I. Something Else
My cell phone rang at midnight. It was Anna Salamone, telling me Aldo Tambellini was now ready to talk. I had spoken with Salamone --the artist's curator and companion-- several times before, but not with Tambellini.
"You can call me Aldo. I’m not into formalities or anything like that," he said.
He was open and had a hearty, generous laughter. I quickly forgot I was talking to an 80-year-old man whose most celebrated experimental films were made in New York's Lower East Side during the 60s and 70s, long before I was born.
The fact is Aldo Tambellini has been madly churning out art pieces ever since he was a child in pre WWII Italy, until today. And I mean "today" literally as, unless he's feeling ill or weak, he's probably painting or writing a poem as you read this.
Perhaps remaining out of the mainstream for decades instilled in him a young artist's zest for creation, as if he were perpetually starting off. Perhaps it was something else.
That's what I wanted to trace down: the source of his almost religious commitment to art.
The first couple of nights we spoke over the phone until around 3:00 a.m. After that, despite worsening health problems, he agreed to meet me personally in Cambridge, the town he reluctantly calls home.
II. Across the Atlantic, Across the Years
In 1932 Giovanni and Gina Tambellini and their two children -- five-year-old Paul and two-year-old Aldo-- took a ship back to Italy. New York, or the broken American dream, was left behind.
At age six, Pleurisy, water in the lungs, struck Aldo. He spent several months in bed. "My mother was very intelligent. You can see in the photographs, a very beautiful woman." She bought him art books, a marionette theatre and a kind of projector with batteries called Lanterna Magica. Eventually Aldo got better.
He started writing plays for his marionettes and projecting little clips of film in his Lanterna Magica. When he turned ten, Gina contacted Instituto d’Arte Augusto Passaglia, where he began to take classical studio art classes.
Lucca, founded by the Etruscans and known as the city of art and music, was the perfect place for a young artist. The city preserves the Roman street plan, medieval basilicas and Renaissance frescos.
But when Aldo was a child, Mussolini was in power. War incinerated the sky.
One night, at 4:00 a.m., Aldo had to hide in a cornfield, between furrows. German soldiers were firing machine guns in his direction. Another time, a bomb fell in front of his house, killing 21 neighbors. Such were his formative years.
In 1946, sixteen-year-old Aldo and Gina boarded The Marine Carp, an evacuation Red Cross ship. Aldo's father, Giovanni, had already moved back to New York. His older brother, Paul, had joined the American military. "It was my brother’s idea [to go back to America]. I didn’t want to come. My brother was very conformist.
Sixteen days later, after along and feverish trip across the Atlantic, The Marine Carp docked in New York City on the 4th of July. "My father looked younger than me. I wrote a poem about this. I felt a lot older than sixteen. The war experience had taken its toll."
America felt strange, ugly and impenetrable. Aldo didn't speak English and the new landscape looked nothing like Lucca with its with its red clay roofs and 16th century walls. And, of course, that very same day, that one conversation: Giovanni wanted a separation from Gina. Aldo was shocked and that much more confused.
"America made no sense to me. I could not connect at all, at all. "
Aldo and Gina settled alone in Syracuse, New York.
But some lights shined at home. Gina was afraid. She feared there might be hidden microphones somewhere. She feared the Gestapo would come to America and snatch Paul and Aldo away from her. More and more she feared those fucking lights at home and so Aldo had to contact Rochester State Hospital. They gave Gina Electroshock. Beautiful, intelligent Gina.
That was the end of something.
After that Aldo got a scholarship at Syracuse University. Something else opened up: Syracuse University, Oregon University, Notre Dame. And then, in the summer of 1959, Aldo rented a place in the Lower East Side for $56 a month.
" [The Lower East Side] looked like a bombed out area of World War II. I vividly remember a dismembered wall remaining standing from an old synagogue with a big mural of the Lion of Judah. In the rubble is where I found inspiration." (from A Syracuse Rebel in New York).
III. Through the Looking Lens
New York City, 1967
A TV set, the old kind that serves as its own stand, appears on the black and white screen. A small white light moves frantically inside the screen. The strong, dry voice of a news reporter from the ‘60s presents Aldo Tambellini as part of a series of reports about the East Village.
“Aldo Tambellini was one of the first artists to work in the East Village. He is soon to open a show utilizing videotape. He calls it a media explosion. He plans to surround his audience with TV receivers in total darkness,” the reporter says, in a tense tone, as if reporting from a crime scene.
The camera pans to the left, where Tambellini stands, wearing black behind a video console: a big machine similar to a DJ table. The videotape is wrapped around two reels, making two circles reminiscent of 78 RPM records. Tambellini looks like a kind of video DJ, playing some kind of abstract, frantic visual music.
“The artist will have to get to this medium and begin to explore the possibilities,” a 37-year-old Tambellini says. “After all, to me, television, what is it? It is actually an image made out of light, which travels in time and space. It is the same energy we have discovered through atoms."
He speaks fast and emphatically, in a thick Italian accent, moving his body forward.
“It is the same energy which we are now discovering through light. And when creative people begin to get involved with this idea of energy, rather than with the idea of making pictures for a certain people, “ he says, his arms going up to his chest and then strongly down, “when artists begin to say, ‘we are making forms for everybody, we are exploring possibilities for everybody,’ then we will come to some creative aspect which will not belong to one particular class, but it will be a new exploration, which is for everybody.”
The camera zooms in on the television screen once again: a little flame, something like a comet or sperm moves on the screen, creating light spirals. There’s a high, muffled sound, like a telephone line or an alien flying through space. A kind of supernova fills up the screen and then something like a bubble or a womb develops. A few beeps are heard as in a life-support machine. The little flame splits into two, moves around playfully, and then disappears, leaving behind nothing but a black screen.
“Is it art?” asks the newscaster in his forensic tone.
A pause and then the ruthless conclusion.
“It’s what passes for art in the East Village. Tomorrow, a final look at this community. John Parsons reporting.”
IV. Bittersweet Home Cambridge
Aldo Tambellini and Anna Salamone offered to pick me up. I waited in the parking lot of the Super 8 Motel, not really knowing what they looked like. I was a little surprised when I first saw Tambellini. I expected a younger man. Not that he looked any older than his age, but over the phone his voice and engagement were those of a man 30 or 40 years younger.
He was wearing a red bandana around his neck, sported something of a school kid rat-tail, had a thick leather bracelet around his wrist, and carried a cane with a horse carved on the handle. It felt as if I was visiting my long-lost hip, socialist grandfather.
We went to Casa Portugal, one of Tambellini’s favorite restaurants. The waiter put the Paella Valenciana on the left, but Anna said to put it on the right so she could assist Tambellini. He started talking about life in the ‘50s.
“The Mills Brothers Circus had around a 1,000 people that traveled from small from town to small town outside of Syracuse. I borrowed a camera form a friend of a friend and went to take pictures of the circus," he said. "Once there, I asked if I could join them and sketch and photograph the activities. [Mr. Mills] assigned me to the clowns and midgets to live with.”
There was a dim underlying point in his anecdote. This is something Tambellini does all the time. He digresses and circumvents around the point of a story, or he lays out a cluster of stories, but understates the connections or leaves the point unsaid.
Artist were more committed in the past. They had a vision. And they did crazy things like joining a circus. Not anymore. Today’s art world is full of mercenaries and fakes. That was his point. Or one of his points, in any case.
Tambellini dislikes the direction contemporary art took after Andy Warhol. Pop Culture and detachment are not part of his sensibility. Instead he values political engagement, seriousness and a kind of secular religiosity. He has an inclination to tackle big questions: death, morality, freedom and the purpose of life.
Anna, a retired Italian-American school administrator from Connecticut, 17 years Tambellini’s junior, nodded her head at everything Tambellini said, always looking at him with a mixture of tenderness and awe.
“It was like sitting at the feet of a master, just listening to him,” she said about the first time she heard him speak. “I imagined what it would have been like to sit with Sophocles or Dante.”
Anna and Tambellini met through a friend about 9 years ago. She now dedicates several hours a day to everything from making sure he stays healthy, to promoting his work.
“The man is productive!” she said, proudly claiming to have typed 1, 205 of Tambellini’s poems, so far.
We stayed at Casa Portugal until closing time and then drove to Au Bon Pain, a café Tambellini likes because it stays open late. MIT, a school Tambellini has deep connections with, is near by. A fellowship at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies brought Tambellini to Cambridge in 1978. He moved there from Brooklyn with his life-companion Sara Dickinson, whose death in 1996 of alcoholism-reted liver problems sent him to a mental hospitaltwice.
Tambellini's friend Bharat Bhatt, a retired Geography and Theology professor from India, happened to be at the café. We ordered tea and sat outside. It started getting a little windy. The wind is not good for Tambellini’s right eye, which itches and burns, and fills up with tears.
But the man is tireless.
He started talking about how when he was a kid in Italy he used to sit in front of the radio and listen to the few transmitted shows. We all listened in silence as he explained in minute detail the advent of the telegram, and the telephone, and fax machines, and newspapers, cinema, and television, and of computers and of the Internet.
The wind kept blowing and tears started coming down Tambellini’s right cheek.
Employees began to clean up around the patio.
Tambellini then said something negative about Boston, but we had sat there for a couple of hours and it was getting cold.
“Have you ever thought of moving back to Italy?” I asked.
There was a short pause. A young employee told us we had to go.
Anna leaned forward and eagerly said, “Tell him why you don’t move back to Italy Aldo.”
Tambellini remained quiet for a second. I thought I’d asked the wrong question and tried to make eye contact with Bhatt, but he was texting somebody, falling asleep, or looking at something on the floor. It was well passed 2:00 a.m.
“Because it is too beautiful,” Tambellini said, a little sad, “Italy is just too beautiful.”