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Black Is… Unpacking Aldo Tambellini’s Radical Blackness

Electromedia portrait of Aldo Tambellini at the Black Gate Theater, New York, 1967. Photograph: Richard Raderman. © Aldo Tambellini Art Foundation, Salem MA
Matthew Barrington examines Aldo Tambellini’s engagement with Afro-American culture, in relation to his approach to abstraction, the non-pictorial and the anti-representational. For Barrington, Tambellini’s exploration of black both as a formal question and as a racial and political issue positions the artist ‘as an intriguing reference point for contemporary debates around the relationship between Blackness and experimental media arts despite him being an Italian-American artist.’
Electromedia portrait of Aldo Tambellini at the Black Gate Theater, New York, 1967. Photograph: Richard Raderman. © Aldo Tambellini Art Foundation, Salem MA

When I came to New York I ended up working with black without thinking why. There was something about the area I was in, in the Lower East Side. Somehow, spontaneously, my work began to be a circular in form, and black. 01

Speaking in a 2012 interview the painter, film-maker, poet and sculptor Aldo Tambellini reflects on the period that led to the creation of the performance piece Black Zero (1965), which the artist has revisited repeatedly since its conception. 02 Intersecting media, Black Zero consisted of poetry by Calvin C. Hernton, distorted slides and film projection, all accompanied by an electronic score. The performance incorporated what would become recognisable elements of Tambellini’s work from the flickering circles and spirals to the warped soundscapes recalling radio interference and static white noise.

In reflecting on the origin of Black Zero, it should come as no surprise that Tambellini relates back to the Lower East Side. The area not only provided a spectrum of artists with whom Tambellini would collaborate with and be inspired by, but it also represented his first encounters with radical Black writers, poets and musicians. Through these interactions his abstract experiments were instilled with a political consciousness that would correlate with social and political issues directly relating to African American experiences of racism and inequality in 1960–70s America. It would also contribute to a non-pictorial, anti-representational formal approach, not only within the context of art but also with respect to conceptions of Blackness, and in doing so, position Tambellini as an intriguing reference point for contemporary debates around the relationship between Blackness and experimental media arts, despite him being an Italian-American artist.

Tambellini’s work has been defined by a career-long engagement with the colour black and from this standpoint, he has provoked encounters between questions of form as they relate to the materiality of the artwork and issues of aesthetics and form such as light, shade, shape and tempo. This is evident in works such as Untitled (1964), a large painting consisting of two circles over a dark grey background, where the artist’s interest in abstract compositions is clearly evident, as the various shades of black and grey interact and compete for visibility. In addition to these questions of visual aesthetics, Tambellini’s engagements with colour take on a poetic mode as he traces the connotations of black, outside of the form, in order to incorporate conceptions of racial, social and political identity – ‘the theme of black’, as he has put it: ‘it’s racial, it’s artistic, it’s cosmic.’ 03 Without spending too much time focussing on the origin of these concerns within his work, it is necessary to point out that his engagements with the poetry collective Umbra, with whom he collaborated across the early and mid-1960s, would be a spark for his reflections on black in relation to African American experiences and subsequent wider ruminations on the notion of Blackness itself.

Umbra, whose members included writers, poets and musicians such as Ishmael Reed, Cecil Taylor, Askia Touré and Calvin C. Hernton, were based in the Lower East Side in the early to mid-1960s and represent an important encounter and vital route into understanding Tambellini’s work. In the original 1965 performance of Black Zero, Hernton’s poems were read aloud and his voice was also heard, often heavily distorted in other intermedia works by Tambellini. The poetry produced by Hernton and his contemporaries in Umbra, can be seen to inform the Tambellini’s video works where his approaches to Blackness focus on eluding definitions and multiplying meaning and connotations across sound and image. One such example is his video work, Black Trip Number 2 (1967). 04

Aldo Tambellini, Black Trip 2, 1967, manipulated 16mm film, detail. © Aldo Tambellini Art Foundation , Salem, MA

Over pulsating percussion accompanied by rhythmic hand clapping we hear ‘Black is Beautiful’ chanted by young African American school children being led by their teacher. The film was made in 1967 amidst the rise of the Black Power movement and anti-apartheid Black Consciousness Movement. ‘Black is Beautiful’ belongs to the period’s concern with promoting a philosophy of Blackness towards developing knowledge of and pride in Black culture, which would coincide with the Black Arts Movement led by activist poet and playwright Amiri Baraka (a.k.a LeRoi Jones). Despite the political and social connotations of the phrase, Tambellini’s visual compositions depart from a socially progressive, easily consumable message, in favour of a more layered reflection on Blackness through a close engagement with the materiality of the image.

Tambellini’s film separates image and sound so that the permanence of the recurring chant is accompanied by a kaleidoscopic array of fragments of fast-moving visuals, shapes and shadows. Black Trip Number 2, is part of a series of film works that make up Tambellini’s Black Film Series (1965–68). The films were largely made without a camera, with Tambellini using chemicals, paint and an array of physical objects to manipulate the film strip resulting in the celluloid being turned into an almost sculptural object. The way in which the stock is made malleable speaks both to a fluid definition of Blackness paralleled in the multifaceted, frequently changing yet permanent position of the colour black, which is transversal to Tambellini’s Black Film Series. Black Trip Number 2 has been described as: ‘An internal probing of the violence and mystery of the American psyche seen through the eye of a black man and the Russian revolution.’ 05 Regardless of what this one-line description relates to or its ability to account for the spectator’s experience of the film, the succession of images, function as a visual Black taxonomy. In this regard, its visual rhythm echoes that of the artist’s poetry, as in a work like Painted Poem (1965), which is structured as a list and reflects on time and on the permanence of Black, ending with the line: ‘To black I bring the light and the air and the fire and the word and the sound that is black.’

The images that appear on screen, during Black Trip Number 2 include the interior of a factory, footage from an unidentified protest, scenes of tanks, soldiers and a fleeting glimpse of Vladimir Lenin. Translating the overriding concept of connecting the creation of the Soviet Union with the American psyche through a Black perspective, these flash archival shots are interspersed with images of distorted celluloid film. The fragmentation is heightened by Tambellini’s at times violent interventions into the celluloid. Yet each image is brought into connection with the others in the multitude of interactions with footage taken from public information films, newsreels and industrial films; this archival material emerges from within abstract shapes and non-photographic images, prompting free association between the shots. Black Trip Number 2, as with all works in the series, only features black and white shots recontextualised from newsreels and which flicker in the darkness, correlating with Tambellini’s belief in the permanence of black, as a colour, an object and an ever-present element of existence,

I see ‘Black’ very clearly as the beginning of all things; and in the beginning it was ‘Black’ before the beginning. There was ‘Black’ before there was light in the whole universe. There is ‘Black’ inside the womb before the child is born. ‘Black’ is not the opposite of white; it is a state of being. We come from this womb. We come from this planet enveloped by ‘Black.’ 06

Tambellini’s statement allows for a reading of his work as driven by the search for connections between disparate historical periods, cultural and political contexts, which cross space and place, yet remain engaged in a discourse of radical Black politics. For Tambellini, film and particularly montage have provided a way to refrain from questions of representing Black life in favour of creating a more free, more speculative constellation of elements and ideas. Loosely connected to the developing Black Arts Movement, Tambellini made politically engaged work that responded to the social position of African Americans. Through his interest in abstraction, he ensured that his freewheeling free associations were grounded in a discourse of Blackness. His formal approach at times mimicked elements of jazz traditions by reflecting seemingly improvisational approaches. His work entered discussions with his contemporaries from various fields of artistic practice including poetry, music and theatre, underlining his contribution to and influence by Black artistic practice and critical thought.

For example, Tambellini was among those invited to take part in a 1967 roundtable organised by the journal artscanada, which sought to address ‘black’ ‘as spatial concept, symbol, paint quality; the social-political implications of black; black as stasis, negation, nothingness and black as change, impermanence and potentiality’. 07 Michael Snow, Cecil Taylor, Ad Reinhardt, Arnold Rockman, Stuart Broomer and Harvey Cowan also contributed. 08 Of those invited, all were male and all except for the jazz musician, Cecil Taylor, were white. As the only Black person in the discussion, Taylor was especially keen to address this question in purely social-political terms, expressing that for him, black only existed in relation to Black Power and the civil rights movement. Taylor, in relation to art, again highlights the structures of racism that had seen African American involvement in important movements overlooked and marginalised and would state that:

The black artists have been in existence. Black – the black way of life – is an integral part of the American experience – the dance, for instance, the slop, Lindy hop, applejack, Watusi. Or the language, the spirit of the black in the language – ‘hip,’ ‘Daddy,’ ‘crazy,’ and what’s happening, ‘dig.’ These are manifestations of black energy, of black power, if you will. 09

Taylor’s statement here clashes against what art and radical pedagogy writer Krys Verrall calls the organisers’ commitment to a universalism relating to the blackness that attempts to downplay Taylor’s racial specificity: ‘Far from influencing the overall understanding of black in the issue, Taylor has the sole task of carrying the Black-as-racial torch, correspondingly indexed by his sole Black body on the panel.’ 10

In another section of the conversation in which Taylor and painter Ad Reinhardt disagree on the centrality of a socio-cultural and emotive understanding of blackness, Taylor states:

Don’t you understand that what artists do depends on the time they have to do it in, and the time they have to do it in depends upon the amount of economic sustenance which allows them to do it? You have to come down to the reality. Artists just don’t work, you know, just like that – the kind of work, the nature of their involvement is not separate from the nature of their existence, and you have to come down to the nature of their existence. For instance, if they decide to go into the realm of fine art, there are certain prerequisites that they must have. 11

Here, Taylor re-emphasises the importance of place and a socially informed artist practice, in relation to engaging with the question of Blackness and a political aesthetic. Tambellini’s own thoughts are linked to the omnipotence of black, which doesn’t centre around questions of race. Yet his pluralist approach seems to borrow from the work of contemporaries like Reed or Taylor and reinterpret their engagements with poetry and music into an equally elusive cosmology of blackness, particularly through his Black Film Series, which also points to the role of improvisation and chance and which, despite the labour involved in his work with celluloid, retains a sense of chaotic energy as images and sounds compete for attention and legibility. Evoking traditions in Black music, whether it be jazz, blues or even more contemporary manifestations where chance plays off against something more permanent and repetitive – be it John Coltrane improvising within scales or the late rapper MF Doom’s free-form rhyming over loops – this contrast between the permanent and the pluralistic is at the heart of Tambellini’s work, and despite his interest in universalism, there retains a material engagement both through the celluloid object and the presence of the tradition of Black Arts.

Jesse A. Fernandez, Ad Reinhardt and Cecil Taylor in roundtable discussion organised by artscanada, August 16,1967. Courtesy Estate of Jesse A. Fernandez / Collection France Mazin Fernandez, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France

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