Artist, political activist, poet and experimental film pioneer Aldo Tambellini’s recent exhibition showcased a group of prescient works created some 50 years ago in response to what the artist saw as mass-media exploitation and misinformation. During the ’60s and ’70s, Tambellini—who is gaining some recognition after having fallen into obscurity—explored ways of inventing images through video-circuitry manipulation and camera-less film. The centerpiece of “We Are the Primitives of a New Era, Paintings and Projections, 1961-1989,” at James Cohan, was a room of sound-and-projection installations based on Tambellini’s original “Black Film Series” (1965-69), which screened as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s concurrent “To Save and Project: The 11th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation.”
Born in 1930 in Syracuse, N.Y., as a child Tambellini moved with his family to Lucca, Italy, where he witnessed the deaths of neighbors during World War II bombardments. These experiences, along with memories of the oppressions of the Fascist regime, affected his work and cultural mission. Returning to the U.S., Tambellini lived in New York City from 1959 to 1976, where he organized “Group Center,” an underground art, poetry and activist collective cofounded in 1962 with the artists Don Snyder, Ben Morea and Elsa Tambellini (his wife at the time). In keeping with his avant-garde mission, Tambellini showed his works primarily in the public sphere, at such venues as churches and theaters, and in the New York City streets. (Today, he resides in Massachusetts.)
In the early ’60s, Tambellini began experimenting with 35mm slides, painting on and scratching them, and manipulating the emulsion. Flashing from a Kodak Carousel, the projections consisted of abstract white forms—circles, spirals, etc.—on a black field. In 1965, he began painting directly on film leaders, inaugurating his “Black Film Series.” Fascinated by evolving technologies in the Space Age, Tambellini showed his films in conjunction with poetry readings, dance and live jazz music, and referred to the events as “Electromedia” performances, in which he investigated notions of blackness, outer space and the void.
Most striking in the Cohan show were the works based on the “Black” series, in which Tambellini adapted and updated that earlier material. Two were wall-projected 16mm films transferred to Blu-ray: the rapid-fire three-screen Black Space Triptych (1965/2013), in which text and images emerge from and dive back into black infinity, and the split-screen Black Spiral (1969/2013), whose spinning white spirals create a hypnotic 3-D effect. Using hand-painted glass slides (“Lumagrams”) converted to Blu-ray, and adding animated text, the artist created two additional projections. Both titled Lumagrams, one (on the wall) consisted of circular abstract images that conjured at once the moon’s surface and mutated human organs; another (on the floor) included circular forms accompanied by verses from Tambellini’s own poems (e.g., “the sky is not the limit in its profound blackness is the beginning of new visions”). These stimulating visuals—installed together in one room, to dizzying effect—were accompanied by a new audio track drawn primarily from the NASA website. It began with a countdown and continued with the roar of a spacecraft launch.
In a 1965 performance Tambellini recited a text: “Black is space black is sound black is color black is darkness black is anger black is void.” In his works “black” is wielded as anti-material—an intriguing darkness that captures our human fascination with the unknown. Together, the sound and flickering lights heighten the senses and reveal those aspects of human life that Tambellini considered to be necessary for meaningful existence: sensitivity, awareness and direct experience.