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PRINT September 2016

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Tony Conrad

Mike Kelley and Tony Conrad performing with XXX Macarena at the opening of “John Miller: The New Honeymooners,” Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York, January 18, 2008. From left: John Miller, Mike Kelley, Tony Conrad. Photo: Colby Bird.

AS IT HAPPENED, I became acquainted with Tony Conrad in the early 1980s before I knew much about his work. He was part of the East Village scene then and easy to get to know because of his open, unpretentious, and often bemused demeanor. Before this, I had seen him present some of his cooked films at CalArts in 1978—works made with film stock that was processed with heat rather than chemicals. This inspired Tony to try baking, broiling, pickling, and frying his footage. At the time, I failed to recognize that this was a kind of self-deprecating gesture, that he was known for The Flicker, 1966, widely regarded as a masterpiece of structural cinema, and that the cooked films, in contrast, literally gummed up the works of the filmic apparatus.

Fast-forward a few decades. In 2007–2008, Friedrich Petzel Gallery in New York showed a series of my gold reliefs, and, during the opening, Jutta Koether and I planned to perform as XXX Macarena, a two-person noise/drone band. (Jutta played synth and I played guitar.) When I learned that Mike Kelley would be in town that week, I invited him to join us and he, in turn, asked me to invite Tony as well. The performance was unlike anything we ever did before or since. Although Mike was fighting the flu, he turned up with armfuls of junk he’d picked out of the trash en route to the gallery. These he used as props and auxiliary percussion. Tony had a violin with a contact mic and Jutta appeared in a gold lamé jumpsuit with matching mask. What began as a sound check morphed into a concert that in turn morphed into a kind of theater, with Mike erratically drumming on everything and everyone around him. Since the entire audience couldn’t fit into the small room, people came and went in shifts. We played for three or four hours. Later, when I brought up Mike’s “drumming in the expanded field,” Tony quipped, “Mike was drumming on me, too.”

After that, we decided XXX Macarena should be a trio—Jutta, Tony, and me—and started playing regularly at various venues, typically galleries or lofts. Sometimes Greg Parma Smith joined us on drums. On another occasion, Kim Gordon joined Tony and me for an Issue Project Room benefit. We would rehearse, even though we never played the same thing twice. Sometimes the rehearsals went better than the actual performances. Tony usually played violin but he also had a special fondness for cheap Rogue-brand lap steel guitars. Since these ran about ninety-nine dollars (and still do), he would purchase several at a time and modify them in various ways. Once, he came with an instrument that was simply a single string on a yard and a half of pipe. That made some pretty low tones. As musicians, both Tony and Jutta were utterly without complication. There was never a question of preparation or of quality. That was the main thing Tony taught me: Never hesitate, and work with whatever you have at the time. This extremely pragmatic attitude sometimes led to ecstatic epiphanies.

In the meantime, I read Branden W. Joseph’s Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage (2008), which finally gave me a coherent context for Tony and his work. But as good as it is, the book is not exhaustive: For one reason, Tony kept on working. His last two solo shows in New York, “WiP” (Women in Prison) and “Undone,” at Greene Naftali in 2013 and 2016, both funny and sad, were unexpected revelations. Although Tony was not considered an activist artist in the usual sense, these shows broached questions of the prison-industrial complex and aging, social issues that will remain with us for some time. Who knows what other works of his have yet to find an audience, or what else he might have done had he lived longer? It’s disorienting to realize that now both Tony and Mike are gone. Tony once told an interviewer, “You don’t know who I am, but somehow, indirectly, you’ve been affected by things I did.” I take this statement not as a boast, but as a matter of fact.

John Miller is an artist and writer based in New York and Berlin and a professor in the visual arts concentration of Barnard College’s art history department.