Tony Conrad, now an old man, stands outside of the vaunted modernist high-culture complex that is the Lincoln Center, almost sick with loathing. Here stands everything he is against: the authority of the composer, art for consumption by the elite, a slavish reverence for the past. It is just one of many such scenes in Tyler Hubby’s new documentary, titled Tony Conrad: Completely In The Present, that manages to communicate a great deal about the subject in one well-chosen moment. For those who may know of the experimental artist, filmmaker, and musician (if they know him at all) primarily for his association with The Velvet Underground, Hubby’s film offers a much needed education.
Conrad was one of those rare and wondrous polymathic creators for whom the pursuit of art is a compulsion, the drive to experiment completely uncompromised by the stifling concerns of marketability, economic security, or fame. You don’t make music that features an old violin droning the same mesmerizing note for hours on end or movies that consist simply of a series of hypnotizing (and possibly seizure-inducing) flashes of black and white frames if you’re in it for the money. He simply did what he wanted to do, well before the world was ready for it, even if it meant he was living off of chicken hearts (fifteen cents per pound) and sleeping in a dingy, unfurnished room where the landlord collected the twenty-four bucks for rent with a pistol.
As recognition of Conrad’s transformative impact on experimental music and film slowly accumulated he still had little visibility outside of the world of experimental music and video. He was known more for the impact he had on others–Mike Kelley, Lou Reed, Robert Longo, and minimalist music in general–rather than for his own work. But even those who appreciated his artistic achievements were unlikely to have known just how much of an all-around badass he was, the breadth of his pursuits, and the depth of his influence. And, most tragically, they’d likely never have had a sense of his character and the inspiring generosity, ebullience, and tireless dedication to expanding the frontiers of art and democratizing its access that he manifested right up until his death, in April of 2016. Tony Conrad: Completely In The Present remedies this, and we should be thankful that Tyler Hubby had the foresight to capture a rich portrait of this singular person before it was too late.
We can also be thankful for our own institutions–the Ace Hotel and The Broad museum–for presenting this film as part of their ongoing Un-Private Collection series with a conversation between Henry Rollins, artistic collaborator Tony Oursler, and director Tyler Hubby as well as a mind-bending performance by Kim Gordon, even if our hero might have scorned them for their, well, being institutions.
Tony Conrad’s work is shown at the MoMA PS1, the Walker, the Whitney, MoCA, and others.
Tony Oursler’s work is on view at the Broad in the Creature exhibition through March 19.
Written by Sid Feddema