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Tony Martin.
Tony Martin.

Tony Martin (1937–2021)

Tony Martin, a painter and new-media artist whose groundbreaking work with light was embraced by performers as disparate as Pauline Oliveros and the Grateful Dead, died in upstate New York on March 24 of congestive heart failure at the age of eighty-three. The news was confirmed by his wife, poet Margot Farrington. Martin, who got his start in the San Francisco underground scene of the early 1960s, is widely credited as one of the inventors of the light show and as an early proponent of interactive artworks.

Martin was born in 1937 in Knoxville, Tennessee, the son of two artists employed by the US government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression. His father was additionally a well-known illustrator of album covers; the family’s immersion in the world of music greatly influenced the younger Martin, who would later recall Woody Guthrie occasionally stopping by with a guitar. Martin went on to study at the University of Michigan and at the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to San Francisco. While working and showing there as a painter, he began creating light compositions using the titular element as well as paint, various liquids, objects, and overhead and slide projectors.  A classically trained musician himself, he started performing these works, which he characterized as “painting in time,” live with pioneering composers including Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, David Tudor, and Terry Riley. He additionally began creating multisensory environments, sculptural, light-based artworks that viewers could manipulate to effect changes both within and outside the structures.

In 1963, Riley and Ramon Sender invited Martin to join the San Francisco Tape Music Center as visual director; the following year, at the behest of promoter Bill Graham, he began creating for artists such as the Dead and Jefferson Airplane the first of the psychedelic light shows that would come to embody the era. On moving to New York, he produced the visual systems for the renowned disco Electric Circus before accepting a position at New York University’s newly established Intermedia Arts Department. In the late 1970s, using a grant he received from the National Endowment for the Arts, he invented the vector image generator, which he unveiled in 1980 at New York’s P.S. 1 (now MoMA PS1) with his Vector Image Wall. His later work incorporated digital and analog media, and made use of various software programs.

Though he would remain best known for his pathbreaking work in light, Martin continued to paint during the course of a variegated career that spanned five decades. He exhibited widely, including at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul. His work is held in the collections of the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, and at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York, among other institutions; his papers are held by the Fales Library at New York University.