502 from 2006), using a recipe from the Fannie Farmer cookbook of 1896. He also curried and deep-fried it. He sautéed it with meat, vegetables and noodles and then ‘projected’ the results by dramatically flinging the film against screens (as in 7360 Sukiyaki, 1973, which now exists only in documentation.) He wove microfilm and Kalvar stock into a gorgeous, silvery textile to create Flicker Matte, 1974. But Yellow Movies, 1972-73, took Conrad's cinematic investigations to a new level.

He painted black frames on large pieces of white photographic backdrop paper rolls, then filled them in with inexpensive house paint he knew would eventually yellow over time. The paint's slow, inevitable oxidation created a ‘movie’ of very long duration. At the Millennium Film Workshop in New York in 1973, Conrad presented twenty-three of these pieces as a “World Premiere Exhibition of 20 New Movies.” Wrote Mekas in the Village Voice: “I find this exhibition one of the high achievements or products of the art of cinema and, to my thinking, Conrad’s best work to date.”

Tony Conrad, Yellow Movie 2/23–24/73, Yellow Movie 2/2/73, and Yellow Movie 4/3/73, all works 1973. Installation view, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, 2018. Photo: Tom Loonan and Brenda Bieger. 

Upon encountering the exhibition, one is immediately confronted with the Yellow Movies. They still hold tremendous power, presenting an extreme distillation of simple ideas in a stark and elegant form. A room full of Conrad’s musical instrument inventions and sound installations continues themes of economy and simplicity, utilizing materials culled from dollar stores, found objects rescued from the trash, power tools, and basic electrical wiring. The build quality of the instruments is generally makeshift and jerry-rigged, in sharp contrast to the meticulously crafted aesthetic generally associated with synthesizers and bespoke acoustic instruments. A few such contraptions: Chimes and trumpets made from plastic tubing, a ‘grommet horn’ constructed from an empty plastic juice bottle studded with rubber grommets (Grommet Horn II, 2005), and an oscillator built inside of a metal Band-Aid canister (Band Aid box stereo oscillator, ca. 1969). Conrad’s Invented Acoustical Tools, 1965–2015, often displayed his goofy sense of humor, as in a series of devices he called the Phonarmonicas. One of these from 2003 was created using an electric drill press with the bit driving down through several old shellac 78 records of vintage recordings of a range of genres, including German polka music; when plugged in, the drill spins the records dramatically and violently.

Tony Conrad, Panopticon, 1988. Installation view, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, 2018. Photo: Tom Loonan and Brenda Bieger. 

Of the numerous video works on display, one of the most entrancing (and one of Conrad’s personal favorites, though he didn’t consider this piece an artwork) is Homework Helpline, 1994–95, a call-in public access television show starring the artist as its jovial host. Students would call in to get help with their assignments, but Conrad would never really answer their questions, preferring instead to get other students to do so. Even here, Conrad’s anti-authoritarian politics were made clear with his emphasis on an emergent, collaborative approach instead of a top-down dictatorial one, displacing himself as the teacher.

Conrad is not simply celebrated as a lone eccentric genius, but for his lifetime contributions to community, and to education. So many of his works involved setting something up and letting it go, with no clear beginning or end. In contrast to the tight compositional control wielded by many of his contemporaries, Conrad pushed his own ego away from the center, inviting the viewer—and the natural world—to help create his art with him.

“Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective,” organized by the Albright-Knox Art
Gallery with support from the University of Buffalo Art Galleries, will be on
view at the List Visual Art Center in conjunction with the Carpenter Center
beginning in October 2018 before moving to the Institute of Contemporary Art in
Philadelphia in February 2019.

Geeta Dayal is a critic writing on experimental music, art, and technology, based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Another Green World, a book on Brian Eno.