This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Conrad breaks boundaries in art

UB faculty member’s work is the subject of a retrospective at Hallwalls

Published: October 19, 2006

Reporter Staff Writer

Tony Conrad is all about breaking boundaries.

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Click here to read about the Tony Conrad retrospective

An artist of film, video and sound whose career was born of time spent as a part of the Fluxus art movement and avant-garde atmosphere of the New York Underground during the 1960s, Conrad has long been dedicated to challenging conceptual restrictions in his work.


The work of UB faculty member Tony Conrad will be featured in a retrospective, "Pioneer of the Minimal," being held Oct. 25-27 in Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center.

"These artists were involved in critiquing the practices of music and art and culture in general at the time," says Conrad, professor in the Department of Media Study, College of Arts and Sciences. "So it didn't seem natural to flow with the [mainstream] art world."

He is perhaps best known for his influential film "The Flicker" (1966), which exploits the strobing effect of the cinematic image. It is considered a cornerstone of structural filmmaking.

It is "the film that put me on the cultural map," says Conrad.

Carolyn Tennant, media arts director at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, calls Conrad "a leading figure in late-20th century art and a major influence on the work of conceptual artists." Hallwalls will host a three-part retrospective of his work, "Pioneer of the Minimal," Oct. 25-27. Each night will focus on a different element of Conrad's portfolio: music, video and film. For more details, see article on this page.

"'Pioneer of the Minimal' will address more than three decades of Conrad's work, presenting it all within new contexts emphasizing its scholarly and cultural ramifications," Tennant says.

Conrad admits his films can seem a bit unusual to viewers used to sitting down and watching a movie, but explains his point is to confront traditional expectations. At his most radical, he created several film pieces that took the form of objects, not projections; for example, Conrad once pickled a film rather than developed it.

"In the '70s, I decided to push the boundaries of film to the limit," he says. "I felt it would be a good idea to stress the boundaries of the medium as a medium.

"Instead of being projected, you have to view [the film], as it were, through the lens of the glass and fluid of the jar. It's locked away forever. The intention was to deliver the message...that it's possible to do a lot of radical things, so let's get them done. Let's push it all the way."

Some of his lesser-known pieces have started to gain in reputation as well. His work was part of the 2005 Lyon Biennial of Contemporary Art in Lyon, France, as well as featured in a recent exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York City. His art will be exhibited in other venues during the next few months, among them the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, the Galerie Daniel Buchholz in Cologne and the Greene-Naftali Gallery in New York City.

Yet, Conrad notes his interests now lean toward video because it's more affordable and filmmakers who use it are not beholden to outside interests that control the purse strings.

He also continues to pursue an interest in experimental music. A violinist who studied part-time at the Peabody Conservatory of Music before receiving a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Harvard, Conrad spent time during the 1960s performing minimalist compositions with such musicians as La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela and John Cale, who went on to become one of the founders of the Velvet Underground. He also collaborated with the European avant-garde rock band Faust to produce his most popular work, "Outside the Dream Syndicate." The album, which had been out of print, has been rereleased several times since the 1990s due to renewed interest in its unique sound.

Conrad points to the Internet as the source of new audiences for his work. He said there has been an emergent "network of alternative cultural interests" online. He recalls being shocked while attending a festival in Dunedin, New Zealand, in the late 1990s when a young man came up to him who was familiar with his compositions from several decades ago.

"I thought: The world has shrunk to the size of a dime-or rather the size of a CD," he remembers.

It was during the 1970s and 1980s that Conrad discovered teaching. One of the reasons he likes to work with students is because "students don't have a boss," he says. "This is a time of life that lies outside the job market-at least in terms of students' professional aspirations. So alternatives are possible. Students are in the business of learning to stretch their minds, to stretch their goals, to expand their repertoire and explore their range of possibilities.

"That is very much in keeping with the things that drew me to film and video," he says.

Conrad started teaching film at UB in 1976. While he left behind associations with notable artists in New York—Conrad notes Andy Warhol was among the guests at his wedding to his late wife, Beverly Grant—there was a cadre of great filmmakers at UB who were to become his colleagues, among them Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, and Steina and Woody Vasulka.

"Buffalo was an exciting place to do media," he says.

He notes that at that time, the media study department was on the cutting edge of the field, and home to one of the earliest digital media programs in the country.

"Today, the department has again the sort of excitement that we lost for a while," says Conrad. "We have younger faculty doing adventurous things in a new, wider range of fields, like poetry, robotics, tactical media and virtual reality.

"There's been a resurgence," he adds. "Good stuff is going on. It's more diverse than ever. It's quite an interesting and promising time, again, around here."