Tony Conrad, Experimental Filmmaker and Musician, Dies at 76


Anthony Schmaltz Conrad was born on March 7, 1940, in Concord, N.H., the first child of Arthur Emil Conrad and Mary Elizabeth Parfitt. His father was a painter, whose portrait of Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina hangs in the United States Senate reception room. (Some sources indicate that the elder Mr. Conrad had changed his surname from Schmaltz during World War II.)

Mr. Conrad grew up in Baltimore and Northern Virginia. At Harvard he majored in mathematics and was exposed to the radical musical ideas of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, both of whom lectured in Cambridge, Mass.

After his graduation in 1962, Mr. Conrad briefly worked as a computer programmer and immersed himself in New York’s experimental music scene. As part of Mr. Young’s ensemble, he performed improvisational pieces that involved holding notes for hours at a time. Some audiences found the music maddening; others were exalted.

“It appeared as if Schoenberg had destroyed music,” Mr. Conrad said in an interview with The Guardian in March, referring to the revolutionary Austrian composer. “Then it appeared as if Cage had destroyed Schoenberg. Our project was to destroy Cage.”

Mr. Conrad considered “The Flicker,” accompanied by a soundtrack of “homemade electronic music,” to be an extension of ideas that he shared with Mr. Young. In a 1966 interview with the Village Voice critic Jonas Mekas, Mr. Conrad explained that he “was working within a form of light that is broken down not into areas or into colors but into frequencies.”

Photo

Mr. Conrad performing at a festival in Britain in 2011.

Credit
Gary Wolstenholme/Redferns, via Getty Images

As austere as it was, “The Flicker” had the power to cause viewers to see color patterns and even induce hallucinations. Although there were some who did not consider “The Flicker” to be a film at all, it was shown at the 1966 New York Film Festival. A photograph of a festival audience watching the film shows most people shielding their eyes or plugging their ears and one spectator who seems transfixed.

In 1970, Anthology Film Archives, a center in New York for the preservation, study and exhibition of film and video, included “The Flicker” on its list of essential works of cinema art.

Mr. Conrad went on to make made several films with his first wife, Beverly Grant, an Off Off Broadway actress featured in several early Andy Warhol films. Mr. Conrad had met her on the set of Jack Smith’s unfinished film “Normal Love,” a homage, begun in 1963, to the movies of Mr. Smith’s childhood. (Mr. Conrad played a character identified as the Mummy; Ms. Grant appeared as the Cobra Woman.)

Mr. Conrad’s films with her included “Coming Attractions,” described as “the past loves and experiences of an aging transsexual, Francis Francine.” It was shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art in January 1971. Writing in The New York Times, the critic Roger Greenspan described it as “very funny and very beautiful moment by moment, funky and grand, decadent and vital, demonstrating and justifying a prodigiously complicated technique.”

By then, Mr. Conrad was for the most part no longer playing music in public. But, while visiting West Germany with Ms. Grant in 1972, he made what proved to be a highly influential recording, “Outside the Dream Syndicate,” with the Krautrock band Faust.

He began teaching at the State University of New York at Buffalo after moving in 1976, joining a media studies faculty that included the avant-garde filmmakers Hollis Frampton and Paul Sharits. Mr. Conrad concentrated on video and video installations and also made movies in super-eight millimeter.

Mr. Conrad and Ms. Grant divorced in 1976, and she died in 1990. He is survived by his second wife, Paige Sarlin, a filmmaker and fellow faculty member at the university; his son, Theodore; and two grandchildren.

In the late 1980s, frustrated that Mr. Young had refused to release existing tape recordings of Dream Syndicate performances, Mr. Conrad began recreating some and recording them. He released them on CD, along with vintage tape recordings of Jack Smith and others, in the late 1990s.

According to Mr. Joseph, the author, interest in “Outside the Dream Syndicate,” reissued on CD, surged “after the commercial success, overexposure and rapid dilution of grunge rock sent an entire generation of musicians and listeners seeking ‘new blood.’”

Mr. Conrad also achieved a new visibility in the art world, collaborating with younger artists like Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler.

“Tony Conrad has slowly been emerging from avant-gardist obscurity over the past few years, and about time,” the critic Holland Cotter wrote in The Times on the occasion of Mr. Conrad’s solo show at the 80WSE Gallery in 2012. “His multifold career — as experimental film- and video-maker, composer, musician and sound artist — still looks radical and prescient a half-century after it began.”

His last show, titled “Undone,” was at the Greene Naftali gallery this year.

Adopted as an ancestor by both experimental musicians and alt-rockers, Mr. Conrad had been scheduled to appear with Faust at the Big Ears music festival this month in Knoxville, Tenn.

“You don’t know who I am,” Mr. Conrad told The Guardian in what may have been his last interview, “but somehow, indirectly, you’ve been affected by things I did.”

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