Hallwalls honors late artist, UB professor Tony Conrad

Downtown arts center reflects on visual, sound work of SUNY Distinguished Professor


The presence of legendary local avant-garde artist Tony Conrad is still being felt in the Queen City, nearly two years after his passing.

On Jan. 23, Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center brought a number of Conrad’s archived works to over 100 attendees at their opening honoring the late artist. “Tony Conrad @ Hallwalls” –– a selection of footage dating back to 1977 –– is full of interview clips, compositions and stills from the artist.

Conrad’s exhibit at Hallwalls is one of four different Buffalo establishments honoring the former UB professor, who passed away in April 2016.
“Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective” –– a special city-wide exhibition through May –– will feature installments, showings and other tributes set to honor Conrad at places such as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the UB Art Gallery, Burchfield Penney Art Center and Squeaky Wheel.

Conrad, who was part of the UB community from the late ’70s, left his mark on the local and worldwide art world with films like “The Flicker” (1966) and albums such as “Outside the Dream Syndicate” with German group Faust.

John Massier, Visual Arts Curator at Hallwalls, believes decades from now people will be having projects and exhibitions featuring Conrad.

“He’s a major artist of the late 20th, early 21st century,” Massier said. “Having passed now, we are really just at the beginning of scratching the surface of considering the depth of his work.”

As viewers walk into Hallwalls’ gallery, they come face to face with the visual works of the celebrated artist. Aspects of the archival exhibit include Conrad’s talk and performance as part of “A/V Imbroglio: Redux” (2014) at Babeville, where he spoke of his performance of “Hal’s Barber’s Talent Bonanza” in 1985.

Elsewhere, the gallery plays the sounds of Conrad’s organ from his work “Music and the Mind of the World,” an over 200 hour composition where improvisational skills and pleasurable sounds are at play.

Bits from Conrad’s solos at Hallwalls can also be heard on one speaker while a monitor displays a discussion of Conrad’s “Pioneer of the Minimal: A Tony Conrad Retrospective,” a talk led by professor Branden Joseph of Columbia University.

Aside from Conrad’s musical talent on display, his artistic visions are also seen in the gallery. On the gallery’s south wall, the story of Hallwalls’ “FluxAttitudes” (1991) exhibition is examined ” –– an exhibition Conrad had no work in. As a result of his censure, Conrad hit the gallery’s walls with a paintball gun, thus becoming part of the exhibit.

Along with the opening of “Tony Conrad @ Hallwalls,” local artist Tony Billoni put on a “talkformance ” –– “Tony.Is.Here.Now.” –– in Hallwalls’ downstairs cinema.

The talkformance, composed of four parts and featuring five musicians, derived from a song by artist Charlemagne Palestine. At the conclusion of his performance, Billoni explained that Palestine –– who performed the song at a memorial for Conrad in New York City –– sang the song to Conrad just days before he died.

At the exhibit’s opening, Billoni began his performance on a ladder leading to a microphone, where he vocalized tribute to Conrad from a taped-together list. Billoni, manning an iPad soundboard, played samples of Conrad’s voice as his ensemble of musicians backed him.

The collective played an artful mix of amplified, reverberating guitars, electric bass and keys. The group’s music bound together as guitarists plucked at the furthest of strings and others scratched their guitar chords like a cat. Amid the ruffled noise grew the song in honor of Conrad as Billoni’s collective lengthily sang “To-ny.” The group asked “is there another side, are you there, when I come, will you be there, when we leave here,” encouraging those in attendance to sing along.

Billoni performed in Hallwalls’ “Circumcising the Subject” (1986), an evening he shared with artists like Conrad and Joe Gibbons. Billoni hoped that attendees at Hallwalls’ recent opening discover Conrad’s life was not of time and he was a vibrational force.

“As I wrote when he passed on, we were really close in the ’80s and we moved apart a little bit but I always knew he was somewhere there in my life,” Billoni said.

“I felt his work ethic, his ideal of creativity –– never wondering or worrying about the boundaries –– is pretty much what has guided me through my whole life, as a maker, a parent and a doer. That’s the feeling I wanted to convey in my performance, that he’s here with us now and we should still feel that.”

Others like Jonathan Golove, chair of the Music Department, performed with Conrad at Asbury Hall’s “Pioneer of the Minimal: A Tony Conrad Retrospective” (2006). The performance, featured in Hallwalls’ latest exhibit, consisted of compositions like “October” and “Four Stars.”

Golove recalls the feeling of happiness he felt performing with Conrad and the UB Open String Ensemble that night.

“At the time, Tony had asked me to put together a small string ensemble to essentially accompany the performance he was giving of an original piece called ‘October,’” Golove said. “I asked a number of my UB students to join me and we rehearsed with him, this piece being a real pleasure for me to see.”

“Tony Conrad @ Hallwalls” will remain on view at Hallwalls through March 2. In addition to “Tony Conrad @ Hallwalls,” the arts center will also hold “Tony Tuesdays,” a series of Conrad centered programming held on the fourth Tuesday of each month through May 22.

Benjamin Blanchet is the senior features editor and can be reached at benjamin.blanchet@ubspectrum.com.