|A Syracuse Rebel in New York*
In the late summer of 1959, I moved to the Lower East Side, renting a $56.00 a month railroad type apartment on 10th Street and Avenue C. This was once a Jewish neighborhood which had become Puerto Rican except for the bakery, where I regularly bought a large round loaf of rye bread for 50 cents. My apartment was one flight up, a few blocks from where Allen Ginsberg lived; the bathtub was in the kitchen. I met a few artists and joined the co-op gallery called “The Brata” located on 3rd Avenue and 10th Street, one of the remaining co-ops from the previous 10th Street era. At the gallery, I had a one man show and participated in group shows.
I had developed my own method of making sculpture by using sand to cast hydrocal, so I needed a space on the ground floor. I found a single storefront at 217 East 2nd Street near Avenue C for $60.00 a month. My companion Elsa and I loaded all of our belongings in a rented push cart and making several trips at night, we moved. The neighborhood looked tough. I had several skulls and bones from cows and hung them on the front store window together with one of my early sculptures which was coated with black tar. I lit the whole thing with candles. It was a strange voodoo-like sight in the night. In today’s terminology, it would probably be considered the earliest installation by an artist in that area. The neighbors and the Puerto Rican children on the following days gathered around the window thinking I was a “brujo”. One day, when my door was opened they saw a big black box that I used for sand casting one of the children remarked, “That’s where the magician cuts the lady in half.” The gypsy living in the storefront at the end of the block came over, knocked on my door wanting to know why I, who was not a gypsy, was living in a storefront. I invited her in, told her I was an artist, and showed her some of my work.
Soon, my storefront was invaded by the Puerto Rican children and teenagers from the neighborhood with whom I had become friendly. Elsa nicknamed one of the children “Peanut” who, inspired by my artwork, began to draw some of my sculptures, my wooden trap doors which I had found and had intentionally burned and carved with a chisel, as well as, creating his own work which I exhibited in the storefront. Past Delancey Street, in the Jewish neighborhood, they were tearing down blocks after blocks. It looked like a bombed out area from 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 the inspiration for what became a rapid succession of my new development in sculpture. With the help of some Puerto Rican teenagers, we fenced in the empty lot outside of the storefront facing Houston Street, creating an outdoor studio for my sculpture. It’s now 1961-62. This space was filled in with my concave and round sculptures of hydrocal coated with epoxy to waterproof them. This became the outdoor exhibit available to the neighborhood. Concurrently, I was working very intensely on painting, black enamel or black acrylic on paper, some of them cut out in the shape of a circle. I worked with the blowtorch burning large pieces of wood, sometimes applying some paint.
One day, from my back window, I saw two well dressed men in the outdoor studio with guns pointed to Houston Street through the cracks of the wooden fence. I went out and asked what they were doing. They hushed me and waved me back. I left them alone figuring that they were probably undercover agents conducting a drug investigation. A reporter from the Syracuse Post-Standard, Syracuse, New York came to visit me. On January 27, 1963, Walter Carroll in theSyracuse Post–Standard Sunday Pictorial Magazine wrote with the heading, “A SYRACUSE REBEL IN NEW YORK”. He wrote, “Two weeks ago we went into the tough Lower East Side of New York City to visit a sculptor… 32 years old Aldo Tambellini, native of Syracuse, is a rebel with a following. He and his pleasant wife, Elsa, live in a drab, cramped little storefront studio at 217 Eats 2nd Street. In the back yard of this environment Tambellini uses concrete and jagged pieces of metal from junk yards to create dramatic often brutal sculptures. He creates raw, primitive, forms from industrially created shapes… iron, steel nails, pieces of pipe.”
I lived under constant threat of eviction by the New York City building inspectors who were claiming that my sculptures in the outdoor studio were considered “debris.” Despite my keeping the place clean and stacking all the found objects neatly to one side of the yard, I could do little to please them. Across the street from the storefront is where the black poets from UMBRA (a magazine) were gathering. They had just come to the Lower East Side, too, from Harlem, Bedford Stuyvesant and the south. These included: Ishmael Reed, H.N. Pritchard, Calvin Hernton, and Roland Snelling subsequently known as Askia Toure. Later, many of these poets participated in my multimedia performances which I called “Electromedia.” We all hung around “Stanley’s Bar” further up on Avenue B where we often exchanged views and had heated discussions. We all worked together in the same neighborhood and grew while things developed in all sorts of directions. Stanley later became the owner of the “DOM” on St. Mark’s Place.
As a counter-culture activist I wrote, edited and published a newsletter called The Screw with its slogan “Artists in an Anonymous Generation Arise.” Written mostly in poetry form, I first published it in 1961. The newsletter was created to raise the social consciousness of the artists. In the newsletter, I voiced my objection to the manipulation I saw in the art establishment which used the artists as a commodity and financial investments rather than cultural entities. This newsletter consisted of a mimeographed legal sized yellow sheet of paper sometimes folded in half. Each issue, of which there were six, had a different variation of an image of a hardware screw. Elsa and I handed out copies and accepted donations of 10 cents which were dropped into a glass jar. It was mostly distributed in the then very popular artists’ “The Club” (on the West Side) frequented by a large art community that held monthly meetings and discussed current art topics.
The “Event of the Screw,” a protest in the form of a performance took place on July 12, 1962, in front of the Museum of Modern Art. There, in front of many artists who attended the “Event,” the media, and law enforcement, I dressed in a black suit and tie with a gold screw tie-clip, read the “Manifesto of the Screw.” The Belltones, a Puerto Rican Trio from my neighborhood, also dressed in suits and ties, accompanied me by singing a cappella the “Song of The Screw” which I composed satirizing the conforming artistic “rules of the game.” Elsa Tambellini danced in leotards inside a five-foot Paper-Mache screw. The American Flag was placed on top of the screw, a requirement stipulated by City Ordinances for any demonstration. Mira Fine, a public school teacher symbolically presented to one museum official with “The Golden Screw Award” which was a hardware screw dipped in gold paint and placed on a black cushion. Similar awards were given that day to the Whitney (then behind the Museum of Modern Art) and Guggenheim Museums. Despite the 18 reporters present at the demonstration, not one of them wrote a line about the performance. A large photograph of the “Event”, however, was published on the front page of the EL Diario, the New York daily Spanish newspaper. Gabe Pressman, a muckraking television reporter, covered the “Event” and interviewed me while Amish Sinclair, from WBAI, interviewed the Director of the old Whitney Museum for his reaction to the “Event.”
There was no scene at the East Village in the early ‘60’s; but the beginning of an underground sub-culture of creativity brewing. In 1962, with a group of artists, Elsa Tambellini, Ron Hahne, Ben Morea, Don Snyder and, later, Jackie Cassen and Peter Martinez, I founded what was called “Group Center.” It was formed without finances but with a larger idealistic vision of a better connection with the community. The goal was described in a flyer distributed around to raise both the social and artist consciousness: “For the purpose of forming a community of the arts, of individuals and groups, of poets, actors, dancers, painters, musicians, photographers, sculptors, film-makers, and all those vitally interested in the creative expression of man.” The flyer continued with a Credo: “We believe that the artistic community has reached a new stage of development. In a mobile society, it is no longer sufficient for the creative individual to remain in isolation. We feel the hunger of a society lost in its own vacuum and rise with an open active commitment to forward a new spirit for mankind.”
I wrote at that time that, “Creation is not the commodity of a status-seeking class. Creation is the vital energy of society. We believe that the ‘our system’ is an enormous dinosaur extinguishing at a fantastic rate which opposes truth and freedom and that it has squeezed out of man the essential vitality which made him part of the human race.” For that reason, “Group Center” consciously and intentionally chose to become a counter-culture, underground group trying to find ways to change and impact that harsh closed-in system.
David Bourdon wrote about “Group Center” on January 11, 1965 for The Village Voice: “The Group has made itself known in original ways. They picketed a Monday night opening at the Museum of Modern Art...passing out handbills protesting the taste-making policies of the museum. Last March they paid a stealthy 3 a.m. visit to the most powerful up-town galleries and museums; equipped with a masonite stencil and a can of spray paint, and disguised as workmen, they branded the sidewalks with a circle about two feet in diameter containing the word ‘centerfuge’.” Centerfuge was the term used for many of the activities of “Group Center.”
“Group Center” organized a Festival-of-the-Art in collaboration with LENA (Lower East Side Neighborhood Association). This festival, for the first time, brought out the new generation of artists who lived in the Lower East Side. One newspaper referred to the festival as the “Lower East Side Artists Having a Coming Out.” A two week marathon of art shows, poetry readings, underground films and jazz concerts was organized and held at and around the Church of St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwery. This festival proved “Group Center” to be a catalyst in the artistic movement in the area. This was the first time the press and the public became aware that something new and meaningful was happening among the creative people in the Lower East Side, sometimes called by the press as the “New Bohemia” as referred to in the seminal book by John Gruen by the same name.
As a result of the successful festival, Michael Allen, Minister of the St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwery Church, appointed “Group Center” as the official organizer of the artistic programs at St. Mark’s. In October 1963, around the churchyard and in the church, “Aldo selected the largest sculpture and drawing show ever independently organized in New York City,” wrote Elsa in an article for Arts Canada Magazine, in October 1967. Interest in the show grew as time neared its opening. “Forty living U.S. sculptors were brought together with work ranging from forty-foot-high pieces to small indoor works and drawings,” stated Elsa in “Arts Canada.” This show was unique because it brought together well known artists such as Peter Agostini, Phillip Pavia, Marc De Suvero, Richard Stankiewicz giving less known and obscure local artists the opportunity of exhibiting gaining exposure. The sculpture show lasted well over a month. The artist Ad Reinhardt, showing support for “Group Center,” gave a lecture at the church on the topic, “The Next Revolution in Art.” I designed the flyer for this event. Jazz performances were planned by Freddie Redd, known for his original musical work in the play, “The Connection” at the Living Theatre. Among the jazz artists who played outdoors among the sculptures was Booker Irving, saxophonists from the Mingus Group. Elsa Tambellini concluded in the same Arts Canada article, “It was another way of bypassing the establishment.”
During this time, I rented a large space located in a former Synagogue at 106 Forsythe Street near Broome Street. This space was primarily rented for the activities of “Group Center.” “Group Center” presented Jazz Concerts which included the artists Freddie Redd on piano and avant-garde musician Archie Shepp. Well attended fund-raisers, to help support the work of “Group Center” were also held in this space in the form of parties where drinks were sold mixed with cheap liquor that was home-brewed by our supplier. Among the most memorable activities of “Group Center” was the event which brought Julian Beck and Judith Malina from the legendary Living Theatre to hold an open discussion on March 10, 1962. The topic of the evening was “Revolution as an Alternative.” Admission to the program was only 50 cents. I designed the flyer with the title of the event with a photo taken by Don Snyder of my large hydrocal concave sculpture with one East 2nd Street Puerto-Rican child sitting inside it. These flyers were hung by Elsa and me at 2:00 a.m. in long rows on Lower East Side buildings and pasted with double coats of wallpaper glue. This was done for a stronger adhesion so that the announcement would not be vandalized. The next day, the posters had been either defaced or scratched out. Some landlords threatened to sue us. The word “Revolution”, that later-on became the rallying cry of the 60’s, was at this time a fearful and disturbing word for many people.
I had a bulk of 35 mm slides which were ready to be discarded. One day, around 1963, I took them and instinctively I use needles and other tools to scratch the emulsion. I scratched spirals and other round forms sometimes piercing holes through them. With a small gathering, I projected these slides onto the façade of the building across the street from a tenement rooftop on 6th Street and Avenue D using a Kodak Carousel Projector. This marked the beginning of my involvement with multi-media.
In 1965 with "Group Center", I organized another large art exhibit, Quantum 1 and Quantum 2 which ran simultaneously at the Noah Goldowsky and at the A.M. Sachs Galleries. Quantum 2 presented American and European artists. I exhibited the “Echo,” a spatial black painting 14 by 7 feet. I represented “Group Center” with Hahne and Morea. “Group Zero”, from Germany with Piene, Mack and Uecker, a group I had not yet met but borrowed their work, Peter Agostini, Louise Bourgeois, Ad Reinhardt and Charles Mingus Jr. (the son of the musician) and many others young and unknown artists were also exhibited. We became friends with Irene Rice Perreira and borrowed her painting with layered corrugated glass from the Metropolitan Museum for this show. The New York Herald Tribune in a review of the show on January 16, 1963, said, “Aldo Tambellini, leader of the ‘Center’, shows enormous canvases where the circle becomes a sun-a source of energy.” I had poetry, in the show, written in spiral and circular forms on silver discs suspended and turning, hung from the ceiling by strings. The Herald Tribune continued in the review of the Quantum 2 Show, “Lights blink on and off, discs rotate, canvasses with moving panels alter their shapes and color…the meeting of technological concepts with those of art.”
Concurrently with the Quantum Show, I presented my first “Electromedia” performance, “BLACK,” at the International House, Columbia University, New York. David Bourdon in The Village Voice described “BLACK” as a “Hypnotic Bounce”. He goes on to talk about the performance: “‘BLACK’ was an overlapping series of evenly pitched performances by a painter, a dancer and two poets. Handsome poet Norman Pritchard chanted nonsense words in sequences in groovy repetitions a like stuck record, bouncing hypnotically at the same time… Ishmael Reed’s oratorically delivered poetry was more traditional in form and marked by raw powerful imagery. Lovely Carla Blank performed two dances. In the first, she writhed, choked, and coughed as though she had a sore T-Zone, then rose slowly on tiptoes to emit a big scream; she also hurled one of the two folding chairs into the auditorium. Returning in white tights she improvised a dance before a sequence of slides projected against the back of the stage by Tambellini.”
During the performance, as the creator of “BLACK,” I interacted with over 40, 21/4 by 21/4, hand-painted glass projected slides which I called “lumagrams.” Don Ross from the New York Herald Tribune later, on June 13, 1965 describes the “lumagrams”: “Some of the lumigrams are reminiscent of slides of diseased tissue… .Tambellini said he is interested in evolving an art form from the revelation of the microscope. He is also interested in the revelation of the telescope in the cosmos, and some of the lumigrams are reminiscent of sidereal space. Others have a kind of fetal, placenta look… .I work from intuition, he (Tambellini) says, and not from intellectualization.”
As a result of this performance, Elaine Summer, who was in the audience, invited me to repeat the performance at the Bridge Theatre at St. Mark’s Place where she was special program director. I accepted and begun my relationship with the Bridge Theatre. “BLACK” became a work in progress which continued to grow with each performance through the dynamic exchange of the participants involved. It expanded to include jazz musicians Cecil McBee; Herby Lewis and Bill Dixon and in many performance, avant-garde amplified cellist, Galo Scott, black poets, dancers “lumagrams,” films and video, inflatable screen, gas masks and a huge variety of other experimental sounds such as evenly pitched siren, the sound of air and light equipment. Ultimately “BLACK” included video tapes playing on 4 TV monitors. “BLACK” progressed to “BLACK 2” to “BLACK ZERO”.
Don Ross, a journalist, attended a performance of my “Electromedia.” On June 13, 1965, he wrote a leading article in the New York Herald Tribune, “Rebellion in Art Form-Tambellini’s ‘Black 2’.” He writes: “Aldo Tambellini has survived, thanks to his toughness, his belief in himself and his vision of life… Tambellini is an artist and a rebel… he’s not only a rebel but a leader of rebels. Last Monday as producer and director, he put on a hour-and-twenty minute show called “Black 2” at the Bridge Theatre, 4 St. Mark’s Place… the performance brought into an organic form... the fusion of abstract and social commitment. Among those associated with Tambellini in this enterprise are Lorraine Boyd, a dancer (a student of Katherine Dunham and Martha Graham) Cecil McBee (formally with Dianah Washington), who thumbs a bass, Calvin, C. Hernton (editor of the poetry magazine ‘Umbra’), a poet who reads his own poems of racial conflict with a flashlight. Tambellini has made what he calls lumagrams… he projects 200 of them during the performance, sometimes while Ms. Boyd, dressed in black tights, is dancing in a way that seems to represent the plight of the Negro and while Mr. McBee is thumping and bowing his bass beautifully.”
Visiting my studio, Don Ross continues, “Tambellini dressed in a black shirt, black pants…the largest of his paintings (14x7 feet) in the loft studio is a double image of a black circle within a larger white circle in a vast black space. Black fascinated him. Recently, the double image, or, as he calls it, the echo, has been reoccurring in his work. ‘This two in one thing appeals to me,’ he said, ‘it seems to be happening in my work. I have no explanation why this is.’… He is an easy mark for ridicule for those who don’t know him. Those who do respect him. They may not know what he is doing and they might even doubt that he does, but they will know that he will not swerve from his path. In a time of opportunism, they find something splendid in this principled obstinancy.”
“BLACK ZERO” was performed in 1965 as part of the New Cinema Festival I taking place at the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque at the Astor Pl. Playhouse on 434 Lafayette Street. This performance had Bill Dixon on trumpet and Alan Silva on bass and Calvin Hernton’s poetry. When The New York Times at a much later date was beginning to acknowledge the multimedia that became a phenomenon in the late 60’s, in the article of September 1967, “For the TV Generation, Multimedia Techniques Bombard and Overload the Senses,” Reporter Grace Glueck quoted me defining the multimedia after a performance of “BLACK ZERO”: “With multimedia you create an effect that is not based on previous experience. You saturate the audience with images. It happens now-it has a live quality. It’s a total experience in itself.”
Paul Mandell, staff reporter for the newspaper, The Gazette, recorded the full impact of the work of “BLACK ZERO” on the audience at the University of Western Ontario, Canada in his article entitled “It was a gas Inter-media Warped, Twisted impact”: “Galactic intensity, the direct result of inter-media by Aldo Tambellini and Company, has superimposed itself on the warped and twisted minds of a Western audience and left them more warped and twisted than they were before.… .This is the entertainment that Orwell and Huxley have been speculating about in the past few years. It was ‘1984’ and ‘Brave New World’ all wrapped in one.” Jeremy Heymsfeld from The New York World-Telegram reviewed “BLACK ZERO” and stated: “The series of experiences presented last night was designed to propel the audience into what the Center calls ‘the new reality,’ the psychological re-orientation of man in the space age ’BLACK ZERO’ is a vehicle for expressing these changes as well as the violent social revolution now sweeping the world… .There are enough blank stares in the audience for ‘BLACK ZERO’ to rate an avant-garde label.”
In the 20 Cents MAGAZINE, published in Canada, Ann Brodzky and Greg Curnoe held a public conversation about Mixed Media from New York City. Both had seen my ‘BLACK ZERO” and Warhol’s “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” in the space of less than a week and discuss the two works. Curnoe states, “Both the Tambellinis and Warhol had distinct New York Styles. However it was obvious that “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable” had taken a lot of very effective devices from the Tambellinis and other filmmakers and packaged them for mass consumption (this is how their styles differ… Madison Avenue versus The Village). With Warhol you are drawn in and then excluded; with Tambellini you are engaged in a dialogue.” Ann Brodzky concluded, “Yes. But I cannot agree that Tambellini’s work is representative of any ‘style.’ Aldo Tambellini as an artist—sculptor, painter, filmmaker—is an outrider and his work is prophetic.” The last performance of “BLACK ZERO” culminated at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the program INTERMEDIA “68” in a double billed program with Carolee Schneemann’s “Illinois Central Transposed.”
Elsa wrote in her article in the October 1967 issue of Arts Canada, The word “Intermedia” and “Mixed Media” did not exist at that time. Aldo was an originator of a form which did not even have a vocabulary and it was a challenge to describe it to the Theatre press and all the people who were to become involved in the presentation of his work.” The work was so controversial at the time that some of the press defined it as “theatre of the senses”, while others, such as Gene Youngblood, later included the work in his book,Expanded Cinema. For me, “Electromedia,” at that time was the fusion of the various art and media forms, breaking media away from the “traditional” media role bringing it into the area of art-bringing the other arts, poetry, sounds, painting and kinetics and film and later video into a time and space re-orientation toward media transforming both the arts and the media. I acknowledged an historical shift into the culture, defining the time in both the social and technological revolution, I defined the role of the “new” artist in my 1962 Art Manifesto, “The Seed,” as a “primitive of a new era.”
In a Sal Fallica interview in 1967 and reprinted by CENTERVIDEO at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT in 1981, I stated, “I came to media as a social reaction against what kept the art media under control-for media was outside of Art. No gallery or museum in New York in 1967 would give serious thought to a CV tape. A media in the hands of the artist could create its own audience. Like creating images directly on film-video had the reality of directness.” I was invited by Rudy Stern and Jackie Cassen to perform “MOONDIAL.” I collaborated with professional dancer Beverly Schmidt. I created Beverly’s costume from clear plastic with silver round discs. I made a mobile head piece. She powerfully interacted with my projection of film and lumagrams specifically made for her dance and the percussive drumming of Lawrence Cook. Jonas Mekas reviewed “MOONDIAL” in his Movie Journal Column on June 23, 1966 which appeared in The Village Voice: “It (MOONDIAL) is one of those few cases where everything seemed to work perfectly… .The flashes and glimpses of light and slides, and the dancer, all together, produced an aesthetically unified performance.” Jonas Mekas goes on to describe my intimate involvement with the performance: “…I turned and looked where the slides and projections were set...I saw this amazing, almost phantastic thing happening: I saw both Tambellinis immersed in a deep trance of their own. Moving, with hand-held projectors and slides, shaking, and trembling, no more conscious of themselves…they were going through similarly phantastic changes and it seemed that the things on stage were directly, physically connected to their fingertips, their face movements and their very flesh…through their flesh to their souls.”
A three part program called “OUTFALL” was presented by the Bridge Theatre in conjunction with ”Group Center” under the auspices of the New York City Department of Parks at the Fountain in Washington Square, being dry because of a draught, on September 25, 1965. Part one of this program, its opening, was my “BLACK ROUND,” a kinetic ritual for dancer, gas masks, large screen projections and sound was witnessed by 2000 people. This program was conceived by me and Judy Dunn, dancer from the Judson Church Dance Theatre and formally with the Merce Cunningham Company. Other performers included Meredith Monk, Kenneth King, Phoebe Neville, Al Kurchin and the core of “Group Center,” Ron Hahne, Ben Morea and Elsa Tambellini. I projected hand painted slides over my hand-painted film onto a huge screen in the middle of the fountain. “Thirty of us wearing gas masks, carrying flash lights and an assortment of sculptural objects pierced through the enormous crowd of people which had formed a solid mass of bodies around the rim of the pool,” Elsa recalls in her September 1967 article for Arts Canada. She recalls, “That night the city became our theatre and the endless variation of people who gathered in the park our audience.”
My films began to be used in many ways not only shown in the movie theatre as a traditional projected film; but also, as part of my “Electromedia” performances de-materializing the space where it was projected and producing a dislocation of the senses of the viewer. I consider my films to be an “experience”. Sometimes, the films were used as an environment projected on a given space and sometimes, films and the zooming of the animated slides became one. At times, the films were projected on bodies of performers and objects such as inflatable screens (black weather balloons) and other times, the films were projected on split screens or in simultaneous multiple projections.
Very often, I was asked why black? Here is my quote from Arts Canada, October 1967 on the special issue on the subject of “Black” with the new Editor, Anna Brodzky, where I answered that question, “Black to me is like a beginning. A beginning of what it wants to be rather than what it does not want to be. I am not discussing black as a tradition or non tradition in painting or as having anything to do with pigment or as an opposition to color. As I am working and exploring black in different kinds of dimensions, I’m definitely more and more convinced that black is actually the beginning of everything, which the art concept is not. 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.” I continued: “Black is one of the important reasons why the racial conflicts are happening today, because it is part of an old way to look at a human being or race in terms of color. Black will get rid of the separation of colour at the end. Blackness is the beginning of the re-sensitizing of human beings. I strongly believe in the word ‘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.”
Quantum 2 Show, A M Sachs Gallery, NYC, 1965