Aldo Tambellini (1930–2020)
November 19th, 2020
THE BEST ART I SAW on my “Grand Tour” of 2017 wasn’t in Venice, or Münster, or Kassel. It was in Karlsruhe, at ZKM’s major retrospective of Aldo Tambellini—the media artist whose seven-decade career celebrated the sensuous power of darkness, and who passed away last week at the age of ninety. My detour to the show was a kind of pilgrimage: Although not yet a household name in the art world, he has long been a cult figure for those devoted to experimental film and video. (I myself was introduced to him around twenty years ago by both Gene Youngblood’s classic 1970 book Expanded Cinema and the Aldo Tambellini Collection at the Harvard Film Archive.) Any opportunity to see his works in person is worth the travel, as they have been collected by only two major museums: the Tate, which presented him at The Tanks in 2012, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, where I work, and to which his Foundation gave a major gift in 2019. At ZKM, the black-walled rooms amplified the latent romanticism of his protean, cosmic imagery, which charts the new universes created by electronic technologies.
Similar to Tony Conrad—who reflected in one of his final interviews, “You don’t know who I am, but somehow, indirectly, you’ve been affected by things I did”—Tambellini has yet to receive the recognition he deserves for prognosticating the future we now inhabit. For example, in 1969, he made a modified television set called Black Spiral, which distorts live broadcasts into churning abstractions, highlighting the transformation of information into electronic flows. He then used this hacked appliance (made with the help of Bell Labs) to produce a single-channel tape and cameraless photographs he called “videograms,” presaging the infinite commutability of digital data. Notably, these related projects were included in the first major exhibitions of video art: “TV as a Creative Medium” at the Howard Wise Gallery in 1969, and “Vision and Television” at the Rose Art Museum in 1970. He also produced the multimedia happening Black for “The Medium Is the Medium,” the groundbreaking program of video art that aired on WGBH Boston in 1969. By that time, he and Otto Piene of Group Zero had already cofounded the Black Gate—a pioneering “electromedia” venue in Manhattan’s East Village that hosted future luminaries like Nam June Paik—and coproduced the first work of video art made for broadcast, 1968’s Black Gate Cologne. With these and other activities over just a few short years, Tambellini helped put the now-gridlocked “intersection of art and technology” on the map, defining its boundaries in ways that could not be more relevant to our contemporary moment.
Tambellini began his experimentation with time-based media in 1963, when he covered some discarded 35-mm slides with gestural circles and other organic shapes rendered in black paint, calling the results “lumagrams.” The great virtue of ZKM’s show was that it made clear that all of his media works, from the lumagrams onwards, are closely related to the paintings that he made in the early 1960s, such as the orbiting masses of “Untitled Series Two,” 1962, and the swirling voids of the series “To Be Encircled by Black,” 1964. In using discarded materials, the lumagrams also recall “The Destruction Series” of 1961: pieces of cardboard that are shredded, punctured, and/or burned, covered in dark graphite textured with materials like wax and dust. The obvious comparison here to contemporaneous works by Lucio Fontana and Alberto Burri (both fellow Italians) prompts the revelation that Tambellini was not only a media artist, but also a modern artist. In this light, his black monochromes—whether in graphite or paint, film or video—deserve to be viewed in dialogue with the canvases of painters like Clyfford Still and Ad Reinhardt. (Nadja Millner-Larsen documents how Tambellini actually participated with Reinhardt in a conversation about black for the October 1967 issue of Arts/Canada, which bore a lumagram on its cover.) In other words, Tambellini’s career evidences that media art didn’t emerge fully formed from Paik’s Portapak, like Athena from Zeus’s head: It is a legitimate child of the long, if turbulent, romance between the traditional and electronic arts, manifested most recently in contemporary painting’s flirtation with digital forms.
Admittedly, Tambellini’s exclusion from histories of modern art is partly due to the fact that he long opposed the art-world establishment, on principle and in practice. He was against orthodoxy in all its guises: raised under the heel of Mussolini during World War II, he was an anarchist, pacifist, and antifascist, from the McCarthy Era through the Iraq War and beyond. While a starving artist in New York’s low-rent Lower East Side in the 1960s, he cofounded the collective Group Center, which distributed radical pamphlets and staged agitprop spectacles like The Event of the Screw—a protest held outside of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim in 1962. (His cofounders included Ron Hahne and Ben Morea, who would go on to organize the Dada-inflected anarchist group Black Mask and its successor, Up Against the Wall Motherfucker.) In 1976, he accepted Piene’s invitation to join him as a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT—his first institutional position—and settled permanently in Cambridge. After conducting artistic research on satellite telecommunications, he began focusing more on his leftist poetry; he drifted further from the New York art world until 2009, when his career was revived by the reperformance of his 1965 electromedia event Black Zero at Performa 09. That event was followed by solo shows at the Chelsea Art Museum in 2011 and at James Cohan Gallery in 2013, leading up to the show at ZKM.
The media art that Tambellini made in the 1960s, including Black Zero, amounted to a different kind of activism than either his earlier Group Center activities or later poetry. In these works, black is a symbol not of some primeval past but of a Space Age future, which he explicitly tied to racial Blackness. As a prototypical—if not entirely unproblematic—ally, he openly celebrated the Black Power movement, heralding the “explosion of the black man” and the emergence of the “computer age” as epochal events that would remake our image of both Western man and Western art. He often incorporated found and filmed footage of African Americans in his works, and collaborated with the musicians and poets who gave rise to the Black Arts Movement (such as Bill Dixon and Calvin Hernton, whose free jazz improvisations and words on racism, respectively, are key components of Black Zero). Their presence insists that the color black cannot be divorced from its racial connotations, directly opposing the position of many abstract artists, including Reinhardt. While dedicated to making blackness/Blackness literally and metaphorically visible, Tambellini intuited the complicated politics of visibility, as Ina Blom has argued: If Blackness is celebrated in projects like his handmade film Black Is, 1966 (which echoes the Black Power phrase “Black Is Beautiful”), it is also portrayed as an unstable abstraction coursing through both ideological and technical circuits, rather than as an essential trait subject to the demands of representation.
With his mischievous but good-natured wit and righteous moral indignation, Aldo never stopped collecting dedicated friends—myself included. I learned long ago about the corps of trusted dramaturgs and directors who are charged by Samuel Beckett’s estate with auditing productions of his work; those who ran afoul of the group scornfully christened them “The Beckett Police.” Although Aldo would oppose my use of militarized language, I can’t help but see his own posthumous force taking shape, led proudly by his indefatigable partner Anna Salomone, without whom the last decade of exhibitions and scholarship on Aldo would hardly have been possible. It is beyond cruel to lose him just when the art world’s institutions are finally beginning to understand technology, embrace antifascism, and address structural racism (and even appreciate his contributions to art history). I would have loved to talk to him about his clairvoyant past and our collective future one last time. But we still have his art, which emerged from an era as turbulent as our own, and which will continue to exemplify how the formalist investigation of technological media can engage both aesthetics and ethics.
Tina Rivers Ryan is a curator at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and an historian of media art.