New York

View of “Aldo Tambellini,” 2013.

View of “Aldo Tambellini,” 2013.

Aldo Tambellini

James Cohan | 48 Walker St

View of “Aldo Tambellini,” 2013.

Let’s get the usual encomiums out of the way: “pioneering,” “little known but influential,” “long overdue recognition.” The language accompanying the revival of interest in Aldo Tambellini is familiar enough, as are the rites. Since 2012, Tambellini’s work has screened at the Centre Pompidou, the Tate Modern, and the Museum of Modern Art; the Harvard Film Archive has assembled a collection of restored prints; and, most recently, the artist was the subject of this retrospective, “Aldo Tambellini: We Are the Primitives of a New Era,” curated by Joseph Ketner.

Known for the swirling black vortexes that pulse through his films, slide projections, and videos, and for the “electromedia” theatrical pieces that fused this imagery with dance, poetry, and jazz, Tambellini has received renewed attention as part of a wider recovery of expanded cinema and projective installations from the 1960s and 1970s. This return, inaugurated by “Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art 1964–77” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2001 and given additional momentum by “X-Screen” at the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien in 2004, has provided crucial context in which to reevaluate, and at times literally reconstruct, the work of artists such as Paul Sharits and Anthony McCall. The conditions of Tambellini’s initial emergence, however, were far different from those of his current reemergence.

As early as 1984, Martha Rosler decried the suppression of that “utopian moment” when avant-garde media practices were embedded in social movements of the 1960s; in its place, a history of “video art” portrayed artists’ engagement with television as yet another Greenberg-addled quest for the essential qualities of a medium. Whereas Sharits and McCall are filmmakers more or less amenable to a modernist reading, Tambellini hails from Rosler’s utopian moment. Electromedia’s complex superimpositions of projection, looped television clips, and live performance were informed and animated by the diversity of Tambellini’s collaborators, among them the activist Ben Morea and Calvin C. Hernton of the black poetry collective Umbra. A history of Tambellini’s practice needs to be a social history, one sited at the collision point of spectacle, the counterculture, and civil rights.

It’s this social dimension that went missing here, in part due to an intervention by Tambellini himself. The exhibition’s centerpiece was a single room of films and slides projected onto the walls and floor. (Adjoining spaces surveyed Tambellini’s less immersive works, among them paintings in Duco and acrylic, two videos, and several “videograms”—photograms created by applying light-sensitive paper to television screens.) Much as McCall did with his solid-light films, Tambellini embraced the pragmatism of converting his source material into digital formats, and treated the conversion process as an opportunity to reconfigure earlier pieces; hence the composite dates attributed to Black Spiral (Split Screen), 1969/2013, Black Space Triptych, 1965/2013, and Lumagrams, 1963–68/2013. One could voice the usual objections of analog loyalists—the dispersal of inky blacks into grainy pixels indeed disappoints—but a more serious issue arose from Tambellini’s addition of text in a sans-serif typeface that glided over the converted film footage. In its original context, blackness operated simultaneously, if paradoxically, as a refusal of representation and as a signifier of African American identity. (For instance, the audio track of Tambellini’s film Black Is, 1966, not shown here, is a looped chant of the famous mantra black is beautiful.) In this new iteration, however, words and gnomic phrases such as galaxies and cosmic black persistently tied blackness to space travel, analogically relating the sensorial overload of electromedia to an experience of the outer limits. The result is a reinflated 1960s fantasy of transcendence through terrestrial departure, without any additional metaphors tethering it to realities on the ground. Such a reductive presentation risks folding Tambellini into previously codified narratives of formal innovation, when in fact he could open up a history of expanded cinema more attuned to social change.

Colby Chamberlain