The Language of Less (Then and Now): Tony Conrad

Artist Tony Conrad provides an impromptu explanation of his work “Yellow Movie 2/28/73,” which is included in the exhibition The Language of Less (Then and Now).

Madeleine Grynsztejn: So, here I am with Tony Conrad. It’s such a great privilege and honor to have you in the galleries.

Tony Conrad: Well, thank you very much.

MG: And it’s December of 2011, and you made these 38 years ago?

TC: Yeah, yeah.

MG: How did these happen? How did you come to these works?

TC: Well it’s astonishing to be even talking about this, this much later. And to see this work, so to speak, running as a movie in this beautiful space, because it’s sort of a dream, in a way, a dream come true.

It was an idea at the time that I could, maybe, dismantle some of the aspirations of the film community to move gradually toward more complex solutions of things, like making your own fill material or making your own prints or making your own blah blah blah blah blah blah . . . but I’m not against DIY at all, but i wanted to push the frame and I didn’t know exactly how to push the framework except to do things like this. So I could imagine, you see, that it would be possible to actually get very close and then manufacture the material. To manufacture the actual emulsion material somehow and this would enable a completely different understanding of what film would be like and what it would do. And I thought in terms of long durations because I love long durations and I love long durations and music; I love long durations and performance; I love long durations in relationships too, yeah.

And so I thought I should make a film that just beggars Andy Warhol’s 24-hour-long film; I’ll make one that’ll last 50 years, but how? Because you can’t make a film that lasts 50 years using the normal materials because they aren’t like us. You see I’m almost getting there. It’s 38 years and rolling, yeah. 38 and going.

But we’re – and I know I’m not doing that great, but ok. But a projector or a film that ran for 50 years it would wear out, it just wouldn’t last. You just can’t do it. You have to have a completely different conceptual stratagem.

So my idea was to actually paint the emulsion on and then let the film take its own course over time so it – but it needs to to do things very slowly, very slowly, and I imagined that this kind of cheap house paint that I use would actually turn yellow and disintegrate and fall off and all the things that would happen with aging would happen to it in a very very very slow way but I mean of course they probably happened to the other artwork but those artworks aren’t movies; this is a movie. And I wanted it to be a movie.

So how do I get it to be a movie? I can’t be like a painting exactly so I thought, "Oh, it has to be the right shape!" So you have to know there’s the movie part and then there’s the rest, so nothing else counts. You see? So, this careful line is – it’s sort of like the end of the work and the rest of it, which I love, is cheating. Yeah. It’s sort of like accidental in a way and I love the fact that I could find this – these large pieces of photographer’s paper—see sort of like a film thing—and then I could use them, even though they were damaged, and, you know, like they had these beautiful things going on like wrinkles and tears. I wish I could show you the back, but I don’t own it anymore, I can’t touch it. So, yeah.

But then in making the outline of the film—as it were, you see—I realize I’m doing something that editors do. Film editors, they use some material to mark out the edge of frame if it’s not clearly understood, it’s called "blooping," technically, and this is blooping ink. So there’s a little bit of fun involved in this—there’s a little bit of fun, a little bit of imagination, and a little bit of, like, I don’t really care if it’s not going to work but I can imagine.

I can imagine also that if it were really important to me to be in the movie I could stand in front of the movie for a long, long time, like a piece of furniture, and I would then move away and I would see my outline just the way you do when you move that old piece of – that old bureau or whatever it is away from the wall and you look and you see the shadow of it somehow on the wall. And in that sense, you see, there’s a problem here that I didn’t think of at the time, but that I like very much, and that is, that if we left this here for a long time and then took it down, there would be a shadow of this piece on the wall behind it and so, in that way, it’s sort of also revealing something about the relationship between paint and architecture: that paint is a movie record of what goes on in the space. Yeah. I mean it’s not a very good record, but, you know, I’m thinking of long durations and, then I’ve—more recently—I’ve been studying ancient Greece, and. . . . Ok, so anyway. Yeah, but this looks gorgeous in this room with this light.

By the way, some of the pieces that I made that are like this had mysteriously violent endings. Like, some were stolen off a truck in New York, and I don’t know what happened to them, but nothing good. One or two vanished into someplace in London and probably wound up in a dumpster. I thought, you know, like this looks like it has a good home, but some might wind up in house fires, or . . .

  • Yeah, I was lucky that mine all didn’t wind up in a house fire, you know, but that could be exciting too—exciting ending—you know, like a long, long, long, long film that’s very, very slow, very slow, really slow, and then –
  • [vocal explosion sound]

    – like this ending.