Time Is a Box: A Tony Conrad Retrospective in Buffalo

Tony Conrad: Yellow Movie 2/23-24/73, 1973, sterling gray low lustre water-based enamel with thick texture on dusty rose seamless paper; 92 x 107 inches. Courtesy Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.

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Tony Conrad (1940-2016) rebelled against film, against music, against time. When he lived in New York, he lived as frugally as possible so as to remove himself from the economic order. He bought chicken hearts for $0.12 per pound and lived in an apartment without heat or running water. In 1964 he played with the Theatre of Eternal Music, effectively inventing drone music alongside La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, John Cale, and others. After graduating from Harvard with a degree in mathematics, he got a job at Life magazine’s circulation company, where he made his first work of art by printing the letter “H” thousands of times on spooled printing paper—a theft of materials as well as company time. H (1965), as the work was called, became an exhalation when read aloud.

H is the first work one encounters upon entering “Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective,” on view at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo through May 27 (part of the exhibition is presented at the University at Buffalo Art Gallery at the Center for the Arts). The piece is displayed in a glass vitrine, partially unfolded from a stack of continuous form paper lined with green and white rows of H shapes. The repetition creates the appearance of empty film frames, scrolling for sixty pages. “Introducing Tony Conrad,” is the first major museum exhibition of this influential but overlooked artist, fittingly held in the city where he lived from 1976 until his death. As Conrad himself once said in an interview, “You don’t know who I am, but somehow, indirectly, you’ve been affected by things I did.” The show takes the viewer through Conrad’s widely varied practice—from sound, film, and video through installation and sculpture to social practice and educational initiatives. It depicts a master tinkerer ready to play with whatever was in front of him.

Installed directly opposite H in a small, dark room is what many consider to be Conrad’s most influential work, The Flicker (1966). This is a seminal example in structuralist filmmaking, an experimental practice that removed narrative and took the materiality of film as the object of aesthetic inquiry. The Flicker was shot using a mathematically derived grid pattern of white and black frames aligned to create a system where darkness and light could fuse over the course of the thirty-minute film. Conrad believed that because light and sound are both waves, the harmonies produced by overlapping sound waves could be paralleled with light as well. In an interview decades later, he said of the experiment, “it didn’t work at all but it produced other results.” These “other results” included physical effects in viewers—like photosensitive migraines, vomiting, and exaltation—as well as a new genre of filmmaking. My experience of The Flicker felt like a breathing crescendo and decrescendo, in which pulses of light seemed to take on physical form. As the sequence of black and white frames sped up, visual hallucinations appeared in the crashing waves of light. I began to see rotating galaxies form, spinning faster and faster around some imaginary axis, then finally dissipating as the frequencies slowed to the point at which I perceived the flickering light to be constant.

The Flicker is accompanied both by the sound of the projector and a score Conrad synthesized at 20 Hz, the generally accepted baseline of audible frequency. It is rarely played due to the increasing costs of exhibiting film, yet the Albright-Knox was able to include it in the retrospective. The Flicker will not be shown in the traveling version of “Introducing Tony Conrad,” which opens at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center and the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts in October, and at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in February 2019.

Fresh off the hallucinatory effects of The Flicker, the viewer reenters the main gallery, where four large sheets of yellowed paper are tacked loosely to the walls. This work is Conrad’s take on the film frame as a singular unit of time. “Yellow Movies” (1972-73) comprises, in effect, four fifty-year films. Large sheets of paper were coated with white house paint that yellows from UV exposure and framed by the ink used by film editors to blacken the frame of stock. When the work is exhibited, the exposed paint slowly records whatever obstructions or activities intervene between the paper and the light source. Tape loosely covers tears at the edges. Wrinkles and creases creep across the paper as it gets worn by time. Conrad said the work was his retort to Warhol’s eight-hour film Empire (1964); it refutes the assumption that film captures time rather than constructing it.

Conrad continued to push the medium of film until the late ’70s. These experiments included his famous “pickled films” that involved applying methods of food preparation to film processing, such as Pickled 3M 150 (1974) and Roast Kalvar (1974). Glass jars with corroded and split tops sit like relics under glass on plinths in the center of the gallery.

Rooms around the main gallery present Conrad’s work in film, installation, and sound. In the first of these rooms is Loose Connection (1973/2011), a 54-minute, 54-second film made with a rig Conrad built and pulled through the streets of midtown New York with his young family as they walked to the grocery store. The camera, attached to carriage wheels, could move backward and forward while mechanically rotating 360 degrees and exposing several frames of 8mm film at a fixed interval. Sound was recorded continuously, except when the loose mic connection cut out. This experiment forced a rupture between the spatial panorama recorded on film and the linear time of the soundtrack. The camera rotates at a regular rate, showing billboards, passersby, trucks, and taxis. The city yells and belches, questioning the apparatus and its creator. A Czech filmmaker implores Conrad to share the results of his experiment. Someone yells “I got a big dick!” Another person suspiciously asks what Conrad will use the footage for. “I experiment,” he responds.

Conrad’s “Invented Acoustical Tools” (1969–2014), his long-running series of improvised musical instruments, convey his sense of humor and his desire to upend expectations. A swing hanging from the ceiling by amplified wire creaks with electric reverb. A stationary industrial drill rotates a series of vinyl records that can be activated by a handheld stylus. These works display Conrad’s ability to deconstruct an object to demonstrate how it functions, and then to apply that knowledge toward producing an entirely new functionality.

Panopticon (1988), Conrad’s most ambitious installation work, fills another of the side galleries. It presents an empty late-night Main Street in late twentieth-century America, with cardboard roads and foam-core facades labeled with words like mall and gallery. A foam-core couch sits on the right, while on the left stands a transmission tower rendered in the same material, nightmarishly twisted. A satellite hangs from the ceiling with a rotating mirrored antenna pointing down along a bright orange snow fence that blankets the town below as a physical manifestation of broadcast radio waves. The whole set, which fills about half of the forty-foot-long room, is somehow reminiscent of Mr. Roger’s neighborhood, seen after dark.

The work’s five video monitors show characters that Conrad said embody the “societal functions” of the neighborhood: the anchorwoman personifies the transmission tower, the mall teens the mall, and so on. In each monitor, Conrad in profile speaks next to a stationary mask that looks directly at the viewer. The mask might represent that viewer, reflected in the screen, or the character whom Conrad alternately embodies and interacts with.

In the early ’90s, Conrad began a public access television show called “Studio of the Streets.” A few of the episodes are shown at the Albright-Knox, while the main use of “Studio” can be found at the UB Art Galleries, where segments from the show are projected over a set resembling a construction zone. Orange fencing like that in Panopticon appears here alongside wheelbarrows and shovels. Highlights from the exhibition at the UB Art Galleries include Conrad’s performative nine-channel lecture Paul Sharits: Prescription and Collapsed Temporality (1976), a few more “Invented Acoustical Tools,” and a hypnotic installation of twenty “Yellow TV” paintings (1973). In a clip from “Studio,” Conrad and two other artists, Cathleen Steffan and Ann Szyjka, stand on the steps of Buffalo’s City Hall and ask citizens why they came there and what they felt was needed in their community.

“Studio” provided a platform for marginalized individuals in the Rust Belt city of Buffalo. The weekly program aired raw discussions of race in America at a time when the topic was rarely broached by the mainstream media. Crucially, Conrad would often talk about how anyone could produce their own public access show and explained the necessary steps. This work highlighted mass communication’s promise of becoming a bridge to understanding one another’s everyday life. Here, as elsewhere in “Introducing Tony Conrad,” the viewer is invited to meet an artist whose legacy suggests that even if experimentation doesn’t always produce the desired results, the creative attempt itself can still yield something better than what was.