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ALEX GREENBERGER: Aldo Tambellini, Experimental Filmmaker
Who Considered Many Meanings of Blackness, Has Died at 90
ARTnews on November 12, 2020 3:25pm
A work from Aldo Tambellini's "Cell Series," 1965–2020. Courtesy the artist
Aldo Tambellini, an experimental filmmaker whose innovative works expanded cinema beyond the confines of the theater and mined conceptions of blackness for both formal and political meanings, has died at 90. Various curators who have shown Tambellini’s work posted news of Tambellini’s death on social media on Thursday. ARTnews has reached out to Tambellini’s foundation for details of his passing.
Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Tambellini was embedded with in a group of artists in 1960s New York who sought to shift the ways in which film could be produced and projected. Relying on a variety of techniques that involved degrading celluloid and creating abstract patterns that were strung together in dense montages, Tambellini offered up visually striking works that pushed the limits of cinema could be.
He often made his films with an activist mindset, using them to speak out about the oppression of the Black community during the era by thinking about blackness in more sense than one. Having initially engaged the concept with respect to Space Age fascinations with the cosmos, he later applied it to race as well.
“Black is the expansion of consciousness in all directions,” he said in 1967. “I strongly believe in the word ‘black power’ as a powerful message, for it destroys the old notion of western man, and by destroying that notion it also destroys the tradition of the art concept.”
Among Tambellini’s most famous works are his “Black Film Series” (1965–69), a grouping of 16mm works that drew parallels between his various lines of inquiry. (Some of them are now streaming online in a viewing room hosted by São Paulo’s Casanova gallery.) In Black Plus X (1966), for example, Tambellini created a portrait of Black life filled with overlaid images of an amusement park, shots of people wading into an ocean, and shaky camerawork. Its soundtrack is a cacophony of police sirens and chatter. In Black Trip 2 (1967), Tambellini charts, via a series of scratched patterns and appropriated images, what he called “the violence and mystery of the American psyche seen through the eye of a black man and the Russian revolution.”
Tambellini turned to unconventional methods to make his films, which often involved the application of black paint on glass sides or celluloid and degrading it by scratching, etching, and burning forms into it. A camera was rarely enlisted for his process, making it vastly different from traditional kinds of filmmaking. He named the slides that he marked up “lumagrams.”
Sometimes, live performance figured in Tambellini’s work. In 1967, with artist Otto Piene, he founded the Black Gate Theater, a New York art space intended to host what Tamebellini termed “electromedia art,” or work that involved moving-image technology. The two artists staged some of their most important works there, and Nam June Paik and Yayoi Kusama also participated at events at the theater.
In 2012, Tate Modern in London showed two of Tambellini’s performances. In one, a dancer performed before projected images adorned with hula hoops, a headdress, and pieces of plastic as her body moved to a cello score.
Aldo Tambellini’s 2013 survey at James Cohan Gallery in New York. Courtesy James Cohan Gallery
Aldo Tambellini was born in Syracuse, New York, in 1930. At a young age, his parents separated, and Tambellini moved to Lucca, Italy. While there, he experienced the destruction wrought by World War II firsthand, calling it the “defining influence on my artistic vision” in an article for the website This Long Century.
Having studied painting and sculpture, first at Syracuse University and then at the University of Notre Dame, he moved to New York in 1959. There, he founded Group Center with a group of artists including Don Snyder, Ben Morea, and Elsa Tambellini, who was then his wife. The group had the intentionally nebulous goal of raising political consciousness and showing outside the confines of mainstream art galleries, and its leftist leaning put Tambellini in contact with Black literary groups. Poets such as Calvin C. Hernton and Ishmael Reed, who had been involved with a Black collective known as Umbra, became close with Tambellini during that time.
Tambellini’s openness to trying new technology led him to take up video during the late 1960s. In 1968, he and Piene created Black Gate Cologne, which has been considered the first artist-created video program ever broadcast on television. Abstract images in the work appeared to meld together while an ear-splitting soundtrack played. WDR, the German network that aired it, feared audiences wouldn’t understand and cut the video in half. In 1969, Tambellini participated alongside Paik, Allan Kaprow, and others in the “The Medium is the Medium,” a video art program considered to be among the first of its kind aired on public TV.
Although Tambellini’s work has been considered significant within experimental art circles, it was not shown widely in the art world until the past decade. One of his works was restaged at New York’s Performa biennial in 2009, and Tate Modern recreated several Tambellini works three years later, effectively landing the artist on the map once more.
A 2013 survey at James Cohan Gallery in New York followed, as did an appearance at the 2015 Venice Biennale in Italy and a retrospective at the ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe in Germany in 2017. In 2019, the Albright-Knox museum in Buffalo, New York, became the first U.S. institution to acquire his work. Other works are currently on view in Tate Modern’s presentation of its permanent collection. The Harvard Film Archive has also restored many of Tambellini’s works.
Tambellini often designed his filmic works to be immersive for viewers. With the Black Gate Theater, for example, he did not offer any seats for viewers, so they had to sit on the floor, effectively bringing them closer to the works being shown. Speaking of the theater in 2012, he told Tate, “You want the audience to be a part of it as much as you can.”