As someone who embraced both “the kitchen table and the avant-garde,” in the words of curator Dan Byers, Tony Conrad ’62 was never a gallery darling. Instead, the multimedia artist believed in making the creative process as accessible as possible — and ended up pushing the boundaries of film, sculpture, video, and music along the way.
The artist’s work is being celebrated in “Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective” at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (through Dec. 30) and MIT’s List Visual Arts Center (through Jan. 6).
The description by Byers, the John R. and Barbara Robinson Family Director of Carpenter Center, can be taken literally. The exhibit, which was organized by Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery, reveals all the humor that juxtaposition implies.
On the lower level of the Carpenter exhibit (organized by Byers and List curator Henriette Huldisch), Conrad’s work “Pickled E.K. 7302-244-0502” is just that: celluloid loops fixed forever in Mason jars, a play on “film preservation” and a commentary on home arts and crafts. The third-floor display features impossible musical instruments — Conrad played violin — incorporating, among other items, a drill and a bathroom plunger.
In some ways, Conrad, who died in 2016 at age 76, was an artist very much of his time. Coming of age as a filmmaker and musician in the 1960s, he was an original member of the drone-centered Theatre of Eternal Music, along with John Cale, and embodied both the experimental and minimalist movements of the day. His “Yellow Movies” series, for example, features paper painted with white paint, which would gradually yellow over time. “If you watch it for years, the plot or the narrative would be the yellowing of the paper,” explained Byers.