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Tony Conrad, avant garde pioneer and UB professor, dies at 76

For a generation of musicians and filmmakers in Buffalo and around the world, Tony Conrad was the walking embodiment of the avant garde.

Mr. Conrad, who died Saturday morning in Hospice Buffalo, Cheektowaga, at 76 after fighting prostate cancer, began his career as an underground musician and filmmaker and ended it as an internationally idolized composer, performer, professor and thinker.

He served as a widely admired faculty member of the University at Buffalo’s media study department from 1976 until his death, during which time he was instrumental in the formation of Squeaky Wheel Media Arts Center, the growth of Buffalo’s cable access network and countless exhibitions, collectives and collaborations on city streets, cable channels and in institutions across the region.

Despite a diverse career that significantly impacted the lives of thousands of students, as well as the trajectory of visual art and music in the United States and far beyond, Mr. Conrad is perhaps best-known for inspiring the name of influential rock band The Velvet Underground when he was getting his start as an artist in New York City.

“In retrospect,” said Buffalo artist and writer Ron Ehmke, “that’s like saying Bob Dylan is the guy who sang when he was about 20 on a Harry Belafonte record, or Ezra Pound is the guy who edited Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land.’ ”

Anthony S. Conrad was born March 7, 1940, in Concord, N.H. He earned a degree in mathematics from Harvard University in 1962 before moving to New York City and beginning his career as an experimental musician, composer and filmmaker. During his time in New York, he collaborated with musicians John Cale, LaMonte Young and others in a loose collective known as the Theatre of Eternal Music and later as the Dream Syndicate, whose work would spawn and influence several new genres of music, including drone, minimalism, punk and electronica.

Mr. Conrad’s 1965 film “The Flicker” is widely considered a seminal piece of structuralist film. He continued as an under-the-radar filmmaker and sometime performance artist in the 1970s, when, according to the Burchfield Penney Art Center, he got his first teaching position at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He moved to Buffalo in 1976 to join the University at Buffalo’s wildly experimental media study department.

“The groundbreaking work he did certainly influenced me in terms of what cinema could be,” said Lawrence Brose, the Buffalo filmmaker and former CEPA Gallery director who credits Mr. Conrad as a major influence. “This was taking cinema to a level of its own language, moving it beyond the influence of early cinema’s dependence on theater as its grounding. It’s about pure cinema.”

After Mr. Conrad’s pioneering work, he added, “the doors just flew open into a whole new way of thinking about what cinema could be.”

Mr. Conrad, through his work with the 8 Millimeter News Collective and Squeaky Wheel, also was an early proponent of video access at a time long before ubiquitous camera phones and widespread Internet access.

Tony Conrad in the 1990s, via

Tony Conrad in the 1990s, via

“We have to construct our world here in Buffalo,” Mr. Conrad told The News in 1991. “We don’t have to buy the story we get from New York, or the story constructed by our own media here in Buffalo.”

It was only later in his career, following a renewed interest in Mr. Conrad’s work from the 1960s and his 1990s music projects and performances, that he rose beyond cult-figure status in the international music community.

On Saturday afternoon, Twitter was a testament to his wide renown, as dozens of tributes came in from musicians, artists, publications including Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, and former students around the globe.

One of those students, Cayden Mak, remembered Mr. Conrad as “a towering artist and also the best kind of educator: challenging, thoughtful, playful, weird.”

He is survived by his wife, Paige Sarlin, and a son, Ted Conrad of Buffalo.

A previously planned celebration of his career, timed to coincide with his retirement from UB, is scheduled for May 2 in the UB Center for the Arts. Other memorials and arrangements are being planned.


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