Tony Conrad, hailed as the seminal drone musician, avant-garde composer, experimental filmmaker and a cornerstone of the 1960s NYC art scene, passed away on Saturday, April 9 at age 76.
After graduating from Harvard University, Conrad moved to Manhattan in the early 1960s and catalyzed the music and vanguard art forms of the radical era. Influenced by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Conrad practiced violin with the Theatre of Eternal Music, aka the Dream Syndicate. Early drone compositions, like Four Violins, established his homemade electronic signature. His subsequent experiments in music fostered groups like Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine. Most notably, his work with John Cale and Lou Reed directly inspired the illustrious Velvet Underground–its name even taken from a book on sexology found in Conrad’s apartment.
Conrad’s austere 1965 film, The Flicker, broke grounds in structural filmmaking with its framed, pure, graphic representation of frequencies, opposing reliances on movement and visuals. It warns its audience of the epileptic, seizure-inducing endurance test the name prophesies and persists with a stroboscopic pulse that gradually escalates to a point of agitation. The Anthology Film Archives included The Flicker on its list of essential works of cinema art.
Struck by his own painted ceilings at home yellowing after only a year, Conrad created his video masterpiece Yellow Movie (in the permanent collection of the MoMA). He recreated this environmental responsiveness over a period of his limited mechanical reel time. By filming the essence of an infinitesimal physicality in the passive process of age and time, Conrad employed the late-modernist method of extended duration. Conrad’s minimalist style has also been collected and displayed globally in institutions like the Louvre and Whitney Museum of Art.
Even in 2016, his art of sound and film appear unusually new-age, further demonstrating his interpretive and fatidic vision from more than 50 years ago. His solo exhibition Undone at the Greene Naftali gallery from earlier this year continues to explore what he started in the 1960s. He states in the press release,
“In storytelling it may be possible to separate the language of the story from the contextualizing ‘framing’ words that say what an author is about to do.”
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