Tony Conrad pickled film in canning jars. He made musical instruments out of bathroom plungers and golf club sleeves. He brushed cheap, white house paint inside a black rectangle, called it emulsion, and said he’d made a movie.
These works and more are on view in “Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective,” a two-hander of an exhibition at the MIT List Visual Arts Center (through Jan. 6) and Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (through Dec. 30).
Conrad, who died in 2016, at 76, was a trickster, and “Introducing Tony Conrad” is a gas — sweet, startling, and mordant. He came of age at the tail end of modernism, when artists were high priests and genres claustrophobically self-referential. His work popped that hot-air balloon of self-importance.
It was also prescient. Rooted in his generation’s resistance to authority, it delves into social justice and media ubiquity with the alarm of dystopian science fiction.
At the center of it all, Conrad questioned power. He rebuffed Western notions of musical harmony and linear perspective as authoritarian. He examined hierarchy in the military and in prisons. In classrooms at the State University of New York Buffalo, where he was a professor, he questioned the unequal status between teacher and student. His art points uncomfortably at parents’ clout over children.
Conrad made his name in the 1960s as a musician and an experimental filmmaker. He was an original member of the endurance drone ensemble Theatre of Eternal Music, also known as the Dream Syndicate. His bandmate John Cale brought its aesthetic to the Velvet Underground. Conrad’s best-known film, “The Flicker,” alternated blank film frames with solid black ones to create fluttering light.
Then, pushing the navel-gazing theory of 1960s filmmaking to its limits, he inadvertently made visual art. The pickled film is a sculpture. He also curried film and roasted it. He cooked film sukiyaki-style in a cinema, and to project it he hurled it against the screen.
It’s no surprise that Conrad, who eschewed systems of power, resisted art as commerce. He didn’t engage with galleries; he saw art as service. In a 1960s-era photo at the Carpenter Center, he protests outside Lincoln Center with a sandwich board that reads, “Fight the Snob Art of the Social Climbers.”
“I don’t make work as a product to be consumed by purchasers and deployed as ceremonial objects,” he told the Guardian shortly before his death.
Taking cues from John Cage’s unorthodox notions of music, and from Fluxus’s wily, conceptual games, Conrad crafted extraordinary, shrewd work that, while esoteric and steeped in theory (about film, art, politics, criticism, media, and more), was playful, accessible, resonant, and absurd.
The MIT portion of “Introducing Tony Conrad” focuses mostly on art objects, such as the charming DIY musical instruments, while Harvard highlights film and video. But there’s plenty of crossover. The exhibition was organized by Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
The trenchant “Yellow Movie” series, which began in 1972, was Conrad’s answer to a 1960s filmmaking fetish for duration — Andy Warhol’s 1967 film “**** (Four Stars)” was longer than a day.
“I thought, I should make a film that just beggars Andy Warhol’s 24-hour film,” he said in a 2011 interview. “I’ll make one that will last 50 years.”
Several “Yellow Movies” are on view at MIT, and many have gone yellow — we’re coming in at the end of the screening.
“Yellow Movie (video),” at Harvard, is a cunning early example of installation art. Since video monitors emit light, Conrad painted a grid of TV-shaped rectangles fluorescent yellow and gave them a neon glow with black light, amplifying the room with an electronic hum.
He tilled the ground for younger installation artists, such as Tony Oursler and Mike Kelley, who like Conrad strove to break down highfalutin definitions of art and reflect on our bruised, frenetic society. “WiP,” which looks like an installation, is a replica of a set for Conrad’s film “Jail Jail,” a chaotic, non-narrative improvisation by actors, including Oursler and Kelley, playing women. The rigorously orderly set, with its blinking, blinding overhead lights, lays groundwork for the chaos — sometimes dangerous and sometimes bumbling — that systematized domination can spur.
Among the most heartfelt pieces Conrad made are boots-on-the-ground cable-access shows in Buffalo. For a time in the 1990s, he hosted “Homework Helpline.” He and a group of local kids would discuss homework problems and take calls from listeners. Work such as this and many more experimental videos anticipate YouTube.
For “Studio of the Streets,” in the early 1990s, he and collaborators Cathleen Steffan and Ann Szyjka interviewed citizens on the steps of City Hall each week.
The Carpenter Center has a rough-and-ready installation of “Studio of the Streets” with several monitors; construction-site gear gives it the whiff of a city street. In one interview, a man reflects on the moment as one for women to take political action. As he talks, it becomes clear he’s talking about Anita Hill’s testimony at the Clarence Thomas hearings. This is frankly eerie to see.
Much of Conrad’s work is scarily resonant today. A video installation at MIT, “Panopticon,” sets up a cartoonish, foam-core panorama of ordinary sites for video monitors — a mall, a living room, a television station — and suggests that the monitors are watching us, manipulating us, and sucking our souls dry. That was in 1988, long before our smart devices started tracking our every move.
What’s not clear here is what Conrad made of the Internet. It would have been a perfect subject for his inventiveness and humor. Indeed, it could have sprung straight from his imagination.
Still, “Introducing Tony Conrad” tees up the Internet’s prospects of equality and play, and its sinister way of reaching right into our minds. They are all right here, as if Conrad were flinging the digital world against a screen, to help us see it fresh.
INTRODUCING TONY CONRAD: A RETROSPECTIVE
At MIT List Visual Arts Center, 20 Ames St., Cambridge, through Jan. 6. 617-253-4680, listart.mit.edu
Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University, 24 Quincy St., through Dec. 30. 617-496-5387, carpenter.centerCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.