Aldo Tambellini obituary

Oliver Basciano
·5-min read

The artist Aldo Tambellini, who has died aged 90, was obsessed with the colour black. “Black to me is like a beginning,” he said in 1967. “Black gets rid of the historical definition. Black is a state of being blind and more aware. Black is a oneness with birth. Black is within totality, the oneness of all. Black is the expansion of consciousness in all directions.”

Typical of Tambellini’s avant-garde multimedia work is Black Trip, made in 1965, a highly disorientating short film mixing kinescope (where the artist recorded the screen of a television on 16mm film), together with painting directly on the negative, to create five minutes of flickering black-and-white visual noise, complemented by a headache-inducing, droning soundtrack. Slightly more restful was Black Is, a film installation made the same year. To the sound of a heartbeat Tambellini projected abstract forms on to a black background.

While he was an early pioneer of television and video in art, these formal innovations were coupled with radical political ideas, both in terms of black consciousness and a belief in anarchism. “I strongly believe in … ‘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,” he told one interviewer in 1967.

In Black Plus X (1966) Tambellini took his camera on to the streets of New York, filming the city’s black citizens. Edited to a typically frantic pace, the film is intermittently reversed so the people in frame are instantaneously bleached white. The artist was white, but his interest in black culture and history came from his friendship with the poets Ishmael Reed and Calvin C Hernton. The latter collaborated with the artist on Black Zero (1965), a continuously evolving performance, which, alongside readings of Hernton’s politically charged poems, originally featured electronic music, free-jazz jams by Bill Dixon and Calo Scott, manipulated and painted slides, and immersive projections. A version was shown at Tate Modern in 2012.

Born in Syracuse, New York, Aldo was the son of John Tambellini, a Brazilian-born waiter of Italian descent, and Gina (nee Puccinelli), who was from Tuscany. The marriage was an unhappy one. When Aldo was 18 months old, Gina returned to Italy with him and his brother, settling back in Lucca.

His mother bought Aldo a battery-operated projector which came preloaded with film clips of American cowboys and other such popular scenes. Setting this up in a long, dark corridor at the family home, Aldo would charge friends to attend screenings. When he was confined to bed for several months, suffering pneumonia, pleurisy and bronchitis, his mother gave him a marionette theatre with which he would stage shows from his window.

His art school studies in Lucca were cut short by the second world war. The family fled the city after a British and American air raid left many of his neighbours dead. Witnessing that violence put him on a lifelong course of anti-war and radical politics. The end of the war was also Tambellini’s first introduction to African-American culture, when Lucca was liberated by the segregated 92nd Infantry Division, the so-called Buffalo Soldiers.

With Italy in ruins, Aldo returned to upstate New York, taking jobs picking potatoes and painting the gas tanks on refinery fields. He enrolled at Syracuse University and then the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, to study painting and sculpture. In 1959 he moved to New York city. There 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. His first work in the city was hulking semi-spherical sculptures made from iron and covered in black tar.

Morea recalled Tambellini as an artist: “Very radical in his thinking and who channelled all of that into his art rather than social activism. He would only hold shows in common areas like churchyards and hallways in order to bring art to the public.”

The art market, in the thrall of abstract expressionism and then pop art, showed little interest, and the feeling was mutual (though Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable series of events owed a debt to Tambellini). Instead, Tambellini, by this time rarely wearing any other colour than black, threw himself into avant-garde collectives and street politics. From 1966, he ran the Gate theatre and then, with Otto Piene (co-founder of the Zero art movement), the Black Gate, DIY arts spaces above each other in the East Village that hosted early performances by Jack Smith, Yayoi Kusama and Nam June Paik.

Painted black, neither the Gate nor Black Gate had seats, forcing the audience to sit on the floor amid the action. In 1968 the urge to bring art outside the gallery led Tambellini and Peine to create what is often cited as the first television programme made by artists, mixing performance, sculpture and film, and broadcast on the German network WDR.

In the mid-1970s Tambellini became a fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. With his students he experimented with alternative documentary, collaborative film-making and live broadcast. In 1972 he produced a silent film of a memorial event after the death of the performance artist Ken Dewey, which featured Yoko Ono screaming. Five Minutes in Pittsburgh (1984) involved members of his MIT class positioned with cameras across the city with instructions to document whatever was happening around them at noon. While settled into academia, he began to paint again. The Destruction series (1961) features black graphite and wax on cardboard, which Tambellini then dug holes into; another series of paintings made throughout the 1980s features the use of fluid black enamel to create dark orbs on canvas and paper.

His work continued to have influence in experimental film circles, but has only recently been given a wider audience, albeit still sporadically, after a trove of films that had been thought lost was rediscovered in 2005. The 2009 Performa Biennial in New York restaged Black Zero, which was followed by a survey at the James Cohan Gallery in the city and the Tate Modern event. Tambellini was included in the 2015 Venice Biennale and in 2017 the ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe programmed a retrospective.

He is survived by his partner, Anna Salamone.

• Aldo Tambellini, artist, born 29 April 1930; died 12 November 2020