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Aldo Tambellini, a multimedia artist, filmmaker, and poet, dies at 90

Aldo Tambellini.
Aldo Tambellini.Wendy Payne

Aldo Tambellini’s first memory of creativity reached back to when he was 3 and sat watching his grandmother mend worn clothes.

Taking in his hand “a thick pencil,” he recalled in a poem, he began to draw everything around him, “absorbed in concentration/excluding all/but full of precious meaning/in the act of drawing/I knew then I was an artist.”

That moment was in 1933 and as technology progressed through the 20th century so did he, from pencil to painting to sculpture, and into filmmaking, video art, and multimedia events. Mr. Tambellini was 90 when he died Thursday in Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital of an infection after surgery.

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He had moved to Cambridge in 1976 to become a fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Before that, he had been a mainstay among avant-garde artists in New York City in the 1960s, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

“We are the primitives of a new era,” he told The New York Times in 1967, when he presented “Black Zero,” which Times critic Grace Glueck described as an “electric-media theater” event.

“With multimedia you create an effect that is not based on previous experience,” Mr. Tambellini said. “You saturate the audience with images. It happens now; it has a live quality. It’s a total experience in itself.”

Even while working in more conventional forms, he reached beyond what audiences might expect.

“When I paint, sometimes I feel like I’m suspended in space,” he said in an interview posted on the website of the James Cohan Gallery in New York, where he had a one-man show several years ago. “What I’m saying is that I don’t think I’m the only one that can do this kind of work, but I’m touching into a new kind of idea.”

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Reviewing a show of Mr. Tambellini’s work from the early 1960s and late 1980s that he exhibited at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge in 2010, Globe critic Cate McQuaid wrote that “they hum with dark energy. Tambellini deals with cosmic, generative themes that merge birth and destruction. ‘Black Energy 2 (From Black Energy Burns With Fire)’ (1962) features a velvety black ball with a single white slit in the paint. Red surrounds and embraces the black; it feels as if the black has spawned the red.”

An intense focus on the color black was a defining characteristic of Mr. Tambellini’s career.

“Black to me is like a beginning. A beginning of what it wants to be rather than what it does not want to be,” he said in 1967, adding that “Black is a state of being blind and more aware. Black is a oneness with birth. Black is within totality, the oneness of all.”

Mr. Tambellini was “a major catalyst for a lot of the expanded media and performance activity that was happening in New York City in the 1960s,” Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, said in a video posted on YouTube when the Tate Modern in London staged a career retrospective several years ago.

“I think he was really embracing an expanded approach to interweaving a lot of different kinds of media from film to performance to music to sound to poetry to political activism,” Comer said. “All these things came together in his work in a really powerful way.”

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The younger of two brothers, Aldo Tambellini was born in Syracuse, N.Y., on April 20, 1930.

His parents — John Tambellini, a hotel waiter, and Gina Puccinelli, a homemaker — separated when he was young. His father, who was of Italian descent, emigrated from Brazil. His mother was from Italy, and young Aldo went with her to Italy during World War II to live with her relatives.

At 10, he enrolled in art school in Lucca, in Italy’s Tuscany region.

“He was equally interested in music and art,” said Anna Salamone, Mr. Tambellini’s longtime companion.

In a poem, he recalled a wartime bombing when he was 13 that destroyed his Lucca neighborhood, and the screams that followed: “I saw the earth hurled by force/in chunks lifting to the sky/friends & neighbors died/others survived deformed.”

He was among the survivors: “at the first detonation/I jumped off the bike/face touching my street/laying under shattered glass falling.”

Returning to the United States after the war, he and his mother settled in Syracuse, where she soon was beset with mental illnesses. As a 16-year-old, Mr. Tambellini helped health care workers — three men dressed in white, arriving in a white van — commit her to an asylum.

In a poem, he wrote of that moment: “you mother/suddenly aware of/what is about to happen/hold on to my arm/pleading/don’t/let them take me away/you are my son/don’t do it.”

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On his own as a teenager, he landed a scholarship at Syracuse University, based on his art, even though he was struggling with English.

“His art spoke for itself. Art was his savior in life,” Salamone said. “Not only has it been a very traumatic life, it’s been a life of destruction, loss, and abandonment. That’s what he’s lived with.”

He helped finance his education with jobs that included picking potatoes and painting on commission, including a pair of murals of Italian peasants for a restaurant.

Mr. Tambellini graduated from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree and the University of Notre Dame with a master’s. He taught at high schools and colleges before moving to New York at the end of the 1950s.

On the Lower East Side, he created sculptures from material he scavenged from crumbling buildings, was associated with groups of artists and writers, including the avant-garde NO! art movement, and at times incorporated people on the streets into art presentations.

He also began making films, such as the experimental “Black Is,” and opened a theater. By the end of the 1960s, he was working in video as well, pushing at the medium’s limits.

“He was a rebel. He was a nonconformist,” Salamone said. “That was a position that he took in life.”

They were a couple for about two decades after meeting through a friend.

On their first evening out, “As we approached the car, he took my hand and I can’t tell you the electricity that passed through me,” she recalled. “It was like I was twirling in a whirlwind. His hand was so soft, and all his art was focused in the palm of his hand — all his power and energy.”

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Previously, according to Salamone, Mr. Tambellini had two other long-term relationships – with Elsa Tambellini, who took his last name, though they were not married, and with Sarah Dickinson.

Mr. Tambellini also leaves his sister-in-law and nephew.

Interest in his work grew during his 80s: the retrospective at the Tate Modern, the one-man show at the James Cohan Gallery, and an installation at the Venice Biennale in 2015.

For Mr. Tambellini, however, attention was always secondary to creation.

“Over the years I made my own art for myself,” he told The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, in 2010, “and I was more interested in developing it and seeing it move forward than showing it off.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.