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Aldo Tambellini, Avant-Garde Filmmaker and Video Artist,
Dies at 90
New York Times on Nov. 12, 2020

A fixture of the Lower East Side’s ’60s art scene, he had an abiding interest in black. “‘Black,’” he wrote, “is not the opposite of white; it is a state of being.”

Aldo Tambellini portrait
Aldo Tambellini, a native son of Syracuse, N.Y., in an undated photo.
In 2012, the Tate Modern in London gave him a career retrospective. 
Credit: Gerard Malanga

Aldo Tambellini, a sculptor turned avant-garde filmmaker, pioneer video artist and veteran practitioner of multimedia installations, died on Thursday in Cambridge, Mass. He was 90.

Anna Salamone, his partner and only immediate survivor, said he had died of complications following surgery at Spaulding Hospital.

Mr. Tambellini was notable for his community-based sense of cultural production, particularly during his years as an artist-activist on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He was even more famous for his career-long interest in the color (or noncolor) black.

“It is striking that one of the true pioneers of video has seemed to base his entire production on a rejection of the centrality of light,” a critic observed in the magazine Artforum on the occasion of Mr. Tambellini’s 2012 retrospective at the Tate Modern in London. But for Mr. Tambellini, black was something more illuminating than the absence of light.

“‘Black’ is the expansion of consciousness in all directions,” he wrote in a 1967 manifesto, “Black Is the Awareness of a New Reality,” republished 42 years later in a catalog for his retrospective at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge, Mass. “I see ‘Black’ very clearly as the beginning of all things; and in the beginning it was ‘Black’ before the beginning. There was ‘Black’ before there was light in the whole universe. There is ‘Black’ inside the womb before the child is born. ‘Black’ is not the opposite of white; it is a state of being. We come from this womb. We come from this planet enveloped by ‘Black.’”

Mr. Tambellini also liked to dress in black. John G. Hanhardt, a former film and video curator for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, described him as “charismatic” and “a really important figure in the late 1960s.”

Mr. Hanhardt recalled that he had included the Tambellini video piece “Black Spiral” in a 1994 Whitney show marking the 25th anniversary of “TV as a Creative Medium,” the historic 1969 exhibition at the Howard Wise Gallery in Manhattan. At that time, Mr. Hanhardt said, Mr. Tambellini was living in Massachusetts and no longer “a presence” in the art world.

Aldo Tambellini 1963
Mr. Tambellini in 1963 with one of his sculptures in the yard of
St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery in Manhattan. He later turned
to filmmaking and video art.
Credit: Anthony Calvacca/New York Post Archives, via Getty Images

Aldo Tambellini was born in Syracuse, N.Y., on April 20, 1930, the second son of John and Gina (Puccinelli) Tambellini. His father, a hotel waiter, was born in Brazil, where his father, an Italian immigrant, had established a coffee plantation. Mr. Tambellini’s mother had immigrated to the United States from a village in Tuscany.

His parents separated when Aldo was a baby, and he was sent to live with relatives in Italy amid the trauma of World War II. After the war, Mr. Tambellini returned to the United States with his mother. He studied art at Syracuse University and the University of Notre Dame before moving to the Lower East Side in 1959.

There, he began making sculptures using detritus harvested from demolished buildings. He considered his storefront studio a community space and developed an empty lot as an ad hoc sculpture garden. Though he rejected any connection with the established art world, Mr. Tambellini was associated with a number of Lower East Side artist groups, including the Center, which he founded, the Umbra poetry collective and the NO! art movement. He would later be affiliated with the European group ZERO.

Like many artists of the 1960s, Mr. Tambellini was influenced by the writings of the media theorist Marshall McLuhan, emblazoning one painting with the slogan “We are the primitives of a new era,” a nod to McLuhan. He began projecting handmade slides he called lumagrams on the sides of buildings, and he made movies, largely without a camera, that involved painting on or scratching the film emulsion. Screened as an example of psychedelic cinema, the experimental film “Black Is” was described by Dan Sullivan in The New York Times as “a dazzling succession of black-on-white and white-on-black splotches, dots, zigzags and starbursts.”

In 1966, Mr. Tambellini and his wife at the time, Elsa Tambellini, opened the Gate, a 200-seat theater at Second Avenue and 10th Street in the heart of the East Village. (The couple separated in the early 1970s.) Among the work screened there were early films by Brian De Palma, Jack Smith’s “No President” and Robert Downey’s absurd comedy “Chafed Elbows,” which ran for six months — sometimes shown on a double bill with Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising” — becoming something of an underground blockbuster.

The Gate also presented plays by, among others, LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka). And on weekend midnights it provided a venue for “When Queens Collide” and other cross-dressing spectacles by Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company.

Aldo Tambellini Mondial performance
The Tambellini performance piece “Moondial” being performed in the mid-1960s
at the Dom, a bar on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village.
Credit via The Tate Modern

The Gate was itself a notable environment. Describing “the theaters of the underground” in Artforum, the critic and painter Manny Farber wrote that the Gate “starts as an entrance to an old apartment house, moves through a 1920s marble hallway, and engulfs the customer in a black chamber.”

“God help him,” he added. “The big sensation here is the ancient unreliable floor, which, like the ceiling in this blitzed miniature cathedral, is indescribable. Sometimes, the shredded carpeting, with its patches of masking tape, feels as spongy and sandy as the beach at Waikiki.”

Mr. Tambellini orchestrated what he called “electromedia” shows that involved slides, films, stroboscopic lights, dance, recorded sound and live music. In 1967, he and the German kinetic artist Otto Piene opened a second theater, the Black Gate, in an upstairs loft. This became a showcase for avant-garde artists like Yayoi Kusama, Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman.

Mr. Tambellini’s own pieces could be quite dramatic. Reporting in The Times on the electromedia event “Black Zero,” which had its premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1968, Grace Glueck wrote that “Mr. Tambellini’s work got off to a slow start, but turned out to be something of a stunner.” The piece began with a taped voice indicting racial injustice in America and “gradually built up visual and aural imagery — sound, word, music, lights and slide projections — to a shattering crescendo.”

Toward the end, Ms. Glueck wrote, “a huge black balloon began to swell.”

“As it reached the bursting point," she continued, “something unplanned happened. It broke from its mooring and floated threateningly out over the audience, at whose hands it was finally exploded.”

Her review concluded that “as a symbolic comment on the explosive racial situation in this country, Mr. Tambellini’s work was a painfully literal experience. On another level, as well, it was a highly effective piece of abstract theater.”

Mr. Tambellini began working with video technology in the late 1960s. Along with Mr. Paik and Mr. Piene, he was one of the first video artists to have his pieces shown in a New York gallery and broadcast on television. While “Black TV” (1968) compressed two years of television news reports into a nine-and-a-half-minute barrage of sound and image, Mr. Tambellini also made more straightforward recordings. In 1971, he documented the meetings and activities of the Italian-American Civil Rights League, including the Columbus Circle rally in which the league’s founder, Joseph A. Colombo Sr., was assassinated.

Mr. Tambellini left New York in the mid-1970s, joining Mr. Piene as a fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. He described his work there as “developing the concept of Communicationsphere, working with interactive telecommunications systems, primarily slow scan television and two-way cable TV.”

Mr. Tambellini’s early work was rediscovered in his later years and embraced by the art world he had largely disdained as commercial, retrograde and elitist. In 2009, “Black Zero” was recreated as part of the New York City performance biennial Performa. In 2013, a year after his career retrospective at the Tate Modern in London, he had an extensive one-man show at the James Cohan Gallery in Manhattan. In 2015, he was invited to exhibit a new installation in the Italian Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale.

That same year, one of his more contemplative video pieces, the multichannel “Atlantic in Brooklyn,” dating from the early 1970s and consisting of footage that Mr. Tambellini had shot from his studio window overlooking the future site of the Barclays Center, was digitally remastered and reinstalled in a Brooklyn gallery. Reviewing the piece in The Times, Martha Schwendener wrote that “for New York audiences, ‘Atlantic in Brooklyn’ is an essential chapter in local and cinema history.”

The same could be said for Mr. Tambellini’s artistic career.

Alex Traub contributed reporting.


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