Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective
Albright-Knox Art Gallery and University at Buffalo Art Galleries
March 3 – May 27, 2018
At the time [1960s], I was trying not to work if I could help it. I thought that was an esteemed objective.
—Tony Conrad, 2012
How to introduce an artist? One may position them in a previously established historical canon, revise history by undoing hegemonic structures of forced invisibility, or isolate an “individual” practice that doesn’t conform to historical compartmentalization. Typically, the latter method only proves the rule by providing an exception. Introducing Tony Conrad is the title of the late polymath’s first career-long retrospective, which originated last spring at the Albright-Knox Gallery and University at Buffalo Art Galleries, organized by Cathleen Chaffe and Rachel Adams.1 Though it does not completely avoid the clichéd forms of institutional recollection and historical organization sketched above, the scope of the Albright-Knox show is comprehensive—presenting non-medium-specific work that made Conrad one of the key radical practitioners of the conceptual turn—while revealing his own deeply ambivalent take on what it was to be an “artist.” In other words, when and how Conrad was made into an artist. Is it when he started hanging out with Walter De Maria and La Monte Young in the early ’60s, or when the Velvet Underground formed in his apartment? Is it when he applied paint to a canvas but called it a film? Is it when he hooked up with Jack Smith and scored his films, or when Jonas Mekas began to champion his movies in Film Culture? Or when he began to create installations? This question, though not among the primary concerns of the Albright-Knox exhibition, is not ignored in the organizers’ sincere approach to Conrad’s posture, genuineness, and staged idiosyncrasies—due in large part to the museum’s local specificity in Buffalo where Conrad taught and lived for many years.2
Upon entry to the main gallery, we are introduced to the seemingly incompatible plentitude of Conrad’s practice: composer and innovator of Western minimal drone music; a Harvard-trained mathematician; a key figure for post-war structural filmmaking and early computer art; a producer of low-fi videos and progressively more slapstick forms of manipulating the film reel (including cooking and washing it); collaboration with figures as varied as Beverly Grant, La Monte Young, and Jack Smith, or Tony Oursler, Mike Kelley, and the group Faust. We also see him as a decades-long professor and host of call-in public-access television programs. Most importantly, it introduces Conrad’s wry methods of critique, protest, and pedagogy—highly methodical and serious enterprises which he himself never took too seriously.
Take a snippet from a previously unpublished video interview. In it, Conrad lectures while driving. His hands hold a fuzzy leopard-print steering wheel. He speculates: “It’s really mystifying why and how we like sounds… There has to be some other answer than the Pythagorean answer which is that we like sounds because they are ordered in the way that the universe is ordered.”3 A decade earlier his record Slapping Pythagoras (1995)—two drone tracks with nods to the Velvet Underground and no-wave sound—proffered this type of positivism as one of the foundations for the anti-democratic nature of all Western thought.4 His casual demeanor and irreverent posture signal a self-reflexive critique of the cult of individualism implicit to most protest art. For a key example, in 1963, after a series of 1962 concerts at the 10-4 Gallery, Conrad joined John Cale, Angus MacLise, La Monte Young, and Marian Zazeela to form an iteration of the group Theatre of Eternal Music. Conrad contributed mathematical knowledge to help develop just intonation. At the time, they agreed the music was a collaboration, and thus authorless. Later, Young claimed sole authorship of the recordings, refusing to share the tapes in his archive. When Young came to Buffalo two decades later, Conrad picketed his performance with a sign that read: “La Monte Young does not understand his own music.”5 In 2000, as part of the series Invented Acoustical Tools, Conrad “played” Young’s 1960 compositions by bowing the paper on which the scores were printed. Both the “instrument” and the scores are on view at the Albright-Knox.6
After a small archival introduction with press clippings and photographs, the visitor encounters a series of scores by Conrad written neatly onto sheets of notebook paper. Among them, Piece reads “To perform this piece do not perform this piece.” Another score from the same period:
To compose this form the logical union of all possible permutations of
[N.B. — May also be appreciated as concept art.]
Conrad’s spin is that such compositions work in the process of their nullification (i.e. “don’t do it”), or in their impossibility—concerns adjacent to those of many Fluxus and post-Cagean artists. It is easier to read these scores historically after having seen archival photos in the archival section of Conrad with Henry Flynt (with whom he studied at Harvard) and Smith picketing outside the Met, MoMA, and Lincoln Center in 1963, decrying “Serious Culture” as inherently oppressive, Euro-imperialist, and undemocratic. Soon after, Flynt delivered his lecture “From ‘Culture’ to Veramusument” at Walter De Maria’s loft, which spectators entered by stepping on a poster of the Mona Lisa, then on view at the Met.7 The next year, with comrades from Fluxus circles, they picketed a Stockhausen performance. In Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts after Cage, Branden Joseph, with tongue somewhat in cheek, refers to this as one of the “deaths of Fluxus.”
Perhaps, the type of curatorial decision that most defines the curators’ attention to Conrad’s career-long critique of power is the installation of the film Beholden to Victory (1980–2007) at the University galleries. Upon entering, the visitor’s photo is taken by a gallery worker, who asks whether one would prefer to be a solider or a civilian. Those like me who choose the anti-militaristic position are relegated to the back of a screening room so any VIP soldiers present, would obscure the civilians view of the film from their front row seats—one of the ways Conrad instructed this film be shown. The film’s two characters (soldier and sergeant, played by his students Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler) improvise. As described by Kelley: “We were outfitted in military gear and taken to the desert for a mission. Then we were informed of what we were not allowed to do and were left to struggle with what we could do.”8 The final result is a “war genre” movie (earning scorn from earlier colleagues beholden to “non-narrative” work), but one that is slapstick, layered with absurd scenes as the typically loaded vessels of power unnecessarily dig holes—authority is laid bare and formless. As Conrad described: “Beholden to Victory is about what an audience is and does. It uses role reversals to show the audience some of its own most embarrassing secrets.”9
In an isolated screening room in the central gallery at the Albright-Knox, one encounters what is likely Conrad’s best-known film: The Flicker (1966), made with only five different film frames (a warning frame, two title tracks, one black, and one white frame), which generate a stroboscopic effect when screened. Just outside this small hypnotic space, is a wall with his relatively huge Yellow Movies (1973). Conrad, whose interest was long duration, wanted to create a film that could last fifty years. Knowing this to be impossible with film and projector, he mounted squares of canvas painted with cheap house paint that would turn yellow over time, painting black “frames” around them. Seen together, they indicate markedly different types of “projection:” moving pictures on film on the one hand, and another series of pictures “moving” and decaying through time on the other. Surprised, and mockingly gleeful at their acceptance in art history, Conrad later commented that “paint is a movie record of what goes on in space.” Elsewhere: “This was treated as a kind of joke in 1973 but after thirty years, people took it seriously. I suddenly became an artist.”10
As suggested, seeing the Conrad retrospective in the city geographically specific to Conrad’s work and life is what is particularly strong about the show. Furthermore, the mix of well-known and newly uncovered work (such as the room-size installation Panopticon (1988)), do not conform to some hierarchy of notoriety or mythologized shock value. Instead, where possible the works invite participation: both in terms of activating the works, as in the case of an amplified bench which viewers sit on to produce sound, and in the many hours of videos available to stream from three armchairs equipped with a tablet device. Another series of treasures passed along by the organizers is an online audio guide: recordings of Conrad describing pieces in the show.11 Among the recordings is Homework Helpline (1993 – 1997): a live call-in public access television program in which he helped young students with their math homework. Available as well is Conrad’s seminar “The Harmonic Series and Applied Basic Arithmetic as Bases for Musical Practices” that he gave at West Nile in Brooklyn in 2008 with a running time of eight hours and thirty-one seconds.
Conflicted on how to conclude a review of a Conrad retrospective—reticent about entrenching him further into the institutional discourses at the center of his critique, though eager to inhabit these contradictions—I turned to his 1976 lecture on the work of contemporary and Buffalo colleague Paul Sharits. The talk consisted of nine cassette players placed on the edge of the stage playing different tracks simultaneously. One begins:
Before I attack Paul Sharits, I’d like to begin by attacking next week’s guest. Nothing personal! … The fact of the matter is, I’d like to attack her for no personal reason, but simply because she’s a critic! I know, I know; I know, you’re gonna wonder what’s wrong with being a critic. Well if there’s anything I can perhaps contribute to the discourse on the present occasion, it might have to do with the function of criticism.12
He quickly breaks into song: “Baby, don’t you know what I’m gonna do to you,” mocking the endeavors of the critic, as well as his criticism of the critic altogether. Maybe Alan Licht’s comment in the second issue of Blank Forms Journal is more appropriate. Contributing a previously unpublished 1989 telephone interview with Conrad, he writes: “Back then I thought Tony had to be one of the greatest minds I had ever encountered; now, as I’ve reached the same age that Tony was in 1989, I realize he was also one of the greatest minds that I (or anyone) ever will encounter.” Perhaps, this is the best way to “introduce” Conrad: by entering into rooms filled with his experiments, scores, protests, games, lectures, instruments, and letting the noise become one long duration of disobedience.
- The exhibition is currently up at the MIT List Center until January 6, and will move to the ICA in Philadelphia in February, 2019.
- 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. He had never made a “video” before.
- Tony Conrad, unreleased interview with Tyler Hubby, 2004, https://vimeo.com/73885159. See Tyler Hubby’s feature length biographical documentary: Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present, 2016.
- Available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=virk_cjfBt8.
- Italics mine.
- See Diedrich Diederichsen’s superb discussion of the Young/Conrad beef in: Diederichsen, “The Primary Political and Anti-Political Continuities Between Minimal Music and Minimal Art,” in A Minimal Future? (Los Angeles: MOCA, 2004), p. 125.
- “Veramusement” was Flynt’s formulation for a “panoramic critique of culture,” in response to what he calls “metaphysically pretentious art.” Henry Flynt, “AGAINST ‘PARTICIPATION’: A Total Critique of Culture,” Henryflynt.org, (1994), http://www.henryflynt.org/aesthetics/totcritcult.html. This past September, Flynt spoke at the Swiss Institute in New York to commemorate this lecture.
- Mike Kelley, Minor Histories. Statements, Conversations, Proposals, ed. John C. Welchman (MIT Press: 2004).
- Tony Conrad, introduction to screening of Behold to Victory, 1988, https://www.galeriebuchholz.de/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Tony-Conrad-Fade-in-1.pdf.
- Quoted in Ben Beaumont-Thomas, “‘People Thought We Were On Drugs—And We Were!’... Tony Conrad, The Great Adventurer,” The Guardian, 22 March 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/mar/22/p eople-thought-we-were-on-drugs-and-we-were-tony-conrad-the-great-avant-garde-adventurer.
- See: https://listart.oncell.com/en/homework-helpline-191687.html.
- The tracks are transcribed and reproduced in: Tony Conrad, “Paul Sharits: Prescription and Collapsed Temporality,” in Paul Sharits: Eine Retrospektive, e, ed. Susanne Pfeffer (Kassel: Fridericianum, 2014).
ANDREAS PETROSSIANTS is a New York-based art historian, and a frequent contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.