Art

A Mad Scientist of the New York Avant-Garde Gets a Retrospective

Curiosity diverted Tony Conrad into the underground worlds of experimental music and filmmaking, and to an unpretentious understanding of himself as a conceptual artist.

Installation view of Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective at MIT List Visual Arts Center, October 18, 2018 – January 6, 2019 (photo by Peter Harris Studio)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Split between MIT and Harvard University, Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective is the ideal size for the important task of bringing this under-recognized artist into brighter light. So far, Cambridge, Massachusetts and Buffalo, New York, have been the exhibition’s only stops. The latter is where Conrad taught for the bulk of his professional career, so while this is a fairly comprehensive overview of the artist’s prolific career, Conrad’s particular and peculiarly uncontainable genius remains a bit of a secret — a secret that’s exciting to be in on, even as public awareness of the breadth and depth of his influence widens; as Conrad himself once said, “You don’t know who I am, but somehow, indirectly, you’ve been affected by things I did.”

Tony Conrad, “Untitled” (2010)

This is likely true if mid-to-late 20th century New York avant-garde art has had any impact on your life. Conrad was a kind of impish mad scientist, whose curiosity diverted him from his Harvard Mathematics degree into the underground worlds of experimental music and filmmaking, and, ultimately, to an unpretentious understanding of himself as a conceptual artist.

Despite the claim on the MIT List Visual Arts Center website that Conrad’s affiliations span “from Fluxus to the Pictures Generation,” the artist was resistant even to this level of institutional categorization. He is clearly poking fun at markers of underground status when he intentionally did an amateurish job framing a copy of Compositions by his collaborator and Fluxus/avant-garde music luminary, La Monte Young (dated 2002), and when he presented “Sukiyaki Film” (1973) to the experimental film community as a stir-fry — cooking the 16mm film on stage and “projecting” it in the “projectile” sense of the word.

Installation view of Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective at MIT List Visual Arts Center, October 18, 2018 – January 6, 2019 (photo by Peter Harris Studio)
Installation view of Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective at MIT List Visual Arts Center, October 18, 2018 – January 6, 2019 (photo by Peter Harris Studio)

The larger part of the exhibition is displayed at MIT’s Hayden and Reference Galleries, which feature his musical, film, video, and conceptual projects. (An example of the last is “H,” from 1965, which consists of 60 pages of IBM computer printouts of the letter H.) Several of Conrad’s handmade instruments, effects pedals, and compositional projects are showcased in the largest gallery and range from extremely silly to esoteric. Math plays a big role in two compositions from the late 1970s. “Pi” (1978) experiments with generating music through the ratio of circumference to diameter in a circle, in part to question our dogged adherence to more traditional Western composing methods (frankly, the musical result is more entertaining than pleasant to listen to). “Cycles of 3s and 7s” (1977) is Conrad’s first video piece, but is also “music” — it’s him speaking and typing a repeating and shifting pattern of 3s and 7s into a pocket calculator.

Tony Conrad, “Homework Helpline” (1994–95) (photo by Peter Harris Studio)

These are obscure pieces in Conrad’s oeuvre. Better-known works in the exhibition include some pieces from the incredibly elegant conceptual series, Yellow Movies, a group of minimalist paintings in the medium of emulsion, intended as very long-form films, “playing” for 50+/- years, that he produced between 1972-3. MIT is also projecting his film/installation, “WiP (Women in Prison).” WiP’s footage, shot in 1982, features artists Mike Kelley, Tony Oursler, and Joe Gibbons. Conrad went so far as to buy the building the set was installed in during what turned out to be a 30-year hiatus in completing the improvised piece. Due to Kelley’s untimely death in 2012, the film was never finished as planned, but excerpts were edited together for an exhibition in 2013, and shown in tandem with his hand-built prison cells. As with “Yellow Movies,” “WiP”’s merging of experimental filmmaking and performance art and demonstrates Conrad’s eternal questioning of the boundaries of a given medium.

MIT also hosted an evening of live musical performances featuring some of Conrad’s collaborators, such as Henry Flynt and Lary 7, and has devoted significant space to his video work. An installation of the five-channel video installation “Panopticon” (1988) fills a whole room with his efforts to (playfully, as always) note the medium’s potential for creating a surveillance state, while excerpts from a lovely experiment, “Homework Helpline” (1994–95), show Conrad offering live homework help to kids in Buffalo via cable access television — one of several instances in which he took advantage of the cable access format in Buffalo.

Installation view of Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective at MIT List Visual Arts Center, October 18, 2018 – January 6, 2019 (photo by Peter Harris Studio)
Tony Conrad, “Panopticon” (1988).
Installation view of Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective at MIT List Visual Arts Center, October 18, 2018 – January 6, 2019 (photo by Peter Harris Studio)

Although the Harvard exhibition included an installation of a 20-component Yellow Movie (1973) and some of Conrad’s later (2003–2005) homemade instruments, it was film-heavy, including Conrad’s self-curated six-hour-long showcase of his works, Authorized to Surrender: A Video Retrospective, 1977-90. It’s lovely (though a bit exhaustive) to have access so many of his experimental works at once — not simply the most famous, “The Flicker” (1966).

Introducing Tony Conrad is clearly just the tip of the Conrad iceberg. The word “introducing” in the title is not just an announcement of Conrad’s emergence from the sidelines, as it might first suggest, but also an indication of how much more there is to know about him. For those interested in knowing more, an entertaining documentary about Conrad is currently moving slowly from the festival circuit into theatrical release. It screened at Harvard’s Film Archive as a part of the exhibition, and does a fabulous job contextualizing the show’s work for those less prone to invest in an exhibition catalog. It’s also an opportunity to how clearly Conrad’s work is rooted in his pretty delightful personality.

Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective continues at the MIT List Visual Arts Center (20 Ames Street, Building E15, Atrium Level, Cambridge, Massachusetts) through January 6. The Cambridge presentation is organized by Henriette Huldisch, Director of Exhibitions & Curator, MIT List Visual Arts Center and Dan Byers, John R. and Barbara Robinson Family Director, Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts.

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