Throughout his six-decade career, Tony Conrad (1940–2016) forged his own path through numerous artistic movements, from Fluxus to the Pictures Generation and beyond. Conrad, a 1962 graduate of Harvard University, made visits to both Harvard and MIT over the years to present his work, and he had formative experiences at both universities.
Although he was best known for his pioneering contributions to both minimal music and structural film in the 1960s, his work helped define a vast range of culture, including rock music and public television. He once declared in an interview, “You don’t know who I am, but somehow, indirectly, you’ve been affected by things I did.” Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective, the first large-scale museum survey devoted to artworks Conrad presented in museum and gallery settings, is part of an ongoing reappraisal of his creative achievement. Indeed, because of the extraordinary scope of Conrad’s contributions to art and culture, this retrospective may yet be seen as only an “introduction.” Inspired by the spoken, written and performed introductions Conrad regularly used to help frame screenings and presentations of his works, it shows the artist to be an unparalleled innovator in the mediums of painting, sculpture, film, video, performance and installation, tenaciously working to challenge the boundaries between artistic categories.
Conrad’s first experience in film came from his creative partnership with Jack Smith as the sound designer for Smith’s best known works, Scotch Tape (1959-62), Flaming Creatures (1963), and Normal Love (1963-64). Conrad’s musical work informed his breakthrough film debut, The Flicker—a radical reduction of the cinema to its most essential properties: light and darkness, black and white, sound and silence—that brought film fully into the emergent minimalist art movement. With subsequent works such as Straight and Narrow (1970), Coming Attractions (1970) and Four Square (1971), Conrad created some of the purest and, to this day, most arresting examples of structural film.
Testing his audiences as well as the sculptural and performative limits of film, Conrad continued to turn up the volume on theatricality, mystery and a certain off-beat humor. In Sukiyaki Film (1973), for instance, Conrad rapidly stir-fried film and hurled it at the screen, and in his Yellow Movies (1972–73), he coated paper surfaces with cheap paint and presented them as slowly changing “films.” He invented musical instruments out of film and other materials, even a Band-Aid tin, and presented these acoustical tools as sculptures themselves. In the 1980s, his ambitious films about power relations in the army and in prisons critiqued what he perceived as an emerging culture of surveillance, control and containment. Engaging directly with urgent issues, his collaborative programs for public access television in 1990s made him an influential voice within the community. In addition to this film series, these bodies of work will be highlighted through different examples on view at both the Carpenter Center and MIT List Visual Arts Center
This film series is part of Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective. Originally organized by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery with the support of the University at Buffalo Art Galleries, this multi-part exhibition is on view at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts and the MIT List Visual Arts Center from October 17 – January 6.
Special thanks: Dan Byers, John R. and Barbara Robinson Family Director, and Daisy Nam, Assistant Director—Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts; and Henriette Huldisch, Director of Exhibitions & Curator—MIT List Visual Arts Center.
Wednesday, October 17, 5 – 8pm
Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective Reception
The exhibition reception takes place at the MIT List Visual Arts Center (5 – 7:30pm) and at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (6:30 – 8pm).
Friday October 19 at 7pm
Tony Conrad Film
By the mid-1960s I had been drawn to film because of its hopelessly shabby integrity, and also because of its restive and anarchic aspects, which implicitly challenged the progressivism of the art market. At the same time, and perhaps even because of its unruliness and freedom from the market, I felt that film could be used to construct esthetic challenges that the existing market disciplines in art did not, would not, or could not touch. It seemed to me quite rational to look to the border regions of art for its greatest mobility and interest. After all, it had been within music, not painting or sculpture, that the most radical artistic challenges of the early 1960s had appeared. – Tony Conrad
Film notes courtesy Canyon Cinema
- Straight and Narrow (Tony and Beverly Conrad, US 1970, 16mm, b/w, 10 min)
Straight and Narrow is a study in subjective color and visual rhythm. Although it is printed on black and white film, the hypnotic pacing of the images will cause viewers to experience a programmed gamut of hallucinatory color effects. Straight and Narrow uses the flicker phenomenon not as an end in itself, but as an effectuator of other related phenomena. In this film, the colors, which are so illusory in The Flicker, are visible and under the programmed control of the filmmaker. Also, by using images that alternate in a vibrating flickering schedule, a new impression of motion and texture is created.
- 4-X Attack (Tony Conrad, US 1973, 16mm, b/w, 2 min)
- Articulation of Boolean Algebra for Film Opticals (Tony Conrad, US 1975, 16mm, b/w, 10 min. excerpt of 75 min. original
This work is one of the most austere and highly structure-dependent films ever, made without images other than six patterns of alternating black and white imposed upon the full surface of the film strip.
- The Flicker (Tony Conrad, US 1966, 16mm, b/w, 30 min)
This is a notorious film; it moves audiences into some space and time in which they may look around and find the movie happening in the room there with them. Much has been written about The Flicker. It is a library of peculiar visual materials, referenced to the frame-pulse at twenty-four frames per second. All flickering light is potentially hazardous for photogenic epileptics or photogenic migraine sufferers.
- The Eye of Count Flickerstein (Tony Conrad, US 1967-1975, 16mm, b/w, silent, 7 min)
The sustained dead gaze of black-and-white TV "snow," captured in 1965 and twisted sideways, draws the viewer hypnotically into an abstract visual jungle
Friday October 19 at 9pm
Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present (Tyler Hubby, US 2016, DCP, color, 102 min)
Hubby’s affectionate and insightful portrait of Tony Conrad offers an excellent overview of the career and vision of a polymath and multifaceted artist, making wonderfully clear Conrad’s indelible contributions to both experimental music and cinema. Closely following Conrad at work, on the road and in an ongoing conversation about art and creativity, Hubby’s debut feature effectively and poignantly captures the voice and vision of a true pioneer.
At the MIT List Visual Arts Center & CCVA
Friday, October 26, 12 – 2pm
Curatorial Walkthrough: Henriette Huldisch and Dan Byers
Taking place at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts and MIT List Visual Arts Center.
CCVA Level 3, Bookshop
Tuesday October 30 at 7:30pm
In Response: Students Perform Responses to Tony Conrad’s works
In collaboration with Claire Chase, Harvard University Music Dept. Professor of the Practice and Neil Leonard, Artistic Director of the Berklee Interdisciplinary Arts Institute.
In 1976, Conrad was invited by Woody Vasulka, head of the Center for Media Study at the University at Buffalo, to join the faculty as a professor of video. Although before taking the job Conrad had actually never made a video, he quickly immersed himself in the medium and by the early 1990s had created around two dozen video works. The sharing of videos on the internet would not become common for another two decades, so in order to show his works more widely, Conrad organized a six-hour compilation of his videos that could be easily shipped and screened. Entitled Authorized to Surrender, the compilation reveals the stylistic range of Conrad’s video projects, including simple single-take videos, videos with special effects, and footage of performances. As indicated by the compilation’s title, many of these works deal with questions of authority and power, often with a focus on the triangular relationship between Conrad, his work, and its audience. Produced in Buffalo with the support of Squeaky Wheel Film and Media Art Center, which Conrad helped cofound, and Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, where Conrad had his first retrospective in 1977, Authorized to Surrender notably was shown in New York City as early as February and March 1991, when it was screened daily in its entirety at The Kitchen, an experimental media space where Conrad presented his work on several occasions beginning in 1972. – from Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective, Albright-Knox Art Gallery
The following is a selection of video works principally from Conrad’s Authorized to Surrender: A Video Retrospective, 1977-90.
- Weak Bodies and Strong Wills (US 1986, video transferred to digital, color, 5 min)
- In Line (US 1985, video transferred to digital, color, 7 min)
- Run Dick, Run Jane (US 1985, video transferred to digital, color, 3 min)
- Eye Contact (US 1985, video transferred to digital, color, 8 min)
- An Immense Majority (US 1987, video transferred to digital, color, 7 min)
- Grading Tips for Teachers (US 2003, video, color, 13 min)
- Tony’s Oscular Pets (US 2001, video, color, 5 min)
Friday November 30 at 7pm
- Cycles of 3s and 7s (Tony Conrad, US 1977, video transferred to digital, b/w, 12 min. excerpt of 23 min. original)
Conrad’s first video work, Cycles of 3s and 7s, resembles much video art of the 1970s: recorded in a single take, the grainy footage documents the artist performing a repetitive action for the camera in his studio. Conrad was a math major in college and former computer programmer, and here he punches calculations into a handheld calculator, assuming the demeanor of a friendly math teacher (a role he would reprise in the cable program Homework Helpline (1994–95), also on view in this exhibition). However, the video is as much about music as it is about math, building on Conrad’s lifelong rejection of traditional methods of composition. By repeating the numbers three and seven, he creates ratios associated with non-Western music, and as Conrad himself noted, the sound of his voice narrating the calculation of these ratios takes on a rhythmic quality, creating a kind of computer-generated song.
In addition to being a video about music, Cycles of 3s and 7s is also a video about computers. As Conrad later explained, although the digital hand-held calculator was a fairly new consumer product, it was nonetheless an accessible machine, something even a child could operate. By deliberately using a familiar technology, Conrad hoped to question the “fetishization” of computers by some media artists: “I was at such a point of skepticism [about the uses of computers in art] that I felt that it would be interesting to do computer art using a computer much simpler than the kinds of computers that were being fetishized at the time, because the tendency at that point in terms of techno-culture was for the artist to access the most lavishly endowed computer possible … It was an almost erotically driven fantasy of control and sophistication, which I wanted to debunk.” – from Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective, Albright-Knox Art Gallery
- Loose Connection (Tony Conrad, US 1972-2011, film/video transferred to digital, 54 min, 54 sec)
To make Loose Connection, Conrad built a camera that moved in two directions simultaneously: it could be rolled backward and forward on a waist-high rig made with baby carriage wheels, and it automatically rotated 360 degrees. Conrad recorded the sound continuously, but he set up the camera to only shoot several frames at regularly spaced intervals as it turned. This innovative apparatus was put to use only once, in a continuous shoot that followed Conrad and his family from their home in midtown Manhattan to the local A&P. Largely because Conrad did not have the money to finish the project, the collection of exposed rolls of 8mm film remained in storage for thirty-eight years. When he finally developed the film and transferred it to digital video in 2011, he was able to realize the project as planned: a jittery, flickering version of gritty, even intense everyday reality in New York City where the illusion of motion that film normally creates is shattered and sound and image remain only loosely connected. – from Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective, Albright-Knox Art Gallery
At the MIT List Visual Arts Center
Saturday December 1 at 7pm
Sound Performance: Henry Flynt, Damon and Naomi, and Other Special Guests
In collaboration with Non-Event, this performance takes place at the MIT List Visual Arts Center.