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Remembering Tony

by Anna Chiaretta Lavatelli

Tony Conrad, Unprojectable: Projection and Perspective, 2008. Performance view, Tate Modern, London. Courtesy of Greene Naftali, New York

Photo: Sheila Burnett

Tony Conrad (1940–2016)

I last saw Tony a little over a year ago at the LAMPO performance at the Graham Foundation. I didn't get to see the concert; they were already turning people away by the time I arrived. Rather than give up, I waited. I hadn't seen Tony in years and had no idea when he'd be back in Chicago or when we would both be in Buffalo or New York, his two home bases, at the same time. Finally, as the rush of people poured out, I wandered up to find him surrounded by wires, his violin, and handmade instruments of all varieties. He was dressed in his usual bright colors and snappy hat. He greeted me with a huge smile—“ROOMIE!”

A few years after my undergraduate studies at the University at Buffalo, where I studied with Tony, I rented a room of my apartment in Brooklyn to him and had the weirdest and possibly most fun year of my life. Since then he always called me “roomie.” When he moved in we had intended to make a ridiculous sitcom video series, but instead we lived it. I woke up every morning to Hawaiian music. Sometimes we’d fight about chores and what actually belonged in the recycling bin. He liked to challenge the recyclability of everything, just as he challenged any accepted authority. At night I’d track him down at a warehouse where he or a friend of his would be making music. His minimal sound performances were zen-like noise experiences, he would open up a single note and transform it into a droning omnipresence.

on Tony

I am so grateful to have shared the time I did with Tony, but most especially that year sharing the apartment in Brooklyn. There was something about hanging out with him that made anything possible. Not only was he a dreamer and tenacious producer of art, that year was also around the time that he started showing his work with Greene Naftali, exhibiting internationally, and traveling the world performing music with much greater frequency. It was an exciting time to be around Tony because he was finally gaining major recognition for the genius he had regularly been sharing with generations of artists and musicians over the past 50 years.

Hearing everyone's memories of Tony has been cathartic and heartwarming, but they also illustrate how many people's lives he influenced so powerfully. Reading Brandon Stosuy’s story about Tony reminded me of when I showed my students The Flicker and how angry they were because I made them watch it. Then I pointed out how cool it was that a film made in the 1960s could still be so upsetting, and they took pause. Then I showed them Marie Losier's film portrait on Tony, DreaMinimalist, and by the time I turned the lights on they were all raving about how cool he was. That's the thing, Tony could somehow transmit his undeniably magnetic personality on camera and get a group of young people he never met excited about his work.

When I first began working at the MCA, I was looking through the museum's video productions, reviewing what had been created before my arrival. One that I hadn't seen was a video of Tony for our Language of Less exhibition. It is still my favorite MCA video because it embodies his personality and showcases his knack for working the camera. In the video, he talks with Pritzker Director Madeleine Grynsztejn and eventually just us, the viewers, in front of one of his Yellow Movies. For that series of works he wanted to make the slowest possible movie, so he used various house paints as emulsion to paint a solid rectangle framed by black; each is its own movie of a slow fade to yellow. He painted Yellow Movie 2/28/73 back in 1973 and it has been playing this entire time, and still is right now.

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Watch some of his performances:

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And get to know him better:

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