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Groundbreaking artist Tony Conrad dies at 76

Tony Conrad, shown here in his UB office, helped establish UB's reputation as a cutting-edge center for media studies. Photo: Douglas Levere

By BERT GAMBINI

Published April 11, 2016

“He is one of the visionaries who established the department’s reputation and he remained a visionary his entire life.”
Josephine Anstey, professor and chair
Department of Media Study

SUNY Distinguished Professor Tony Conrad, a boundary-stretching, interdisciplinary artist and UB faculty member for nearly 40 years who emerged in the 1960s as a pioneer of both experimental film and music, died Saturday in Hospice Buffalo, Cheektowaga, following a battle with prostate cancer. He was 76.

Conrad joined the UB faculty as an assistant professor in 1979, having served since 1976 as a visiting professor.  In 2004, he received a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities. He was named a SUNY Distinguished Professor in 2011.

He retired from his faculty position in the Department of Media Study at the start of the spring semester.

“Tony’s legacy will be his great creativity and his artistic need to discover new and different ways of experiencing sound and image,” said Bruce Pitman, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “His innovate touch reached so many aspects of the art world and helped expand all the mediums he entered.”

Conrad’s varied and notable career trampled convention and created new possibilities that ignored traditional expectations, moving through previously untraveled artistic ground in mediums ranging from motion pictures to music, sound to sculpture.

“It all adds up to artist,” he said in a 2015 interview.

His creative output help establish UB as a center of avant-garde expression and made him a dynamic and multifaceted leading voice who confronted and pushed establishment limits into new frontiers of brilliance.

“Tony played a crucial leadership role for the department with his expansive vision of media study as a vital area of research and creative activity,” said Josephine Anstey, chair and associate professor in the Department of Media Study. “He is one of the visionaries who established the department’s reputation and he remained a visionary his entire life.”

Conrad studied violin briefly at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, followed by an interlude at Harvard University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. But he left Cambridge in the early 1960s to “mess up the music world.”

He was at the vanguard of minimal music, disrupting music culture by abandoning any semblance of western composition with an improvisational approach that included manipulating harmonic tones and sustained sounds.

The minimal music stream quickly branched with performers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley pursuing sustained rhythm and repetition. Conrad, meantime, was working with a group of people who concentrated on sustained sound — very long notes that could be clustered into sustained chords.

The Velvet Underground adapted the breakthrough expression Conrad helped create that would later become socially influential in bands like Sonic Youth.

Conrad revisited that tradition last year with a performance in New York City to celebrate his 75th birthday with his friend of 40 years, Charlemagne Palestine, a fellow “perverted minimalist,” Conrad said at the time.

“We’ve learned a lot from living with this tradition, but we don’t sanctify it.”

Having dismantled music, Conrad turned to film in the early ’70s, moving his avant-garde sensibilities into a new medium that amounted to a creative upheaval as significant as what he had already accomplished musically.

His influential film “The Flicker” (1966) is considered a cornerstone of structural filmmaking, a genre characterized by an apparently fixed camera and a strobing effect that stresses formalist examinations over narrative content.

Images in the “The Flicker” are either completely black or completely white, jumping on screen to the pulsing audio of film stock rolling through a camera’s wheelhouse. If Conrad’s lens was fixed, his microphone was not, capturing sound at various levels of intensity and clarity, with synthesized delays and reverb that create a two-fold sensory strobe of not only sight, but sound as well.

The film is not easy to watch and opens with its speakeasy soundtrack under a slide warning of the picture’s dizzying qualities.

“A physician should be in attendance,” advises the slide’s closing sentence.

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles used “The Flicker” as the centerpiece of its 1996 exhibit “Hall of Mirrors: Art and Film since 1945.”

This was the first major American exhibition to focus on the vibrant postwar relationship between cinema and the visual arts.

That confluence of film and visual arts, in fact, helped inspire Conrad’s “Yellow Movies,” which began as ways of thinking about how painting techniques and approaches could be applied to the art of filmmaking.

Like the sustained tones of his music, “Yellow Movies” engage people over long spaces of time and consist of painted squares resembling the outline of a movie.

Based on the properties of degradation, Conrad’s “Yellow Movies” — films with running times that are decades-long — chronicle the paint changing over time. Cheap paint, specifically. In this case, gull white, interior latex.

Conrad knew there was no way to measure the change, so the film, like all movies, happens in the imagination of the viewer.

“What kind of movie could it possibly be?” asked Conrad in a 2008 audio interview with the Museum of Modern American Art “Well, it doesn’t look exactly like a comedy, but I think of it that way.”

At the time of his death, Conrad was working on numerous projects, including a series of paintings. He also had plans to publish some of his essays and write a book on the history of music theory and Western culture.

He also was to be the closing speaker for the Department of Media Study’s PLASMA series on May 2, discussing innovations in media and culture shaping the new millennium communication world.

That event at UB’s Center for the Arts will go forward as planned in tribute to Conrad.

“Tony set an example of creative vigor, playfulness and excellence for generations of students, and influenced not only our own alumni but many other media artists,” said Anstey.

He is survived by his wife, Paige Sarlin, assistant professor in the Department of Media Study, and a son, Ted Conrad of Buffalo.

Conrad’s passing has been covered by many sources around the world, including The New York Times, Contact Music, Thump, Taz in Germany, Billboard, Exclaim in Canada, NME, Blouin Art Info, Boing Boing and Vulture.