Tony Conrad, the indefatigably experimental artist whose career included landmark achievements in structural film, drone music, and contemporary art, died today of pneumonia, according to the Buffalo News. He was 76, and in recent years had been treated for prostate cancer.
Conrad was among a small group of artists whose work in the 1960s defined the outer limit of the American avant-garde at the time. In the middle of that decade, alongside La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, John Cale, and others, Conrad performed in the storied Theatre of Eternal Music, which pioneered drone music in the West, and in 1966 he created The Flicker, a 30-minute film that consisted only of alternating black and white frames.
His work in film turned even more radical in the early 1970s. In a 2005 interview with Jay Sanders, published in Bomb, Conrad said of that era, “[I]t seemed to me the time had come to just skip right ahead and carry the whole formalist premise out toward an endgame, where the necessary logical extreme that had already occurred in painting and in performance and so forth years earlier could be exercised in film.”
And so he pickled film in vinegar and showed it in murky bottles, rather than screening it through a projector. “I was trying to kill film,” Conrad said. “I wanted to let it lay over and die.”
In 1973 he created the first of his Yellow Movies by painting screens on paper with white houseplant, which would grow yellow over the course of years—a film that, in essence, will continue playing for all time, or at least as long as the works continue to exist. They are among the rare pieces that shrug off concerns of conservation. They are designed to degrade.
“[T]his was treated as a kind of joke in 1973 but after 30 years, people took it seriously,” Conrad told the Guardian of the Yellow Movies earlier this year. “I suddenly became an artist.” This was a touch modest. As Sanders has pointed out, Jonas Mekas declared the Yellow Movies at the time of their creation “one of the high achievements of the art of cinema.”
But it is true that, over the past decade, Conrad’s work has received a great deal of attention in the art sphere. He appeared in the 2009 Venice Biennale, the 2006 Whitney Biennial (at which he could be seen pickling film in the museum’s courtyard), and the 2005 Lyon Biennial. He showed with Galerie Daniel Buchholz in Cologne and Berlin and Greene Naftali in New York, where he had a solo show earlier this year. That last show included works in which Conrad painted his trademark screens on pairs of white underwear, which were affixed to a bulletin board. (A wry, resilient humor is integral to much of Conrad’s work.)
Anthony Schmaltz Conrad was born on March 7, 1940, in Concord, New Hampshire, according to J. Hoberman, who wrote an obituary for the New York Times. His father was a painter. Conrad attended Harvard and fell into the experimental music scene in the early 1960s in New York, playing violin. He credited the violinist Ronald Knudsen with influencing him to focus on sustained notes, which led to his interest in drone music. Other important inspirations, he has said, were John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and the 17th-century composer Heinrich Biber.
Among Conrad’s many claims to fame was that he was responsible for the name of the Velvet Underground, the title of a book that he had brought to the Lower East Side apartment he shared with Cale, who would play viola and bass, among other instruments, in the band.
In 1976 Conrad became a professor at the University at Buffalo, where he would teach for the rest of his life, helping to define the school as a powerhouse for experimental media.
Institutions owning Conrad’s art include the Whitney, the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, and the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, though he was not a prodigious creator of stand-alone artworks. “I don’t make work as a product to be consumed by purchasers and deployed as ceremonial objects,” he told the Guardian.
However, he was a tireless collaborator, working with a wide range of musicians and artists over the decades, including Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler, both of whom appear as women in prison in a film that Conrad began in the 1980s and eventually showed as WiP at Greene Naftali in 2013. “A radical and thoughtful visionary, Tony Conrad will be missed,” the gallery said in a statement released to press.
In the recent Guardian interview, discussing his evolution as an artist Conrad said, “[S]ome of the most interesting experiences I’ve ever had have been when I haven’t liked what I heard or saw, and I worked at it. And then when I changed my mind about something, it was an epiphany…Whoa! An internal explosion of insight and emotion and goodwill to the world.”
Update 04/11/2016, 10:50 a.m.: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this post misstated the members of the Theatre of Eternal Music. The post has been updated to reflect this.