PRINT March 2007



LARGE PAINTED PAPER SHEETS with a rectangle approximating the proportions of a film screen, Tony Conrad’s “Yellow Movies,” 1972–73, were inspired by the stark dichotomy between art and cinema at Documenta 5 (1972)—where filmmakers such as Conrad had their movies screened only once in the community cinema, while other artists’ works in film and video were shown continually in Kassel’s Museum Fridericianum. As attested to by the petition published that summer by Documenta artists Hans Haacke, Sol LeWitt, Dorothea Rockbourne, and others, demanding more control over the display of their work, it wasn’t all gravy in the museum either. Nevertheless, cinema’s marginalization here was particularly ironic given its widespread adherence at the time to the tenets of “structural film”—an endeavor Conrad’s Flicker (1965–66) unwittingly helped inaugurate—which put film in dialogue with art-world practices of Minimalism and late-modern abstraction in their advanced and sometimes not so advanced guises. To Conrad, the whole enterprise risked stranding film in the same formalist backwater that painting had been mired in a decade before. (Clement Greenberg became an unlikely critical touchstone for cinema around this time.) The Yellow Movies” sought to cross-wire—and potentially short-circuit—the vexing rift between the institutional and discursive practices of art and film, borrowing from one to challenge the preoccupations of the other.

Although the “Yellow Movies” were always intended to change—fading and yellowing like tenement walls—more consequential transformations have occurred in the surrounding institutional frameworks, unexpectedly endowing these pieces with a new significance. As Conrad diagnosed in a 1997 article in The Squealer, “People Will Come if the Pictures Move: New Opportunities in Video Installation,” the confluence of art and cinema via large-scale projected imagery increasingly converts the white cube gallery into the cinematic black box. Reviewing the “Yellow Movies” some thirty-five years after their creation, on the occasion of their display this winter (in the wake of a 2005 appearance at the Biennale de Lyon) at Cologne’s Galerie Daniel Buchholz and at Greene Naftali Gallery in New York, the filmmaker—or is it artist?—discusses their suddenly renewed legibility.

Branden W. Joseph

Tony Conrad, Yellow Movie 3/31–4/2/73, 1973, gull-white flat interior latex paint on studio-white seamless paper, 116 x 106".


THE “YELLOW MOVIES” were always intended as a metastatement. They have a certain appearance, a certain nominal effectiveness; and a destiny, which is to change, inscribed at the point of intentionality. A “Yellow Movie” is usually a large piece of paper. On it is a coating of paint, usually white—it might be some other color, but I started with white—and a certain area of the paint is demarcated by a black frame to suggest the shape, aspect ratio, and presumably the size of a movie screen so that we recognize it as something to do with cinema. The rationale in 1972 and 1973 was that the paint could serve as an emulsion (as in unexposed film) that records the activity of the world around it.

The “Yellow Movies” were to intervene in the scene of structuralist filmmaking, taking advantage of a late-modernist strategy that had been very effective in my practice during the ’60s with the Theater of Eternal Music: extended duration. Extended duration in music, extended duration in theater, and extended duration in film had already considerably expanded the space of operation in those territories. In the case of music, as I saw it, it had actually brought the metaprocess of composition to its knees. In theater, it problematized actions to such a degree that happenings tended to blend into contingent life. Andy Warhol had led the way in radically extending the temporal scheme of film with Empire [1964] and his twenty-five-hour film, **** (Four Stars) [1967]. But these raised further questions because they were limited, in effect, to the length of a single day. Looking to the scale of a lifetime, the issues of production, viewing, and critique feather out into a whole new scene. I felt the discourse in so-called structural film was so limiting, so formally bound, that it needed to be blasted open. In effect, I was attacking structural film to suggest that we go substantially beyond my previous work, as well as that of Michael Snow, Ernie Gehr, Hollis Frampton, et al., and play out an endgame.

The problem was that a truly very long film won’t fit on a reel. So to work at the timescale of a lifetime necessitated revisiting the whole mechanical system. Lying on my bed in my Forty-second Street loft, contemplating this problem and vacantly staring at the ceiling, I said to myself, Crap! I just painted the ceiling last year, and look at it, already yellow! At this point I realized cheap house paint had exactly the emulsion properties I was interested in: environmental responsiveness over a very, very long scale of time. Now, if paint’s the emulsion, what’s the paper? Paper is the film base. In other words, translating the “Yellow Movies” into film language, we find the emulsion supported by a base, just as in normal film. This film doesn’t have perforations because it doesn’t run through a projector; it’s manufactured according to a different premise altogether. Is it a photograph? A still? Not really. By intention, it has the character of change inscribed within it. (Well, now I’m looking again at the “Yellow Movies” and I’m saying to myself, These look pretty white for movies that are supposed to turn yellow. . . .)

At the time, I thought about furniture pulled away from the wall showing its photograph on the wall in an indistinct but precise manner. I realized that if I used cheap house paint as an emulsion, people who wanted to be in my “Yellow Movies” could stand against them for, say, a year or two and leave their trace embedded in them in a monumental way. If furniture can have a place in the “Yellow Movies,” then the pieces also have some relation to architecture. Today, my vision of the yellowing paint on the ceiling can be inverted: Through the “Yellow Movies,” architecture is reconceived as the base with the emulsion being a layer of paint. That is, architecture in general can be construed as a kind of filmic space, in which the paint on the walls becomes an emulsion that carries the human story along a trajectory on the timescale of architecture.

The only time the “Yellow Movies” were shown in the twentieth century was in 1973 at a “screening” at Millennium Film Workshop in New York, where I framed a whole gallery infrastructure, put up the “Yellow Movies,” advertised “Tony Conrad: Twenty New Movies,” and showed them for one day. The filmmakers came and enjoyed the joke, but they didn’t take the message to heart. Filmmaking went barreling right ahead as ever before, so in that sense the whole project was a complete flop. On the other hand, Jonas Mekas wrote in the Village Voice that it was “Conrad’s best work,” which put me in a quandary, wondering what he could possibly mean. I understood only retrospectively, when he mentioned the work to European curators around 2004, and I was invited to screen the “Yellow Movies” once again.