Today, the 87-year-old artist Aldo Tambellini is known primarily to researchers of alternative and anarchist movements for his associations with 1960s counterculture. After arriving in New York’s Lower East Side in 1959, he co-founded Group Center: an alliance of writers, artists and activists, including Ron Hahne and Ben Morea, who later launched the Situationist-inspired anarchist groups Black Mask and Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker. From 1966, Tambellini also ran the cross-genre, cross-media project spaces Gate Theatre and (with ZERO co-founder Otto Piene) the Black Gate in Manhattan’s East Village. The Gate Theatre hosted the Theatre of the Ridiculous and its late-night productions: debuts by up-and-coming directors (such as Brian De Palma and Robert Downey), underground films (by Jack Smith and the Kuchar brothers) and multimedia performances (by Yayoi Kusama and Nam June Paik). Tambellini was shown at the Italian pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale, and his 1965 multimedia performance Black Zero was revived at the 2009 edition of Performa, New York – yet it is surprising how little awareness exists of him as an artist today.
Curated by Pia Bolognesi and Giulio Bursi, the full-scale retrospective ‘Aldo Tambellini: Black Matters’ assembles Tambellini’s achievements as an artist, experimenter and impresario, bringing together works from the early 1960s to the present. It begins with Poetry Posters (1960-61) and the Manifesto Series (1961): brisk works on paper in an austere black-and-white that combine protest slogans with spare, logo-like imagery. An artist and a poet, Tambellini began working with overpainted, scratched or perforated 35mm film slides, calling the results ‘lumagrams’ and projecting them onto the sides of buildings, as in Black Light (1966-67). His early, large-format black paintings were done in a fast, ‘low’ style, employing gloss paint, enamel and sand. The works’ imperfect state of preservation is a result of Tambellini’s radical spontaneity and his practice of deliberately exhibiting his work outside institutional and commercial contexts.
Tambellini’s aim in basing his pictorial experiments on the non-colour black was a conceptually motivated reduction. With a preference for spiral or circular motifs, it runs the risk of symbolic overloading, yet brings a chaos and creativity he would later extend beyond painting to intermedia formats. In the mid-1970s, through his contact with Piene, Tambellini came into contact with MIT, where from 1976 to 1984 he worked at the Centre for Advanced Visual Studies, expanding into new media, video technology and seeing his central artistic challenge in television as a communications medium.
The exhibition owes its most interesting section to ZKM’s exceptional media conservation skills: hours of experiments with various video and TV technologies, now in digital form, including Slow Scan television, a technology used by NASA to transmit images from space. Here a fascination with technical possibilities often prevails over artistic acuity, which leaves works such as Picturephone Chicago Sonia Sheridan (1977) mere documents of media experiments. The exhibition’s high point is Black Matters (2017), a new, multi-channel HD installation based on historical film material that includes a compelling audio score moving between poetry, improvised music and ritual. Combining historic documentation, self-made and found footage with artistic manipulation and an over-arching sonic architecture, the work results in an immediate, highly affective ambience.
Although the exhibition rightly focuses on an oeuvre that still aims for direct impact via the unfiltered use of media and technology, at ZKM this comes at the price of an adequate historicization of Tambellini’s overall project. His art is far more compelling in light of Tambellini’s activities as a countercultural organiser – the general interweaving of his work with his social milieu, through to his teaching and community-based projects. As well as drawing on such activities, Tambellini’s media work itself contains a great deal of historical information that, in the future, would remain well worth decoding.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Main image: ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medien Karlsruhe
First published in Issue 189