When it comes to the life and work of Tony Conrad, who died in 2016 after a career spanning six decades, it's difficult to know where to start.
There's Tony Conrad the musical genius. Tony Conrad the pioneer of structural film. Tony Conrad the teacher. Tony Conrad the cult hero.
Later this spring, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the University at Buffalo Art Galleries are teaming up to mount a retrospective that will attempt to introduce audiences to his vast and variegated bodies of work and trace his impact on culture.
In the meantime, Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center opens a small exhibition of work drawn from its collection called "Tony Conrad @ Hallwalls."
For Hallwalls curator John Massier, the art world is only beginning to reckon with Conrad's work and impact. And this show, the first drawn entirely from Hallwalls' archives, is meant to act as as a teaser to that long process of posthumous recognition and celebration.
"No matter what gets put into the bigger show at the Albright, we are probably just at the beginning of what will end up being decades of consideration of his work," Massier said. "We're starting to scratch the surface. Our little show here is going to be a scratching of a scratching of the surface."
The show features Conrad's musical performances across several decades, including an improvisational piano piece from 1979 and a 2006 performance with the Open String Ensemble in Asbury Hall. Viewers also will encounter figments and fragments of Conrad's career, each of which could act as an entry point into other aspects of his work.
"He's one of those artists that it's almost impossible to find the end point of because once you plunge in one rabbit hole, it takes you into another," Massier said. "It's still like this tiny representation of him because he was so prolific. Hopefully, the uninitiated will be provoked by something in here."
That point of provocation could be the echoing sounds of Conrad's piano piece, a snippet of the hours-long improvisation sessions he conducted at Hallwalls over two weeks in 1979. Or it could be the hypnotic and dissonant drone of his 2006 performance, which Massier described as both avant-garde and accessible.
The unusual variety of Conrad's output presents challenges for curators attempting to translate the artist's intellect and contributions into a package audiences can digest.
But Massier, who marveled at the fact that Conrad has created peerless masterpieces of visual art such as his "Yellow Movie" piece in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and low-brow installations at local fundraisers, is happy to take the first step.
The "Yellow Movie" piece, Massier said, is "epic in its concept, in its execution, in its historical importance, and yet I remember going to a Squeaky Wheel event at the Lenox Hotel, and there was Tony Conrad in this little room putting temporary tattoos on people."
"The gulf between those things is ridiculous, that one man could contain that kind of vastness. Whatever we're doing now is peeling the first layer off the onion. But it's a big onion, and it's going to take decades."
"Tony Conrad @ Hallwalls" opens with a reception at 8 p.m. Jan. 12 and runs through March 2. Admission is free. Call 854-1694 or visit hallwalls.org.