A Tribute to Aldo Tambellini
Aldo Tambellini, a pioneer in electronic intermedia, video art, collaborative, political, and social art, a painter, sculptor, light artist, poet, and avant-garde theater and performance art “impresario” died at the age of 90, on November 12, 2020. He touched many people’s lives with his profound work and his generous heart.
This is a tribute to “the Primitive of a New Era,” “[probably] the most fervent establishment rejectionist that ever existed,” and “the idealist [who] wanted to work towards creating a new world.”
As Dick Higgins wrote:
“Part of the reason that Duchamp's objects are fascinating while Picasso’s voice is fading is that the Duchamp pieces are truly between media, between sculpture and something else, while a Picasso is readily classifiable as a painted ornament.” — Higgins, (Intermedia, 1965 Leonardo, vol. 34, No. 1, p. 49)
Your work will never fade, Aldo! In fact, it has only just begun to be truly visible.
For anyone who’d like to add their experiences, thoughts, or stories, please get in touch with us (Heide Hatry or the Aldo Tambellini Foundation), as we will be publishing a separate Gedenkschrift in book form for Aldo during the coming year.
there is no opportune time for love
it possesses your being
transforms you right where and
when you are
simple mundane things become
expressions of love.
After several nights of telephone conversations that went well into the morning, I decided to invite myself to Cambridge with a promise to prepare a multi-course Italian dinner that would serve to seal my reputation as a cook. Aldo had invited Askia Touré, long time best friend from his days in New York and his involvement with the UMBRA poets, and Susan, who had worked her magic to finally connect the two of us. It was a clear summer night in August, a full moon peered through the windows of the community room Aldo had reserved. I served each course while making social conversation. The meal was a success, adding memory to palate; it went straight to the heart of one person, Aldo. I had a tape playing of Pablo Neruda’s poems in Spanish. I was unaware that both Askia and Aldo were active poets. Askia asked if I could translate as Neruda read, which I did willingly, happy to show my proficiency in Spanish. During our dinner conversation Aldo spoke about WWII with such pain, his survival of the air raid that destroyed his neighborhood and killed 21 of his neighbors. The fear of the Nazis taking over the farm where they had sought refuge increased his mother’s paranoia, as she became what he called “collateral damage of the war.” Later she was hospitalized in a mental institution never to be the same; never to recognize her own adored Aldo again.
(THE EMPATHY TEST: I passed.)
The second test was politics. Aldo stood next to me to read a long poem, which was graphic, included profanity, and which hurled criticism at politicians, admonishing the country for not caring for its people. He finished with an explicative, looked straight into my eyes and said, “So, what do you think?” I scrambled for courage and said I agreed with him 100 percent; I might not have used such language although it got to the point with speed and clarity.
(THE POLITICAL TEST: I passed.)
a breath in the middle of the night
caught by your exposed cheek
a smile in the middle of the day
reflecting the smile you have on your face
The evening passed rather quickly and since we had plans for the next day, we decided to part. Aldo walked me to the parking lot. Probably, as planned, Askia and Susan lagged behind. Halfway to my car, he reached for my hand, just as natural as if we had taken hundreds of walks before. My hand started to tremble as though it were running millions of synapses fired upon contact. I traveled to a time long ago and quickly returned. I was confused, felt lightheaded, and feared that I would pass out. He transmitted more strength to me by squeezing it more and told me to be calm, “Just hold my hand.” I started to sing in my head, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles, a song from my younger years that served to take my mind off of what I was experiencing. I also concentrated on how soft his hand was. How could someone have such soft skin? No dishwashing? No hard labor? Of course, I answered myself, he was a literary being, never worked with tools except his pen and typewriter, of course, his skin would be so soft!
the source of energy flowing from one to the other
using all messaging channels to communicate.
no matter the distance between us
thoughts transmitted without words
words not heard nor read but understood
glances that spoke of eternity,
agreements sealed without discussions
expressions grasping meanings in a flash
touches decoding histories from skin
I returned the next day to find Aldo ready to talk about anything, everything. What unfolded before me was a life full of art, rejection, violence, destruction, loss, and abandonment. The agitation, fear, marginalization, and anger were very palpable as he spoke. I felt angry at that moment. I had heard so much of this language used by people who were marginalized, not given an opportunity to flourish. Was Aldo yet another Italian American who never got his due credit? He then explained the numerous copy paper boxes that lined his apartment walls three layers deep, now filled with his life’s belongings; clothes bought at Goodwill to accommodate all weather conditions and sizes; newspaper clippings and magazines that covered all of his interests, science, space travel, new trends in culture, art, videos, and photographs; far too many things to mention—his whole life in boxes. I stayed an extra night. This time I had to first navigate to a futon up against the bedroom wall through more boxes and odd pieces of furniture, and encounter a bathroom where the toilet, as if by remote command, would bubble up white suds, regurgitating enough to fill half of the apartment and send you running for towels. He had put pallets down with sponges underneath to absorb the suds but never to stop the overflow. He had done all kinds of research and called numerous plumbers; but no one had an answer.
(THE TOLERANCE TEST: I passed.)
the morning rustling of the bedding
untangles our body parts
two bodies with sleep in their eyes
and unending passion
we sleep with our hands still holding each other
if I turn you slither your arm under mine
to find my hand again to hold
Within two weeks I moved in with Aldo and his boxes. Holding hands became a ritual that we would perform under different circumstances: When we seriously had to plan something; when we returned to our senses from major blow-ups; when we wanted to say “sorry” but could not mouth the word; when I left on a trip and after shutting my car door and unrolling my window I would say, “Tambellini, I love you,” and Aldo without a word, yet speaking volumes, would simply squeeze my hand. The hand connection was sealed as a ritual when Aldo was rushed to the hospital; his aorta had split open, he was in critical condition, given 72 hours to see if his body would survive the trauma. There was no surgery that could be performed—it would take a miracle. I went to his right side and found a hand and arm full of needles and connected to various machines. I slowly slipped my hand under his and again we held hands only this time I was providing the life force; I prayed to God to transfer some of my years of life to him.
Right: Our pasts and futures are locked in our hands. November 12, 2020. Photo: Marissa Sneed.
From that moment it was an in-and-out-of-hospital life. The revolving door held many scary moments for Aldo, but he was never more determined to work and complete all that he had pending. He took on minor things and major events and performances. We changed diet, changed supplements, and he seemed to keep going. The end was not immediate but it did come in 2020. Circumstances made recovery difficult and after a very successful operation, COVID forced hospitals to keep visitors out. I was not able to care for Aldo the way I wanted to; Aldo refused to go on without my presence. Infections took over his body. They ravaged his strength, his appetite, his functions, and tried to separate us. I held his hand tightly till the day a force greater than I said, “LET HIM GO.”
and I lived in immense fear
that always needed to be suppressed
that these are but precious fleeting moments
which are finite in this world
but etched into infinity
UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN MY DARLING,
I met Aldo at the opening reception for my exhibition, SKIN, in October of 2006 at Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge, MA. At that time, I had been a full-time artist for only three years, and this was my first solo show (which would subsequently travel to several cities and was accompanied by my first book.)
This old guy (he was only 76 back then, but time had obviously been hard on him) took me aside and regaled me with such flattering praise that I looked around to see whether this was some sort of hidden-camera prank.
Things like: “America needs artists like you; you’re a force of nature; such bold ideas”; and, “I like it that the work doesn’t look like it was made by someone who looks like you.” Then he laughed, couldn’t stop laughing for a while, and I thought: ok, he got me, I’m an idiot. But he continued: “and so hilariously funny.” At that moment, I felt understood, and I thought: sad that he won’t be around for much longer.
We started a conversation that night that I never expected would turn into a 14-year-long friendship driven by art. He told me that he was an artist, too, but that almost all of his work had been lost. I can still feel the stab in my heart when I heard that. To imagine that everything he had created was just gone summoned an uncanny dizziness. I felt the pain of his wasted life, of those electric moments of inspiration and the hours absorbed in the joy of creation evaporating into nothing. I have rarely felt such profound sympathy and sadness for another human being. The experience he described seemed as futile as the suicide of Juliet.
A few years later, having now intimately understood the weight of his sorrow, I was so fortunate as to witness the recovery of his work and how both he and it came back to life. It was an incredible experience, as if time released its grip on him and as if the work now, come to light, bore none of the spiritual wear to which art is inevitably subject.
I was shocked when I saw it, so pure and angry and sublime. I was especially taken by his black cardboard “Destruction” series and felt the immense aggression against fascism, racism, and all kinds of injustice, not to mention the simple frustration of our bondage in space and time, pouring out of that work.
I even dreamed about it: I had climbed down the very steep and narrow staircase into my grandfather’s pitch-black basement underneath his barn, where I expected him to teach me how to skin rabbits, but there I found Aldo instead, sitting hunched forward in his chair. A huge pile of pre-cut cardboard sheets lay on the floor to his left. He took one in his lap and stabbed it with a screwdriver like a maniac until the cardboard was more holes than substance, and then put it on the pile to his right. I watched and thought: he’s visualizing pain—how brilliant! And when I woke up, I could never help but see the work in the same way as I had in the dream.
It’s hard to express how happy I was when he finally began to receive the wider recognition he so obviously deserved, late in coming though it was. And it was only with the magnificent exhibition, Black Matters, initiated by the brilliant Peter Weibel and curated by Pia Bolognesi and Giulio Bursi in cooperation with the ZKM (Center for Art and Media) in Karlsruhe in 2017, that I really understood just how pioneering and wide-ranging his work actually was, at least in part due to the amazing, eye-opening tour of the show that Peter gave me and Hannah Monyer when we visited.
Beside the ineffable gift of his work and his personal generosity towards me, I have learned in organizing this tribute that Aldo’s encouragement of fellow artists with whom he felt an affinity was unselfish and unbounded—he always believed that art created community and that the community of artists was the greatest strength of art itself. I’m sure that many others who felt as discouraged or as invisible, he often must have during his life, were given new purpose by his enthusiasm for their work. His laughter alone conveyed a camaraderie so perfect and sincere that words could not approach it. Whenever I visited him, I felt as if I’d been on a long retreat, restored, full of energy and inspiration, and anxious to push my work beyond my own boundaries.
Aldo loved to collaborate as much as I do and frequently asked me for images of my work, for which he would then write a poem and send it back to me, recalling, to my mind, the illustrated Einblattdrucke of the 18th Century—precursor to the modern poetry broadside—of which I am such a devotee; and I would, in turn, use his poems to make unique artist’s books. Collaboration is obviously one of the crucial components of Aldo’s life-long art practice, but I’m not sure how aware many of us are that he continued with that right up until very close to his death.
You were not only a great artist, but a great example, Aldo, and I am deeply grateful to have known you.
I’d like to say one further thing about art and community. Given Aldo’s particular and painful life experience, to have witnessed the selfless commitment of others to his art made a profound impression on me. There were others, of course, but I especially want to acknowledge John Wronoski and Anna Salamone!
John believed in Aldo at a time when almost nobody did, or even remembered that he existed, and he didn’t hesitate to put enormous effort and determination into making his work visible again. He curated his first exhibitions following decades of obscurity and selflessly helped others to continue with that effort.
And Anna gave her life to Aldo and his work, so entirely that she sacrificed her own health, resources, and interests to ensure that he wouldn’t be forgotten. What she has achieved is actually a miracle, and I always think that if every artist had an Anna with whom to collaborate, and I mean that in the profoundest possible sense, this would be a very different world. Thank you, John and Anna.
Aldo Tambellini was a visionary artist and activist. I was inspired by his use of light and transparency in his projected film works. His insight into the importance of technology and its effect on human nature is eerily current. In 1962 he said,
“I believe this era demands an understanding of the “instantaneous”; the ability to communicate at the speed of light; the development of organic concepts to bring man closer to the forces of nature—a new orientation of the senses. The technological world is merging with our daily life. The future demands a realistic approach based on energy demanding new solutions.”
He was an activist and supported civil rights, Black rights, and artists working at the edge. His poetry recounted his past and his present, yet his art looked to the future. He was one of the earliest proponents of utilizing multimedia, interchanging sculpture, poetry, film, video while drawing, scratching and painting directly onto 16 mm film and slides. I found the deep black and transparent white images that he created sublime and beautiful. His passion for science and activism informed his work and created a poignant dialogue between art and science.
It will probably not be until the year 3000 when the true impact and influence of artist Aldo Tambellini’s work will be understood in anything near its completeness.
In 1968, a year after I had washed up on the shores of the East Village, then still called the Lower East Side, a neon sign sat high above 2nd Avenue and Tenth Street, across from St. Mark’s and the Poetry Project, announcing Tambellini’s Gate. The first performance I attended there was Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company’s Turds in Hell. In that hallowed space, Aldo gave a home to and was embedded with an orchestra of diverse artists. There he worked on his first large space-age oriented works and then incorporated large-scale Lumagram projections into collaborative performance events with dancers, musicians, and in collaboration with the Umbra Poets, a group of Black poets and activists with whom he met regularly and where the political found wings on the artistic, one of the first artists to publicly and consciously fight against Black oppression in his work.
“Black is the expansion of consciousness in all directions,” he said in 1967. “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.”
Poet, filmmaker, sculptor, philosopher, activist, and painter, Aldo rode the crest of the wave of modern art, and when you hear that vague term multimedia spoken, you should hear his name. In a career spanning over 60 years we do not yet understand how Aldo, his shoulder at the wheel of art, steered us to the future, never abandoning the lineage and legacy of the past. In 1976 he was made a fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and stayed there through 1984, influencing and directing the attention of those who would enter into the very fabric of our everyday lives, bringing slow scan to MIT. Always prescient, Aldo began investigating the impact of telecommunications in our changing society with a network of like minded artists, performers, technicians, and engineers in 1983 with Communicationsphere. There is no use to trot out that tired trope of the society that does not recognize its geniuses—yet Europe and Britain did recognize Tambellini way ahead of what is yet to come for Aldo in the US. But what is indisputable is the impact, influence, and inspiration that Aldo Tambellini bestowed on everyone who crossed his path. We are lucky to have his partner and collaborator of many years Anna Salamone and her long devotion to Aldo’s art to make certain that his vast archive and artworks are made available to future generations. Vale Aldo Tambellini—now you are one with the immortals.
Pia Bolognesi & Giulio Bursi (Atelier Impopulaire)
Before meeting Aldo in person we had only heard of that mysterious artist who marked the history of multimedia art, the Italian American who shook the underground scene of New York in the ’60s.
We were prepared to encounter a vigorous man, a fury, a straightforward uncompromising figure. When we started our collaboration and finally had the chance to really know him, we discovered instead a poetic spirit, a caring and gentle soul, his generosity and his tenderness.
The first time we went to visit him more than 10 years ago, we arrived from Tuscany, the place where he was born, and his partner Anna heroically drove from Boston to pick us up. We met in his Lower East Side and, like it was a sign, New York was blanketed by a blizzard. We traveled through a starless night to reach him at his place in Cambridge the morning after. That night we remember vividly his presence was all over and we thought that feeling was one of the many manifestations of his Black, a Black that later became so familiar and accompanies us today in its richness of meanings.
During the time of our friendship we had many precious endless conversations, he made us laugh, made us listen, emphasized work—work, and more work in every possible time zone—and we were amazed how all this time spent together would have us feel that we belonged to a family.
These last months, in a year that has been brutally surreal, his presence never left, as if Aldo created a growing cell around us to be suspended in space and look for something bigger than ourselves.
“It is from blackness that we begin to be re-sensitized. For blackness is like the womb where light was first felt, perceived, but, not yet seen,” he wrote from a different era, whether it was the past or the future, we are sure he is still catching that light.
Melissa Rachleff Burtt
Aldo Tambellini’s World
In 2013 I was researching the history of artist-run galleries active in downtown New York during the 1950s and early 1960s when it was recommended that I look into artist Aldo Tambellini. He had been active on the Lower East Side during the timeframe. The only way to research Aldo was to contact him (and Anna Salamone, his extraordinary partner). That’s how I found myself in Salem, Massachusetts one winter weekend, where I immersed myself in Aldo’s archive. I listened to audio recordings of events and radio programs he produced in the 1960s, viewed drawings, paintings, and sculptures—artwork Anna had rescued from a storage space, a miraculous tale in its own right. As I fell under Aldo’s spell, I had a worry. There wasn’t a gallery at the heart of the material—though later Aldo founded the Gate Theater in the East Village, one of New York’s first experimental media spaces—but he had to be part of my project. Aldo’s work catalyzed people historically marginalized from the arts, from the Umbra poets to neighborhood kids; his was an art of collaboration. This method was married to Aldo’s utopian belief that in outer space we would discover the material of our being, our consciousness without social class; no race, no gender—none of the things that separate us on Earth. In space everything is black, a deep, rich blackness that envelopes everything. No other artist or artist gallery thought this way. Aldo’s ideas were distinct in another way: he did everything as part of a collaboration. This meant getting his artwork out of galleries and onto the streets. He also sought out priests and pastors—not necessarily progressive—as venues for artists to present talks and programs to parishioners. Art was for the people, not for the elite. At his studio in a storefront at 217 East Second Street, Aldo left the door open for the neighborhood to visit. There are photographs of children playing on top of Aldo’s plaster cast “junk” sculptures, which looked like they were carved from the moon, in an impromptu sculpture park he set up in an empty lot.
Aldo also made hundreds of gestural, thick, black drawings made from Duco and acrylic, spirals approximating planets. “We are the primitives of a new era,” Aldo wrote on one. And glass plate slides of invented suns and moons—“lumagrams” he called them—hand-painted by Aldo. “What did he do with the slides?” I asked Anna, who was leading me through a warehouse, where everything was being catalogued and conserved. “He projected them,” she told me, onto buildings near his studio. The neighborhood would come out to watch.
I finally met Aldo, and we spoke for hours—but not about New York. Aldo spoke of his childhood in Lucca, in the Tuscany region, during the 1930s and 1940s. When the Allies began the campaign to oust the Nazis in 1944, Aldo, along with his neighbors, were sent flying after bombs were dropped near his building. Not everyone survived; everything was reduced to rubble. The force of the explosion stayed with Aldo forever: the experience of being hurled through space, the body having no power over its destination. Later, when the region was liberated by African American troops, Aldo found heroes. But when Aldo moved to the US right after the war, he was horrified by how America treated people of color. “I found connection with other disenfranchised people,” Aldo told me. These experiences were at the root of everything Aldo did as an adult in America.
In 1963 Aldo started The Center, sometimes called Group Center, another world where artists who felt as he did planned projects. They didn’t have a space; they didn’t need one. They believed art had to, in Aldo’s words, “bypass the establishment and have the artists themselves go directly to the public.” Aldo told me, “We were idealists, we wanted to work towards creating a new world.” Just how far ahead was Aldo from everyone else downtown? About a decade at least. Aldo did not believe the artist galleries just a few blocks away from his studio held any interest for the people in the community. Sure, artists lived and worked throughout the Lower East Side, but the vast majority of the residents were working class, many newly arrived from Puerto Rico, and like Aldo, navigated a city entrenched in social separation. Aldo set about to change that. He laid the foundation for collaboration based on humanist values and invented an example for everyone else.
I was only eight years old when I met Aldo, the partner of my great-aunt Anna. At the time, I attended a small private school in Connecticut that held art class once a week, and while I always looked forward to it, I had never considered that there were people in the grown-up world who dedicated their life to art. But Aldo was unlike anyone I had ever met. He lived and breathed his art, and he encouraged me to do the same. During my visit with Aldo, he not only shared his mixed media art, poetry, and art books with me, but he gathered his art supplies and together, we drew. From that day forward, I had a constant supporter in Aldo, who loudly and proudly told everyone in my family, “Maggie is an artist!”
I was invited to play a role in Aldo’s art as well. In 2009, at age 17, I had the honor of performing in Aldo’s Black Zero, re-staged in its original form for the first time in 41 years. I became a part of Aldo’s world, and as Aldo had predicted, my art became my world. Starting that next year, I was going to begin my college education at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. I learned the power of expressing myself through my chosen art form of garment design, and creating these garments was my passion. Every step of the way, Aldo was delighted to see everything I made. He told me I was creating wearable art. He knew what it took to follow a dream, and he had believed in mine since I was a child.
Aldo and I connected over our art. Any time we spoke, he wanted to know what I was working on and where I was finding inspiration. Through all my years in school, my travels, and, eventually, my move to Los Angeles, Aldo listened to my stories with pride and enthusiasm, and I was proud of him as well. Anna and Aldo always shared updates of galleries all over the world exhibiting Aldo’s art. In 2018, I went to London and got to see Aldo’s art at the Tate Modern. Standing amongst Aldo’s art and the people admiring his work, I understood completely that Aldo had been a source of inspiration for so many throughout his life. Not only to those who knew him personally, but also to those who knew him through seeing and experiencing his art. Today, I am a member of the Local 705 Motion Picture Costumers Union, and I create costumes for film productions and special events in Los Angeles. I carry the bond that Aldo and I shared in my heart, and will be forever grateful for what his encouragement helped me pursue.
Aldo and Jim
When I met Aldo in the early ’90s, I knew nothing of his legacy as a legendary sculptor, filmmaker, and painter; he never mentioned any of that. We met as poets—we were among a cast of characters who would read weekly at the open mic at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The first time we met, I told him I really liked his poetry—it was intense, powerful, and uncompromising. We became fast friends. Aldo stood out from the other open mic poets with his sense of outrage and the starkness and intensity of the images in his work. His poems were unflinching and raw; there was a fire in his eyes as he read, and that fire consumed the poem in the crackling burst of his words, words sometimes blurred by his heavy Italian accent and rapid-fire delivery. In those days, one of his hopes was to be the featured reader at the Cantab, an honor he never received. Even years later, when he had received so many international accolades for his art, he still was incensed that he was never given a feature at the Cantab, cursing the name of the slam poet host who had denied him the opportunity. He was also constantly outraged by the political situation in the United States, yet his outrage was always cushioned by his buoyant sense of humor and his deep sense of the absurd.
Aldo and I lost touch with each other for several years and, in that time, he was gaining recognition for his art and film work. One night, I attended an opening for Gerard Malanga’s photographs at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Harvard Square. Among Malanga’s portraits of Charles Olson, Patti Smith, and others, I found myself studying a particular portrait of a familiar man in jeans, wearing a kerchief around his neck staring unflinchingly into the camera lens. It hit me and I said out loud, “That’s Aldo.” Not only was it Aldo, but he was standing a few feet from me amongst the crowd. We hugged and vowed to get back in touch, and hopefully to read poetry together again. We ended up reading together in 2012 at the Gloucester Writing Center. Even though his health was failing, he was very focused on getting to the reading from Salem. He gave a stellar reading that night despite the challenges he had to overcome to get himself there. His dedication to his poetry and art was unwavering.
Aldo and Anna became like family to me, my wife, my boys and my dog, Koko. Aldo especially loved Koko and would give him particular attention every time we visited their loft. On occasion, my boys helped Anna with the huge task of organizing Aldo’s artwork, and I would always stop by at the Salem Loft or the Cambridge apartment to catch up and share words and warmth. Even as Aldo’s health began to fail him, he and Anna were always so warm and welcoming. As his work began to garner the attention it deserved, and prestigious galleries around the world began featuring his art, he never changed, nor did he waver in his intense compassion and humble devotion to his poetry and his friends.
The year was 1983 when I walked through the doors of W11 as a graduate student at The Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT (we all called it The Center). The building names were in typically confusing quasi-military numbers and letters. We, as the artists at MIT, saw ourselves as “humanizing technology”—an ambitious task but one that the dynamic work of many there easily aspired to.
I was assigned a storage room for a studio. It was adjacent to the cavernous whitebox performance space called “The Pit.” Next door to me was an outspoken couple, Aldo Tambellini and Sarah Dickinson. Sarah had an infectious cackle of a laugh and smoked like a chimney, but to Aldo, she was a muse. He was a CAVS eminence grise as well as an artist/activist/gadfly/curmudgeon, a father of video art and “electromedia” and, like his colleague and my professor, Otto Piene, a sculptor of light and performance.
After Sarah passed away, we lost touch, but Aldo re-appeared in my life when I and a friend visited him in the hospital where he was fighting his long excruciating battle with depression.
His excited storytelling would highlight his early exposure to the inequities and random cruelties of life when, as a teenager in Lucca, Italy, he leaned his bicycle against his apartment building and seconds later was on the ground covered in glass. When his eyes re-opened everything he knew had been erased by an errant bomb from an American B-23 bomber. The disaster colored everything he would do, and that color was black. It was a color of immensity, and connected him to the Universe as well as to the oppressed voice of so many, especially his Black Poet colleagues like Ishmael Reed, Amiri Baraka, and others with whom he would publicly share readings in Cambridge. These were joyous, genuine occasions where all comers were equals and soon to be fed by Aldo and Anna Salamone, his surviving partner.
Aldo’s “we are the primitives of a new era” was generation-defining. It was a prescient sentinel’s instructions on how to live and see the world. With his statement he encapsulated the ellipticity of time, and would re-emerge from his disconsolateness having made something of his own darkness. He taught me that the ability to endure is emblematic of heroic work.
His lumagrams and raw evocative painting on film leader for projected installations culminating at James Cohan Gallery, The Tate, and The Boris Lurie Foundation’s show at the Chelsea Museum stole the stage when they appeared, wowing and re-directing our eyes to a truly great Postmodern purveyor of substance. For Aldo, his late-in-life recognition was in large part due to the huge sacrificing efforts of Anna, and the vision of the late great curator and museum director Joe Ketner III, both for their tireless advocacy and for the love necessary to bring it to fruition.
Whether it was establishing New York’s first experimental theatre, The Black Gate Theatre (with Piene), or working on Communicationsphere (MIT/CAVS’s exploration of artistic use of telecommunications in 1983), I found an iconoclastic polymath as a colleague also pursuing intermedia. Creating friendships from shared beliefs and talents in a time when selfishness of acquisition devoid of meaning dominates—even if there were 30 years between us—is a great personal bond I will always treasure. Unintuitively, I feel he mentored me with hope and a dose of sardonic political reality as a strategy to keep the darkness at bay. For that I am deeply grateful. I suppose mostly I will miss our mutual attempts to crack each other up. Ciao, Aldo.
Elizabeth Goldring Piene
Your heartbeat, your song
Black is tender
Black is rough
Black is the Gate Theater
and you and Otto
in a black, black sea of eye
Black is the Pit at the Center at MIT
Charlotte and Sarah and telecommunications
as far as Australia
Black is the phone gone dead
and your voice in my dreams
Good night, my friend
The last time I saw Aldo in good health was, fittingly, in a movie theater. Aldo was an ardent cinephile with wide-ranging passions but a special love of Italian films. One of the last films he saw at the Harvard Film Archive was Vincere, Marco Bellocchio’s vivid portrait of an ascendant young Mussolini. Outside the theater afterwards Aldo lauded Bellocchio and while speaking with still raw anger about the dark stain and legacy of Italian fascism. The film shook awake sharp memories of his childhood in small town Italy during the Second World War and he began to share stories of the bombings, the scarcity and the fear, stories he had no doubt told time and again before but which still struck with the force of their emotions.
Over the years I had many precious brief encounters with Aldo. I will recall one more, when he and Anna came to our house one night for a post-screening reception. Seated on the sofa, he observed a drawing leaning against the wall, an over-sized portrait of the Mad Hatter made just days before by my then six-year-old son. Using his cane as a pointer, Aldo gave an animated critique of the drawing by tracing the propulsive force of the lines that cut across the large paper canvas. It was moving to understand the depth of Aldo’s devotion to the creative force and its unique powers, however humble its individual expressions or intentions. That night my son’s drawing was transformed from a classroom exercise I had kept with parental pride into a work of art that deserved the frame with which it hangs now in our home, reminding me of Aldo’s generosity and vision.
Aldo was a visionary and a voyager whose work took us to the moon, and far beyond, while never losing vital contact with this imperiled planet where we continue to spiral and stumble, looking for a guiding star.
The screen pulsed with an inky black energy from which bolts, scratches, and flashes of light flickered. With Aldo Tambellini and Anna Salamone, I watched newly restored prints of Aldo’s early 16mm films. Never in my 45 years of engagement with film and video had I experienced these works. As my spirit marveled at their ethereal, sensual, visceral vitality, my critical mind wondered how these luminous gems had been kept from view for so long.
I had known of Aldo’s work since the late 1960s. We first met in 1974 when Aldo was among the first artists to show at Anthology Film Archives’s nascent Video Program, where I worked with Shigeko Kubota. Aldo showed Black TV (1968) and a three-monitor version of Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn (1971). Some eight years later, when I had assumed curatorship of Anthology Video, I worked with Aldo to “preserve” Black TV, remastering his half inch tape to U-Matic. We would not meet again until 2010.
In Aldo’s small, cluttered Cambridge apartment, a small folding table for my keyboard, the laptop askance so Aldo and I could both see, we revived the films. Tapping frame by frame through galaxies of handmade bursts of blackness, gleaning sequences of rhythmic urgency, eliding segments of gray, rearranging metrics, we prepared We are the Primitives of a New Era for the James Cohan Gallery. When not conspiring over cuts, Aldo would regale me with a mind-made associative montage of reveries, jokes, and reflections on humankind’s affinity with the cosmos; on war criminals Dick Cheney, Mussolini, and George W. Bush; on his attachments to Italy, Brazil, Syracuse, and the Lower East Side; on his poetry.
In this final decade of Aldo’s life, we worked regularly, in a milieu of friendship and creation, editing, reimagining, and sculpting his film and video work, now digital, for new audiences. Even as his body began to fail, Aldo’s creativity and critical acuity never faltered. Our friendship remained grounded in serious attention to editing, albeit in a ruminative envelope of memory, social critique, and wit.
Throughout my years in the film/video art world, I’d heard inklings and rumors about Aldo. He would share with me tales of his contentious relations with a scene for which he had a scathing critique. Among the most brilliant, prolific, and original talents of his generation, he was ignored by those in power. The Aldo that I came to know was infinitely complex. He had a sharp and incisive intelligence, an uncompromising stubbornness, decades of hurt and anger, a deep wellspring of generosity, profound empathy for the disenfranchised, a fragile vulnerability, a sentimentality (that I suspect he would gruffly deny), a cosmic embrace of blackness in all its ramifications, and an indomitable, biting, and wise sense of humor.
The late recognition of Aldo’s genius would not have been possible had Anna Salamone not entered Aldo’s life. With love, tenacity, and irrepressible drive and assurance, Anna salvaged his life’s work and rebooted his career.
I last saw Aldo in March of 2020, just as the pandemic was sweeping in. Throughout the discordance of the election and the miasma of January 6, I longed for Aldo’s commentary and absurdist wit. We shared a love of free jazz. I regret never having the occasion to sit together listening to Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy, and Cecil Taylor. I’m immensely grateful for the time spent with him, and honored to have been part of his life and his work.
Back in the day when we had our Umbra workshop meeting at an apartment on East 2nd Street off of Avenue C, I began to notice a guy who looked nothing like most of the folks on that street and in that avenue. It was almost a rule that nobody dressed up unless it was a party, a wedding, or a funeral. And towards that end, the fellow who often passed our one stoop window in work clothes often stained or blotched with paint took that to another level. He wore a dark cap most of the time and pants of aged heavy-duty khaki and seldom, if ever, a shirt that carried a name across it. He had an accent in his brief way of talking. The accent I thought was French was Italian, and that is how he took to his native language with the same amount of leverage. He never had a lot to say, it was usually just an invitation to one of his shows
that were at unfamiliar addresses that were nonetheless were rather close. The flyers often had letters and designs that contrasted black and white, almost if they were a team and as it turned out those two colors and lots of light were often major aspects of his presentations. After a while it was just about impossible not to talk with him. He was always passing by and often gave us a flyer and every once in a while a poster. The frequency of his shows and presentations and poetry readings indicated the substantial amount of work he put into every week. Someone from Umbra would always go to one of his events unless it was on a day of our weekly meeting. Calvin Hernton and Aldo began to work on some performance that featured one of Hernton’s new poems along with a light show in a studio Aldo had built in his home. They would wind up doing that piece in a few places in other parts of town. The photos and flyers were dynamic and did a lot to make Calvin Hernton a well-respected poet in that part of the Lower East Side that some called “ghetto,” but who Calvin Hernton and Aldo Tambellini and many others regarded as an inspiration to their work. The quality that came through Aldo was the seriousness with which he approached his work. He was dedicated to his vision and supported that vision with pure unwavering hard work.
“Yesterday astronomers photographed
what could not be seen: a black hole”
–An NPR news commentator
Today some musician or composer shall listen
to music that cannot be heard. Poets will read,
hear what was never written, never heard. Write
or recite what cannot be
scribed, typed. Some chef or household cook will smell
and make a dish that had no aroma and no taste, except
in the mind's nose
and for the taste buds under
the tongue of imagination.
Today a perfumer some place will
create a fragrance that has no smell. Lovers somewhere shall
touch something they never felt before. And in turn
be touched by something never felt before. And artists shall
paint and sculpt something never seen. Just as Africa's Dogon
seers authoritatively fixed the location of a binary star the British
said could not exist because they had not seen it
through the lens of their telescopic pride and superiority.
"Have you ever seen the wind?" Without dust, rain, snow or dirt
in it? Gravity,
the most powerful force in the universe, creates planets,
solar systems, pulls light down into black holes and is
invisible. So should be the gravitas of gravy and this:
astronomers yesterday photographed what had not been
seen, except by visionary artist Aldo Tambellini, who
saw and painted black holes decades ago.
They hang, exhibited in the Tate
near the visionary work of
and Turner's prescient work,
for the insight of our inner eyes
in fancy's galleries inside the little
universes, the museums that are our minds.
for Aldo and Anna
through the lanterna magica darkly
with eyes like those of hurricanes
the painterly poet renders visions
cosmic as black holes
the deep spaces between those
who love hating
those for whom enmity trumps amity
and we the people who work
with whirlwinds we
who by the right leftist light
can see “the king of dreams”
"moral arc" bend
toward the better angels of what is
and what is bound to be:
“ … this little light of mine, i'm gonna let it shine … ”
… any post-Einstein visionary knows
light bends—even ripples—when two neutron stars collide
something scientifically proven for all of us confirmed
by astronomers astrophysicists
just days ago two billion years after
centuries since the Dogon saw it before it could be seen *
and said it was so and so did the painterly poet
the poetic painter who saw and wrote it
after it colored his mind in the studio that was
in his part of infinity a whole
that is beyond whole
of which yes
there are no parts
as surely as all matter was
and always shall be in the universe's only constancy:
from stardust came all that is
all around us
all of everything in us
all that is alive and inanimate
the alchemy of creation that made oceans
out of gases' ashes
blood out of oceans
mothers milk out of love
surrealities beyond understanding that turn
our story book sciences back
into myths poems paintings
because there is no down or up
in the blackness of infinity:
endless backdrop for the stellar whiteness
of all its galaxies' pointillistic suns
which has been silently black-holed
by the author of the poetry book listen
hear its ripples when you read it
the unkind man-made whiteness
of mind can also be rendered pictured without paint
and written without words by such a visionary poet/artist
who has hurricanes' eyes
and can artfully depict the mentality
by using clear lenses of veritas
projects its stark black and white
irrealities' shadowed histories its legacies
even humorously diffuses those tyrannous tones
those non-colors into variously visual
intonations of the truth-telling blues
that are always at the edge of white
even in rough prismatic arctic ice
sheets icebergs even in a glass
of milk the artist who has lovingly
suffused the earth-toned hues of and
given due inner dimension to those branded
"red-skins," "yellow peril," especially those
jefferson said were covered with "monotonous"
melanin who nearly two centuries later liberated Italy's Lucca
through his lanterna magica
of a mind of a memory of a
dark vision lightly
* The Dogon are an ethnic group in Mali who,
long ago fixed and pointed out the exact location in
the night sky
of an invisible binary star system long before
European telescopes could
make it visible.
from here to there
In 1985 Otto Piene invited me to join the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT as a research Fellow for environmental holography.
But one of my first participative works was a slow-scan transmission—of a performance with Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik—from the pit in the Center’s basement to the phone booth on the first floor of the Center. So close and far away.
A captivating experience.
Later, I met Aldo Tambellini, who introduced me over the long-term to his universe of art and science, poetry and friendship, life and visions:
The timeless cosmic drama
on becoming and ending,
from earth to sky
from sky to earth
of electronic organisms
in vibes and wires
pigments and signals
projections in front
behind the magical gates of screens.
with passioned actions and
longing for peace
emphatic and open
beyond black spirals
The cathedral in Aldo’s Italian hometown of Lucca contains on the portico a circular labyrinth with an incised Latin inscription referring to ancient mythology: “This is the labyrinth built by Dedalus of Crete; all who entered therein were lost, save Theseus, thanks to Ariadne's thread”
Now I do think the thread became for Aldo his creativity in the arts.
And Anna Salamone, his Ariadne.
Aldo! Aldo! Those are the first words I would exclaim when Aldo picked up the phone and those calls started in 2010 around the time of a major exhibit of my work—100 portraits—at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts and carried on for a decade, the last years of our friendship.
Aldo’s a very funny guy. That’s what first drew us together. We know how to laugh and laugh & laugh. He would crack jokes about me that would have me roaring under the table. I gave as good as it got in return. We knew how not to take each other too seriously.
My first inkling of Aldo was through my close friend and photography mentor, Don Snyder, but it would be decades before we’d catch up. We knew of each other to the extent that when we first met in 2004, it was like we’d become old chums before catching up. The day slips my mind—I should know it because it was the day of my marriage with Asako, but the City Hall official required that we go through the process of a 24-hour wait, as if we needed second thoughts about our futures. When I told Aldo about this, he was astonished, and of course, couldn’t resist jiving me with jokes. That was the day I took him into my backyard in North Williamsburg to make his portrait. Even that turned out to be a series of photo mockeries. Aldo was performing Aldo for Gerard’s camera and that’s when I got the quintessential shot.
Once when we visited the Umberto Boccioni exhibit at the Guggenheim, he wanted me to take his picture beside a giant Boccioni canvas. It was his way of appropriating spiritual kinship with his hero. I had to be nimble and quick about it because a museum guard was lurking in the background ready to pounce. It was Aldo’s way of “seizing the moment,” and I had to seize it as well. One shot, no second chances.
I grew up a first generation Italian American in the Bronx. Fuck the hyphen.
Although Aldo was born somewhere in upstate New York, his formative years were spent in northern Italy during World War II where he nearly lost his life from a US bombing raid. In the mayhem, he lost a few neighborhood buddies who were literally standing nearby. He took a nosedive. It came that close, he told me. His guardian angel was watching over him that day, I told him.
It’s been years and years and decades, even from when he got his masters degree in the fine arts at Syracuse University and where he first met Don Snyder and they’d been tight ever since. (Don passed away in 2010.)
Anna Salamone always considered Aldo and I brothers from the first. He was my big brother. Yeah, we got a lot of laughs over that. Anna has been with Aldo for over 20 years now and after 2010 assumed the role of personal care-taker as well. Anna has been a saint through it all, and if it weren’t for her tender loving care, Aldo’s time on the planet would’ve been shortened by a decade.
Aldo and I have had it all defined by our camaraderie and in the sharing of our art. I have one of his expansive black and white gouache on my wall as a reminder of where we were and what we did together. “This thing of ours,” is our Italian heritage and what binds us in those everlasting hand grips.
Aldo’s art, to me, is a reflection on trauma and a rejection of complacency.
He saw the polarity in human nature and the lack of accountability.
He saw humans bomb and topple his city in WWII.
He saw a regiment of Black American soldiers save his Italian village. Liberators who returned home to a government that asked everything of them, but returned very little because of their Blackness.
He saw that we all came from blackness.
From the blackness in the womb to the subatomic particles in the galaxy, we all came from nothingness—so why the hell aren’t we recognizing the sameness in each other?
He saw that we will love at each other’s hands. Perish at each other’s hands. Fight and reconcile at each other’s hands.
Aldo’s art, to me, is a reflection on trauma and a rejection of complacency.
His art is an act of saving humans from themselves. To rise above the commodified delusions, the numbness of social division, and the starvation of one another.
We lay to rest a keen watcher. A bold artist and poet. And a dear, dear friend.
A Tribute to Aldo—YES—both a friend and a mentor.
I first started working with Aldo in 1963, as we shared both our involvement in Art, and a strong belief in its role as a VITAL and necessary part of a healthy society, especially at that moment when Money was in the ascendancy, and we were reduced to an art of soup cans and comic strips.
Neither Aldo (nor I) ever gave up the struggle against this virulent commodification. Today we have an art of polka dots and metal/balloon sculpture to adorn our TOXIC Environment…
Aldo's loud OPPOSITION is no more…
Perhaps, it would be best to say I remember the Gate Theater, in that it has been probably more than 50 years since I was actually in contact with Aldo Tambellini. Actually, I hadn’t given him, nor his influence on me in all that time, much thought. What brought him back to mind, just a few years before he died, was when Gertrude Stein asked me to write an essay on Boris Lurie and NO!Art. Among many other things, Aldo had been a member of NO!Art. At that time, Chris Schultz, who worked for the Lurie Foundation, tried to organize a reunion—for one reason, or another, it never happened.
The Gate, and then later The Black Gate Theater (and by proxy Aldo) played an important role in my introduction to experimental art. It was the mid ’60s, a period not much talked about—art historically it is under erasure—often represented as an in-between time—the void between Ab Ex and Pop. “In between” is a code for those periods of incubation and discursive debate. Despite the fact “nothing” was dominant—the early to mid ’60s was a very exciting time, with so many different things happening in the margins of the mainstream, it was impossible to keep up with them all.
Among the many things happening in the East Village was Aldo. When I first heard of him, he seemed to be a mythic figure with a finger in all sorts of ventures—not only was he an abstract painter and sculptor, but also poet, performance artist, and avant-garde entrepreneur. I can’t remember if I actually saw any of Aldo’s early ’60s mixed-media performances in which, accompanied by a dancer, jazz, and poetry, he would paint directly onto slides and then run them through a projector—but I definitely knew of them. Later, independent filmmaker and pioneer of electronic intermedia would be added to the list.
But to me, most important among his enterprises was The Gate Theater in the East Village, which, besides presenting happenings and experimental theater once a week, screened underground films (independent cinema). It was there I first saw work by the likes of Jack Smith and the Kuchar brothers, which were mind-blowing, in that they extended my understanding of what was possible. The added bonus of going to the Gate was Aldo seemed to always be around. Being an adventurous student, I would ask him about what was happening in the “counterculture.” But there was more to come. Aldo proved himself to be a visionary when he, with the German-American artist Otto Piene who specialized in kinetic and technology-based art, opened the Black Gate in 1967. This space was unique—it primarily showed electronic-media performances and installations.
Though Aldo’s efforts have gone under-recognized, marginalized by a culture that has no real interest in the experimental, as we enter into the era of such mainstream enterprises as Pace Gallery’s Superblue—an “experiential” art center in Miami, which will present million-dollar digital productions—we stand reminded of how desperately we need figures like Aldo, who at his own expense sought to build a truly forward looking counter-culture.
Sometime in 2005, at 10:55 p.m. I received my first call from Aldo Tambellini.
Aldo responded to a “call for participation” for an edition of Tribes Magazine titled, “Sousveillance.”
Aldo loved the telephone; our first call lasted six hours.
More than a tool to speak with, the telephone was an instrument with which Aldo expressed art.
With the serious, Aldo weaved in the humorous—reflections ranging from the Rumsfeld’s Dadaist war justification: “the known unknowns,” to art stories like Boris Lurie discovering somebody threw out his old refrigerator that had 400,000 dollars in it.
I miss Aldo’s chuckle.
Aldo never worked alone—Anna Salamone always on deck, mapping the Aldo universe.
He called from his apartment; it was filled with posters: Verdi’s Rigoletto, Rossellini’s Germania Anno Zero and Paisà; a radio played jazz and a computer ready to transmit upon Aldo’s command through Anna’s typing.
The Futurist art movement deeply influenced Aldo; he would describe experimental musical instruments built by Luigi Russolo.
Like the Futurists, Aldo demanded change through art, upending established social structure.
Art was/is political expression for Aldo.
In Mussolini’s Italy, Aldo hid in the countryside, a child partisan discovering painting, avoiding mandatory fascist schooling.
Unlike the Futurists, Aldo rejected nationalism and abhorred war.
Aldo had much to say: from Dada to the Situationists, from Ishmael Reed to the Rodney King video, to my collaboration with a blind filmmaker photographing surveillance cameras during the 2004 Republican Convention.
Aldo understood, only as Aldo could understand, why the FBI investigated me.
Aldo and Anna would visit me to conduct poetry readings in front of surveillance cameras.
Dan Georgakas would soon visit; Dan as film critic for Cineaste opened the discussion about surveillance cameras and the rapid technical evolution to shoot back at authority using citizen video/photography with smartphones.
Both artists expressed concern for commodification and consumerism eroding this empowerment of the new media along with escalating narcissism.
Then they discussed Aldo’s film, Inauguration ’81, about Reagan’s accession to the presidency. Aldo described using video inside a TV store and was able to capture subtle details about our society’s values from the many screens.
This in continuation with Black TV and Black Gate Theater, demonstrating his ability to capture the abstract real time of the hidden conflicts within our world; fundamentally turning technology against the oppressor.
In this moment, the collaborative barometer of art made itself manifest, both men began to speak about Donald Trump as a perfect clown for a fascist media circus; in 2005 when I heard this I did not know I was participating in artistic prophecy.
Later that week, we continued reading to surveillance cameras and we would meet up with Boris Lurie.
Boris smoked two packs of cigarettes and spoke about mice eating his paintings. Suddenly the discussion turned from humorous to serious and we spoke about Trump becoming president. Aldo said, “He is just like Mussolini.” Boris spoke of the inevitable triumph of consumerism birthing a Donald Trump presidency with streets filled with authoritative police. He spoke to Aldo how overnight, lifelong neighbors betrayed his family during WWII.
Years later Aldo wrote “HELLO FUTURE.”
April 27, 2017, Cambridge.
It’s Aldo’s birthday and Donald Trump is now president.
Askia Touré describing Aldo, “He was the only white member of the Black Panthers.”
“We didn’t want Aldo at the protests; we worried for Aldo’s safety; you see, he was more radical than us, and we feared someone would just go up and shoot him.”
I will never forget the Aldo Tambellini chuckle!
I have connected to and crossed paths with Aldo Tambellini a number of times over the decades.
My first connection to the artist/poet Aldo Tambellini was through conversations with Boris Lurie. Boris is one of the three creators of the radical art movement NO!art. Boris spoke highly of Aldo. I was intrigued. Working with Boris, in 1994, the Clayton Gallery and Outlaw Art Museum put together the first NYC NO!Art exhibition in 30 years. The last NYC NO!art show was in 1964.
The Clayton Gallery NO!art exhibition was with Boris Lurie, Aldo Tambellini, and Isser Aronovici. The 1964 exhibition: NO POSTERS / ANTI-POP POSTER SHOW | Gertrude Stein Gallery, New York.
Later in 2003 HOWL! Feva (Federation of East Village Artists) started a community art festival. I was invited on board by David Leslie. My position allowed me to curate shows. In 2004 I connected Aldo with HOWL! Festival which led to his screening of his Black anti-film movies at the Pioneer Theater. At this screening he reconnected with the Warhol photographer and poet Gerard Malanga. Later in the day we had a gathering at the Clayton Gallery where Aldo shared some of his political poetry.
In 2005, again with HOWL! I was able to publish the anthology Captured: a Lower East Side film and video history / (conceived and produced by) Clayton Patterson; edited by Paul Bartlett, Urania Mylonas, Clayton Patterson. Published by Seven Stories Press. Foreword by Abel Ferarra. In this book is solid history written by Tambellini, “Aldo: A Syracuse Rebel in New York” (p. 41).
Also in 2005—another important radical artist connection for Aldo—Clayton Gallery and Outlaw Art Museum. Release:
BEN MOREA, of the ’60s group “Up Against the Wall Mother F**ker", "Black Mask", will make a public appearance and will show a short film. It is only his second public appearance in 35 years. August 22, 2005 | opening reception 7 - 10 pm161 Essex Street btwn Houston & Stanton | New York, NY 10002. Open by appointment only after the opening.
Got Aldo and Ben together again. Elsa Rensaa and I videotaped the conversation/interview.
In 2005 Elsa and I put on a Sicily, Italy Cap show produced by Rome Artist Baldo Diodato: To fight the Mafia, bust a cap. In Sicily, Guido Agnello, to develop a local industry, created a factory making the classic Coppola cloth cap, primarily associated with the Mafia. The show was attended by dignitaries from the Italian Embassy. To complement the opening we connected with Angel and Al Orensanz from the Angel Orensanz Foundation. At the Foundation, a news conference and a culture talk between Angel and Guido leading to an Angel show in Palermo. I had invited Aldo so he could reconnect with his art and Italian heritage, as well as introducing Aldo’s manager Anna Salamone. Her uncle had been the mayor of Palermo. Lucien Bistro catered the event.
To get more info on Aldo Tambellini see Dietmar Kirves (Head NO!art East, in Berlin) on the NO!art website. An indispensable resource for much outside the mainstream creative world.
I was honored, humbled, and constantly surprised by the love Aldo felt for me and for all of us.
Both he and Anna had a revolving door of people coming and going, either leaving with soup or bringing in chai.
I was blessed to be welcomed in too. I had “my spot,” a place on Aldo’s smooth temple where I would kiss and leave my lipstick signature. We spoke of concrete poems and Trump, of organic tomatoes and Trump, of films and Trump! We spoke about his family, his dreams and disappointments. We three ate together, sat quietly together, and cried together. At the end, when it was time for him to go, we shared his last rights together.
The impact that knowing him has had on my life is impossible to measure. Nothing will be forgotten. You are imprinted on my soul, Aldo.
Aldo fought his way and forged the road ahead for all of us to have the option to see with real eyes. His poems, films, videos, paintings, and sculptures force us to look and will not release us until we have admitted our failings and vowed to work harder.
You will always be with us, Aldo. The power of your work will never diminish and we will always love you.
Chloe and Io Bella Piene
I remember Aldo from when I was a child. He was another face and person somehow associated with my father. I was too little to really understand what my father did at this building he went to every day—where I often hung around for long hours while he worked: I didn’t know what his work was. Aldo was there. He was friendly and had some Robert Crumb comic books. Some of them were pretty off-color for a kid but I used to pour over them and note Crumb’s big, meaty female bodies… they stuck with me. Crumb’s women became part of my arsenal of mental images. It’s funny that later in life I would show with Crumb more than a few times, on the point of drawing. Later, when I had my own child who by coincidence of meaning, and not place, has what could be an Italian name—Io Bella—Aldo reappeared. With his wife Anna, with joyous, boisterous emails: encouraging life and happiness for her. We corresponded as she grew. Aldo had a kind of booming heart. I really appreciated everything he wrote, all his warmth and joy for her life. Aldo knew me as a child, and then she as a child, and managed in this way to touch us both. My friend, Christoph Draeger, did a show with him some years ago. Aldo was so expansive, so energetic, perfectly present. Then as now, and now as then. He was indefatigable in his reach, creativity, passion for life, unassailed by time.
The Lion of Lucca
We had known each other for a while before we truly connected. We were sitting in a cafe in Cambridge Massachusetts. I had mentioned the name Tony Cipriano conversationally and Aldo exploded: “Tony Cipriano! He was the guy who broke my nose,” he said, displaying a schnozzola of the profoundly unbroken type, something you might find on a bust of Cato or Marcus Aurelius. “You fought with Tony?” I said, kind of shocked at the revelation. Back in New York, Tony had been a friend and, I thought, a very gentle person. It seems that Aldo and he had both studied art under Metrović, a professor at Notre Dame, where I think a rivalry began.
Before paranoia had destroyed him, Tony had won great success as a sculptor in New York. I won’t go into details, but it was this same paranoia, in its early stages, that led to the attack on Aldo’s nose. In any case, it was this mutual “friend” that sealed our relationship. We found that we had a lot in common. I liked art, he was an artist. I had lived in Buffalo for a short while, and around the same time so had he. He had lived in Brazil and so had I, again around the same time. And we were both New Yorkers, living in Lower Manhattan during the artistic ferment of the ’60s, he as a participant, me as a witness with an eye to serving it up for posterity. There were other reasons for friendship as well: we both loved jazz and, as Aldo liked to say, he was very much a man of the Left. It was the same for me. He positively adored Black people and I have a Black daughter. But above all, we were both Italian, living in an atmosphere of, let us say, unfriendliness, equating us all with the mafia and not at all with our extraordinary accomplishments. I can’t tell you of the loneliness Italians feel, especially Aldo and myself, living in this wilderness of America. That always gave us a lot to talk about.
He loved Frank Sinatra, seemingly oblivious to his Sicilianess. Aldo, from the northern Italian city of Lucca, was forever railing against Sicilians. I, from Brooklyn, love them. Some of my favorite uncles and aunts are Sicilian. So, we had an ongoing argument which spiced up our friendship. I miss him terribly.
I didn’t realize why Aldo Tambellini was so different from some of the white supremacists among the New York avant-garde of the 1960s until I began to connect to the Italian American Cultural Center of San Francisco and read Aldo’s book of poetry, Listen: Selected Poems of Aldo Tambellini, 1946–2016, for which I wrote the introduction. In 2010, I attended a salute to the Black “Buffalo Soldiers” who liberated Italian towns during World War II.
The event was held at Fort Mason in San Francisco. So the Black men to whom Aldo was introduced in Italy were liberators, while most white Americans accept the stereotypes about Blacks that they receive from television, film, and literature. I was introduced to Aldo by Askia Touré (then Roland Snellings), who was the receptionist at Aldo’s Lower East Side gallery.
Aldo and poet N. H. Pritchard were friends. Pritchard and I were best friends. Meeting him in the Ninth Circle, a bar and restaurant in the West Village one night in 1965, I told Pritchard about Umbra, a writers’ workshop that included Calvin Hernton, Tom Dent, David Henderson, Lorenzo Thomas, Jane Logan Poindexter, and Askia, who became a co-founder of the Black Arts Movement. We found it difficult to accept Pritchard’s idea that words were ancillary to meaning, but we respected his sound poetry and concrete poetry and I persuaded Doubleday to publish his second book, The Matrix. I also published some of his work in my landmark anthology, 19 Necromancers From Now. Pritchard’s was not the first Black Concrete poetry. Try Alfred Gibbs Campbell’s “Alarm Bell” (1852).
Pritchard introduced me to Carla Blank, a rising star in the Judson Church dance movement. Pritchard asked me to join Carla and him in a performance work called Black, Aldo’s idea. Pritchard and I read poetry, while Carla performed her version of Postmodernist dance. Aldo provided projections of his art. Black became Aldo’s signature work, which he continued to develop in many iterations, with changing sets of collaborating artists.
When Carla and I moved to the West Coast we kept in contact with Pritchard, who’d write lovely letters to us in which he referred to Carla as duchess and me as duke. I guess he meant the Duke of Earl. There is an effort underway to graft Pritchard into the sterile rhythmless section of the white avant-garde and even connect him to Allen Ginsberg(???). Many white critics view Black literature as an orphan seeking a white sponsor.
Pritchard was a Black poet, his rhythms were Black. A Black nationalist magazine, Liberator, was the first to do an extensive profile of Pritchard and the recording that he made with Jerome Bandanas, Calvin Hernton, and Paul Blackburn was produced by a Black company.
There was a mystery surrounding Pritchard’s death, because someone found his belongings in a recycling bin. But in 2019, Carla and I ran into his nephew on Broadway, who said that he died of colon cancer.
In 2010, we reconnected with Aldo. We paid tribute to him during a ceremony held in Boston. I kept in contact with his wife Anna and Aldo while his health was deteriorating. He and Anna called me in 2020, during Aldo’s last year. They wanted me to write the introduction to a second book. Finally, Anna called to tell me that he’d died. She said, “Aldo loved you.” We loved Aldo.
So as a new generation takes up the challenges that we confronted, I’m glad I’ve survived long enough to tell the truth about the 1960s. (How many people know for example that the Saint Mark's Poetry Project was founded because of a racial brawl that took place at a 2nd Avenue coffee shop. It was Paul Blackburn and me who relocated the readings to St. Mark’s Church.) Those were good times. The rent and food were cheap and we were all determined to make our way in the dog-eat-dog world of New York art.
Lisa Paul Streitfeld
I met Aldo for the first time on May 23, 2009 in the Pierre Menard Gallery around the corner from the artist’s Cambridge apartment. The burning sensation in my spine alerted me to the hand of destiny at work in this unexpected encounter with a commanding presence, even as my gaze was pulled into the center of the holistic aesthetic in his circle paintings propped against the wall. This was the artist body whose body of work suddenly opened the door to my inheritance.
I had stopped in the gallery on my way to a meeting of the Margaret Fuller Bicentennial Committee. In that same space, the owner, John Wronoski, would gift me an original edition of Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century, the first feminist work in the nation. I opened it to discover the frontispiece of an Ouroboros surrounding the Seal of Solomon and her poem: The Sacred Marriage.
Opening the bicentennial at Pierre Menard Gallery on May 23, 2010, Woman in the 21st Century: Margaret Fuller and the Sacred Marriage disclosed the hidden hermeticism inspiring the mother of American literature before and beyond the decade characterized by identity politics. As centerpiece, Tambellini’s masterpiece Pregnant Woman was the ontological signifier of the genius behind the artist’s exclusivity to blackness following the complete break from his classical training: his memory of salvation of his bombed Italian village by the African American Buffalo Soldier regiment. Creating the exhibition around this ontology of blackness was just the beginning of authentic irony behind the synchronicities guiding my deep friendship with Aldo and his partner Anna Salamone. A magical dinner at their atelier in Salem, home of the American witch, rewarded me with knowledge of the mystical source of his circle motif, which would inform my writing on Tambellini, as the quest for the sacred marriage of heaven and earth.
The East Village sign for Black Gate Theater marked my adult descent into the unknown of this 21st-century icon. The surrender to this signifier (falling in love in an underground cafe at that spot) at the crossroads was the unknown passage for this daughter of the Human Potential Movement, establishing the genius of Aldo Tambellini as both origin and destination for a personal reclamation of my inheritance—the ’60s search for the kundalini experience recreated through encounter groups forming my ’70s adolescence. The adventure with Aldo and Anna bestowed a new identity within their circle beyond that of friend or critic: urban archeologist excavating the figurehead of the intermedia movement via Anna’s newly reclaimed treasure trove of long-buried artifacts encapsulating the Kundalini upheaval of the ’60s cultural revolution.
Aldo personified the ’60s rebellion against the system in his quest for individual liberty. He sacrificed the security of the institutional art world for the role of pioneer, inventing an aesthetic of the paradigm shift. In reaching back to my father’s Kundalini research for an interpretive language, I came to understand the life/death/rebirth cycle as a two-way mirror of the Tambellini circle motif culminating into the sacred marriage of heart and mind—reflected in his ultimate love match with Anna.
Aldo as the hidden hand of destiny transforming my personal quest for all-encompassing love into a professional mission granted me a parting circle gift that I will forever cherish: Anna holding up the phone so I could accompany the spirit of the great poet into the great unknown that he dedicated his life to giving form.
I knew Aldo Tambellini as a close friend, mentor, and creative partner. We first met at MIT in 1979, when I was 24 years old. Aldo treated me with the kindness of a father and soon asked me to get involved in the telecommunications art events and installations that he was doing at the time. That’s the thing about Aldo, he was always doing and creating something new—always trailblazing. He rarely rested.
Our friendship lasted until he passed. Through many projects I observed and worked with a man of incredible artistic talent and vision. In some of our late-night editing sessions over the years, Aldo would doze off. While he was sleeping, I would continue the editorial work. And wouldn’t you know it; when he woke up and saw what I had done he would either approve or make me redo it because it was “incorrect.” He never missed a beat. It took me years to fully realize the vast aesthetic knowledge that Aldo had and why he called some of my editorial choices incorrect. He always knew what he wanted, as it was right there in his mind’s eye. The world has lost one of its great visionary artists and I have lost a dear friend, but his work lives on.
Eddy Toussaint Tontongi
Aldo Tambellini Lived Up to his Ideal of Liberty
I still mourn the absence of my good friend, the poet, painter, activist, and multimedia pioneer Aldo Tambellini (April 29, 1930–November 12, 2020). During that horrific pandemic year, out of concern over carrying the deadly COVID-19 virus into Aldo’s home, I was waiting for a safe way to see him as I took my weekly walk by his building near Harvard Square, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Before long, his companion and steadfast supporter, Anna Salamone, called me with the sad news of his passing; I deeply regret not having seen him one last time.
I first met Aldo Tambellini in 1997, at the Lucy Parsons bookstore in Central Square, Cambridge. The great American poet Jack Hirschman was a special guest for a poetry reading. Afterward, my friend Gary Hicks (notable poet/activist and one of the reading's organizers) invited me to join him, Hirschman, and Aldo at a nearby bar.
I learned that night that Aldo lived just across from my apartment at the time, at 279 Harvard Street, in Cambridge. We soon became close friends. Aldo was one the most loyal and dedicated friends one could have, always willing to manifest his solidarity; for years he continued to express disgust toward an acquaintance of ours whom he believed had snubbed me in a poetry event.
Aldo was probably the most fervent establishment rejectionist that ever existed. And he was willing to pay the price in terms of recognition and material wealth. The public acknowledgment would come later, including the retrospective of Aldo’s artwork at the Tate Modern in London in 2012, the Venice Biennale in 2015, his Centre Pompidou exhibit in Paris, the Black Matters exhibit in Germany in 2017, acceptance at the Harvard Film Archive, and more. Although he enjoyed the belated acclaim from these world cultural power centers, a part of him resented it, feeling it came too late. Also, he knew that his old age had rendered him unthreatening to the socio-political establishment.
The New York Times’s eulogy of Aldo Tambellini states that he was a “sculptor turned avant-garde filmmaker, pioneer video artist and veteran practitioner of multimedia installations.” It ignores entirely Aldo’s substantial poetic dimension, as attested by his major book of poems Listen, published by Grady Miller Books in 2017. Since his early days in New York in the 1960s, Aldo surrounded himself with significant, celebrated poets, such as Ishmael Reed, Askia M. Touré, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Brenda Walcott, and others. In Massachusetts, Aldo was a founding member of Liberation Poets Collective (est. 2000), a group of politically engaged poets in greater Boston that advocated for progressive causes, from ending the Iraq War to the abolition of political and social oppression in general. The Collective published two anthologies—Poets Against the Killing Fields (2007) and Liberation Poetry: An Anthology (2011)—with covers designed by Aldo himself. He was very proud of his work with the group (which includes, among others, Askia M. Touré, Gary Hicks, Brenda Walcott, Anna Wexler, Jill Netchinsky, Joselyn Almeida, Everett Hoagland, Ashley Rose, Tony Van Der Meer, Soul Brown, Neil Callander, Richard Cambridge, Marc Goldfinger, and myself). Aldo contributed many “visual poems” whose “expository” lyricism revealed him as a major poet. Aldo will contribute as an ancestor to our third Liberation poetry anthology (2022); he had already designed the cover.
Aldo Tambellini was a true fighter for racial equality and social justice. He defended Black civil rights and human dignity in general until the end. Black was his preferred color and many of his artistic themes are about black aesthetics and Black liberation.
As a poet and artist, Aldo Tambellini’s creativity was informed by both the personal adversities he endured (his surviving the Allied bombings of Italy, where he lived during the Second World War, his mother’s mental breakdown, his father’s indifference) and by the global, systemic racism and injustice he fought against as part of the people’s collective praxis to bring change for the better.
My visits to Aldo’s were felt as poetic moments in themselves, with Aldo recounting stories of his years in New York, his struggles against the oppressive system, his disgust for the cynicism of the Bush and Trump administrations, yet displaying at the same time his profound humanism, his good-natured nonchalance and jovial demeanor toward life, reading his poems aloud or sharing a joke. I admired his uncompromising attitude vis-à-vis the socio-political establishment, and his stoic attitude toward the price he knew he would pay—and had effectively paid—to live up to his ideal of liberty.
My wife and son’s love for Aldo was as strong as mine. At his memorial, she was asked to sing the song “Two Good Arms,” written by Charlie King in homage to labor activists Sacco and Vanzetti, saluting Aldo's Italian heritage, his courage, and activism for social justice. We all miss him a great deal.
ART, THE ETERNAL ANARCHIST/1: ALDO
for Aldo Tambellini
Aldo, my anarchist friend, speaks strongly, like a rumbling volcano, passion creating a continuous flame purifying the metal of his social vision: a fusion of surrealistic bitter wit and tenderness bounded by love. Aldo, the master artist, who lives poetically in the shrine of his soulmate eternally resurrected in dreams of a just and beautiful life. O art, the ultimate anarchist, bide with us, the poor, the wounded lambs of the bourgeois slaughter-house seeking paradigms for the just. O art, song of the spirit, ride with us, these desperate daze, ranting among the remnants of a continuous Disaster. O life, inconsolable, these hordes of dispossessed: the children, tattered waifs with demons leaping from their tongues, bizarre landscapes fracturing their frantic lives. Where are the cornucopias? Where are the promises of paradise? All of us immigrants of imagination, captives of the beautiful lie. American dreams, lost junkies of the common nod, the random god merciless among vast supermarkets pimps of idiot Plenty, with its infinite game show wheel eternally spinning lies for the suckers, salesmen, and small-town rubes; loveless husbands forever philandering: one last fuck among the display manikins, blonde Barbies weeping in the dust. Aldo, old magician among your poems and mementos of a grander age, when we had black hair, passion to explode myriad volcanoes raining revolutionary lava among skyscrapers leaning like Pisa in the quicksand of the age. Art and Anarchy, Art and Socialism, Art and free love spirits unbounded emerged, releasing Prometheus from his eternal rock. Poets then paraded through suburban mind-sets releasing doomed sycophants from the monster’s bloody claws. American dreams in drag, Draculas masquerading as lost merchants, hucksters, used car salesmen with Nixon profiles, sporting Reagan haircuts in the winds of history, in the winds and miseries among bowling alley owners conjugating ruin. What can we say to the robots to the sycophants, Aldo? We tattered men in baggy pants, rheumy-eyed old guerillas, jazzmen, fanatic lovers among the dispossessed, aging hippies saboteurs of the American plague, released like a killer-virus upon an innocent world? Fight, sing, fight, dream; question endlessly, discover lost beauty in the wounded single mothers, desperate housewives in tenements, lost fathers, tattered dreamers, baby desperados hold subways hostage in the dynamo of the American night. And somewhere in an unrecorded womb, a new infant age is coming into birth, old comrade, and our horrible wounds and sacrifices will each bear fruit in that new Tomorrow, when the lonely crowd rediscovers art and visionary joys, redemption in the solace of mutual embrace.
I am still finding it impossible to accept the fact that Aldo Tambellini is gone. My resistance to facing this reality has made the challenge of writing a tribute equally difficult to embrace. There were levels of communication between us that cannot be expressed in words. For this reason, I will try to focus on his integrative approach to art as my primary objective in celebrating Aldo’s extraordinary achievements.
Aldo and I were friends since the early 1950s. Over the past decade, to sustain our need for constant contact, we engaged in weekly conversations between Cambridge and New York. Whether together or apart, we were united by a psychological and aesthetic bond that surpassed the love and respect that most people associate with traditional friendship. We connected through a symbiotic relationship, which I can only describe as transcendental thought waves. He would often call me with a sociological observation, philosophical viewpoint, or impassioned political declaration, which we had intuitively experienced at the same moment. Much of this seemingly telepathic exchange goes back to our student days in the Syracuse University Art Department. During this period, Aldo and I studied in the workshop of Croatian sculptor Ivan Metrović. He was a national hero in Yugoslavia, compelled to immigrate to the USA in 1947 as a means of escaping Josip Broz Tito’s tyrannical regime. In addition to being a profoundly committed patriot, with deep roots in his traditional culture, he was also an artist engaged with religious imagery, an architect for several churches and monuments in his homeland, and a political activist against communist forces in a lifelong effort to liberate his nation from this oppressive curse. As a unique benefit of Metrović’s educational value in our lives, Aldo and I responded to his belief in imagery infused with narrative content. We also admired his dedication to the relationships between art and architecture, plus his presence as a constant reminder of how opposition to corrupted political forces can shape an artist’s convictions in life. Although a master artist, Metrović was also a disheartened exile. For this reason, an atmosphere of melancholy pervaded his teaching and discussions concerning what art can achieve and how political intrusions can threaten cultural idealism. As a resident in Italy during the Fascist era of Mussolini, Aldo had his own painful encounters with a dictatorship. He and Metrović had endured a similar legacy of experiences. While I listened compassionately to their dialogues, I had nothing in my background to prepare me for a truly informed grasp of what they had gone through. Still, with my limited understanding of their shared tragedies, plus the inspirational stimuli the sculpture studio offered, Aldo’s and my devotion to each other as artists and as the dearest of friends was consolidated.
After graduating from Syracuse, we went in different directions. He attended Notre Dame University to continue his education with Metrović and I traveled to Italy, eventually setting up a sculpture studio and remaining there on a more or less continuing basis for the next decade. While corresponding occasionally during this period, we were separated by geography and distracted by the aesthetic and tactical obsessions needed to launch our art careers. By the mid-1960s we both gravitated to New York, where Aldo chose to live on the Lower East Side and I moved to a loft in SoHo. I have included this brief background to provide a context for my tribute to his ideas and to serve as a bridge for crediting his multi-layered originality.
In 1962, Aldo founded Group Center on the Bowery. The mission was defined as: “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.” His motivational mission was to explore territories outside the usual parameters of art practice and escape the hermetic boundaries associated with academically defined disciplines and professional exclusivity. This era was additionally defined by the surge of video, film, and performance art on the Lower East Side and the birth of environmental and street art movements in SoHo. Also, it should be noted that Aldo’s organization benefitted immeasurably from cheap rent in Lower Manhattan. This was part of a unique economic phenomenon in New York, where derelict or abandoned industrial/commercial facilities were readily available for conversion to new art practices. It was also a period when Aldo formed his commitment to counterculture and the beginning of a conceptual approach that would shape his visual imagery, social messages, and choices of media from that point on.
The most influential aspect of Aldo’s work was his involvement with an objective that we both interpreted as “ambient sensibility,” plus his invitation to other collaborators across the board. While he usually initiated the conceptual framework for productions at the Group Center, he had a masterful way of weaving together the individual production values and identities of others into a cohesive performance or installation that still captured his broad-based intentions. In addition to personal projects, Aldo had entrepreneurial skills that were contagious among colleagues and transformed these participatory events into narrative experiences, as opposed to the usual conventions of abstract art and/or the proscenium-based staging of drama. His pioneering vision became an opportunity for engaging in social/political commentary, expressing this intent through bodily movement, treating media technology as a corporeal annex, and, most provocative of all, using hybrid art experience as a censorious commentary on itself … sometimes to the point of convulsive change, or even self-elimination. This translated into a variety of seductive, involuntary, confrontational, and even repellent levels of participatory activation … all of them challenging accepted rituals for the passive viewing of isolated art objects and solitary theatrical performances. By taking advantage of both performers’ and spectators’ kinetic (and sometimes totally unpredictable) activity as the content of art, the Group Center events often achieved a visceral level of engagement. Depending on the thematic narrative, many of these actions seemed like primal screams for humanitarian causes. Aldo was definitely not the proponent of an “if-you-please” notion of art.
A pivotally important aspect of Aldo’s vision during the nascent period of Group Center’s interdisciplinary focus was his simultaneous decision to invest a large body of his work with the theme of “Black.” He described this commitment as: “I see ‘Black’ very clearly as the beginning of all things … 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.” The implications of this whole territory brought a new profundity to his work. The concept was explored throughout his life in a wide range of electronic media, body movements, sound experiences, poetic writings, light projections, politically motivated actions, and metaphorical associations. The art experiences were infinite. With Black as an underpinning for everything, he could connect the Black Power movement to the depths of the universe. He could paint, construct, or project circles that suggested an infinitely massive planet or the black hole vortex of space. He could capture the contrasts and juxtapositions between gun barrels and dying stars, between wombs and land mines, between yin-yang symbols and extinction, between tree trunks and circular saws, between cannons and tunnels. Aldo found a core level of creativity and one of the most valuable tools of art through which he could communicate messages forever. There were infinite variations in Black Zero that have never lost their iconic power
The Group Center morphed into a larger venue, called Gate Theater, in the late 1960s and Aldo’s fusion-of-the-arts productions welcomed collaborations with many leading artists of the time including, Nam June Paik, Brian de Palma, Otto Piene, Kenneth Anger, Boris Lurie, Ishmael Reed, Carla Blank, Elsa Tambellini, Yayoi Kusama, Jack Smith, and others who contributed so much to diversity, rebellion, and progressive imagination. As a pioneer in the history of hybrid, radical, and mission-driven work, Aldo shared this courageous crusade with Allan Kaprow and his “Happenings” of the ’60s, Joseph Beuys’s humanitarian oratory, and Vito Acconci’s body works, public art, and writings. He also reflected the Dadaist connections and bodily endangerment factors of Yves Klein and Chris Burden. And, finally, his organizational and multi-vocational logistics were comparable to George Maciunas’s Fluxus Group in SoHo. In the final crediting of original vision, however, Aldo’s invaluable contributions to the future of art were his all-inclusive meditations on meaning. This especially included the universality of his Black-based subject matter, with its expansive and prophetic content. In this sense, Aldo was truly unique. His work merited the ultimate tribute that can credit the originality of an artist. It was bestowed on Orson Welles during a lifetime achievement ceremony in 1975: “He reminds us of no one.”
As I acknowledged at the beginning of this homage to Aldo, his passing has been one of the saddest times in my life. I miss him terribly; but there is also an inspirational end to the story. His work is celebrated internationally, his genius is acclaimed in the pantheons of culture everywhere and his dedication to freedom and justice are increasingly part of the 21st-century art-making experience. I cannot close without a special tribute to his partner, Anna Salamone, who has worked tirelessly for the last decade in making this possible. Aldo’s work did not always draw this level of much-deserved fame and appreciation. Anna’s extraordinary investment of love, dedication, and outreach talent made it possible. I know that the art world joins me in deepest gratitude. Aldo Tambellini is definitely here to stay.
I somehow went the early part of my film career without having seen the work of Aldo Tambellini. It wasn’t until 2013 that Michelle Chu, an incredible artist and friend of mine, said, “How haven't you seen anything by Aldo Tambellini? This is like your shit!” I watched Black TV (1968) and immediately knew I had a kindred spirit. In my own practice I was lost and hampered by personal and financial setbacks, but Black TV completely unlocked everything for me going forward. It was as if a lightbulb had suddenly blinked on. After watching it I began making my first short film in three years, Post-Panoptic Gazing. As a younger artist I approached community building timidly. I had been rejected repeatedly by artists I had sought out as mentors. I wrote Tambellini, however, and received an almost immediate reply. Aldo responded with his wife Anna’s help, and though he was in a very precarious health situation, slowly we managed to create a beautiful friendship, and one of the most important correspondences of my life. Aldo gave me confidence as an artist, saw through to my core and found in me a continuation of his own inquiries. I am a tributary from Aldo. And because of our innate bond, the foundational concepts/symbols in our work (like the spiral and the cosmic/political blackness) became a common conceptual ground from which we could discuss many facets of being, in particular cosmic and political ontologies, often grounded in activism for human equality and never-ending phenomenological examinations. We understood so much about each other without needing to define things for one another. Because he gave me the example, I am now a painter and a sculptor. Rather, because of Aldo’s mentorship, I am assured that I can express myself in whatever medium is given to me, because there is no limit to that which we are attempting to distill into physical/virtual objects and experiences.
At first Aldo could only speak on the phone for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, but by the time we were finally able to meet in person, we recorded two-to-three–hour conversations discussing Aldo’s life and parts of his body of work. That being said, I am always discovering new work by the genius, who left so much more than has been appreciated. The first time I met Aldo in Boston, I had driven from Los Angeles, having just lost my apartment and my job, but I was given the invitation to stay at Anna and Aldo’s Salem loft while I was touring my films independently throughout the US and Canada. I would later stay at Aldo and Anna’s Salem loft for the majority of 2020 and during the coronavirus pandemic. I would stop by regularly to help run errands but was often kept far away from Aldo for fear that he would catch the coronavirus. That did not stop him from giving me so much wisdom or from encouraging me to go to the Black Lives Matter protests that began after the murder of George Floyd. Anna and Aldo knew that I could be on the street protesting for them. Today I miss my friend, my mentor, my buddy, who would sarcastically remark every time I saw him, “Oh Michael, don’t we have such a great president. What a stable genius,” before cursing Trump with deep enmity. Although the fog of time would bring Aldo into the past traumas of his life, he would always know what was new in US politics, and he always had something to say. He was always concerned for the suffering of others. He was always assured of love and the ability to transcend the physical into the infinite. Aldo is now in a different place in time-space, but his effect is boundless.
I first spoke to Aldo Tambellini in 2006. He was about to undergo surgery, and Gerard Malanga put us in contact because Aldo had shared concerns with him about the future of his archive should things go awry under the knife. Though we spoke only by phone, more or less, as he was en route to the hospital, my impression was that his situation was indeed dire and that there was a distinct possibility we’d never actually meet.
At that time, there was almost nothing on the internet about Aldo’s work, and whatever existed in print was obscure and beneath the current state of cultural radar, so whatever I understood about it or him was entirely based upon Gerard’s assertion that he was a pioneering artist, a perspective toward which I rather arrogantly presumed to apply a certain, if unexpressed, skepticism. What were the chances, I thought, that I’d never have heard of an important artist of his age, a prejudice that coming to know him would dramatically reverse over the following years.
After we’d talked for a half hour or so, he sounded a good deal less anxious, reassured that he had but little cause for worry regarding the archive at least. Of course, his concerns had not arisen out of thin air. His entire career, his life, had been deeply colored by loss and the specter of obliteration. From the Allied bombing of Lucca in 1944 that destroyed houses right next to his, killing many of his neighbors and triggering the onset of his mother’s mental illness, to his blacklisting from the official art world of 1960s New York on political grounds, to his intimate perspective on the experience of African American artists in America with whom he’d worked, to the theft of artwork and the loss of a great deal more in several improbable turns of events, to the early deaths of partners, he deeply felt the precariousness of life, of relationships, of things, of fortunes, reputation, and posterity, of art itself, when it goes unprotected. Although I didn’t understand his situation at the time or the particular causes for his disquiet, I’d been informed that he hadn’t had a solo show of other than his “electromedia” or film work in more than 35 years, and even these latter had now been long in the past.
It turned out, unbeknownst to me, that he lived a modest stone’s throw from my gallery near Harvard Square, and I was astonished to greet him in the flesh maybe six months after our conversation, looking remarkably hale for an older guy who’d recently been through the trauma of surgery. I don’t recall what we were hanging at the time, but something a serious artist would appreciate, maybe Jim Peters, or Hiroyuki Hamada, or Heide Hatry, maybe even Carolee Schneemann, and we had a long discussion about art and the various spiritual dead-ends in which it had been squandering its energies in recent decades.
We made the gallery available to poets more or less for the asking throughout the course of its existence, and soon Aldo and his local poet friends, anti-war, anti-imperialism activists like Askia Touré, Eddy Toussaint Tontongi, Everett Hoagland, Jim Dunn, and many others understood that they could consider it a friendly and receptive venue, at which readings took place about three times a week for the better part of five years. I therefore knew Aldo far more intimately as a poet than as an artist at the outset of our relationship. He came by one day in November of 2007 when we were hanging a large and complicated exhibition devoted to writer-artists called The Writer’s Brush, and in the course of our conversation I realized that he would make an interesting addition to the show, so I invited him to bring something by if he liked. When, later on, Anna Salamone delivered a triptych of sublime abstract Duco-and-graphite paintings on architectural paper whose rich textures and primordial, indeed trans-galactic, implications were irresistible, I was speechless: okay, he was an artist and these others were for the most part amateurs the interest in whose visual work lay in the hints it offered into the inner life of literary genius, but it so effortlessly dwarfed everything else in the show that I couldn’t keep my eyes off of it. These were self-evident masterpieces in their magnificent simplicity and profound spiritual resonances.
I was intent, from that moment, upon putting his work before a larger public—not that Aldo was easily persuaded. He had rejected the commercial world of art far more profoundly than it had ever rejected him, and he wouldn’t submit casually to détente, however much our political and aesthetic views may have coincided, on top of which the preponderance of his opus was, at the time, presumed lost, a fact that caused him immense pain whenever he called it to mind. In 2010, though, as our relationship had deepened, and after what I can only imagine was a patient if persistent behind-the-scenes effort on the part of Anna, whose monumental devotion to Aldo’s work and its legacy have now resulted in the world-wide acclaim it has garnered over the last decade, he consented to the modest-scale retrospective at Pierre Menard Gallery that signaled his return to the art world, the stresses attendant upon which, however, very nearly killed him once again, and he was long in yet another convalescence. Miraculously, during his protracted recovery, Anna finally managed, after years of fruitless searching throughout upstate New York, to locate the storage facility where Aldo had left his archive decades earlier and then, on account of various personal upheavals, lost track of its whereabouts. More miraculously still, its owner, though far from an art-lover, had recognized its merit and kept it safe all this time in spite of decades of neglected rent. As Anna, Nathan Censulo, and I stood in awe and exhilaration before this vast trove of extraordinary artworks lying more or less undisturbed, as if it had been buried by time, I felt a glimmer of what Heinrich Schliemann, Howard Carter, or Muhammed edh-Dhib must have experienced at Troy and the Valley of the Kings and Khirbet Qumran.
Through the benefices of the Boris Lurie Art Foundation, with whose director, the pioneering gallerist, Gertrude Stein, I had also become acquainted during the Writer’s Brush show, I was able to mount a museum-scale exhibition in New York a year later, following the first significant posthumous show of Lurie’s own work, which I was also privileged to curate. Aldo and Boris had been close friends, perhaps each other’s closest and most existentially consanguine artist friends, over nearly 50 years, and to help rescue their work from the oblivion that Aldo had so dreaded was certainly the most gratifying effort of my parallel life as a curator.
And still, even on the verge of death, Aldo’s fears remained unalloyed. He phoned one night maybe three months before he died—it was usually quite late when we would talk, and it was at least midnight that day—and asked me if anyone would care about his work once he was gone. I didn’t want to speak off the cuff, as I assumed he was well aware of what I thought, so I sent him this note a few days later, which I hope gave him even a sliver of the transport and solace that I have felt in the presence of his art from the moment I first saw it.
Aldo Tambellini Reflects Upon Us
On July 12, 1962, a vital downtown countercultural figure, Aldo Tambellini and his comrade rebels who made up Group Center1 staged an anti-capitalist protest called The Screw, in front of New York’s major museums.2 Trying to crack the art world’s closed system, Tambellini read the manifesto:
Wall Street is making our art
The galleries are making our art
The critics are making our art
WHERE THE HELL IS THE ARTIST?
Aldo believed that “creation” is not about commodifying the arts for “a status-seeking class. Creation is the vital energy of society.”4 Things haven’t changed much since his time. 60 years later, a group of artists called Strike
MoMA has been protesting on every Friday in front of the very museum where Aldo dissented for similar causes.
If we lived in a different society, Aldo could have been a heroic figure—always seeking equity and justice in art, trying to release the discipline from the constraints of capitalism. But in this society, the toll of his credo hit him hard. When I first met Aldo in 2010, he was locked up in a mental hospital, and muttered in his soft, delicate voice: "Nobody knows me as an artist." But his artistic legacies loom large.
In the early 1960s, Aldo began experimenting with hand-painted color slides and developed a light-projection environment, “Electromedia.” Collapsing traditional distinctions between painting, literature, dance, film, and music, with an “overlapping series of evenly pitched performances by a painter, a dancer, and two poets,” his first Electromedia performance, Black, projected more than 40 hand-painted glass slides on the dancer Carla Blank’s body while she danced to the Umbra poets Norman Pritchard and Ishmael Reed’s readings.5 Aldo called these hand-painted glass slides “lumagrams,” which indirectly influenced Timothy Leary’s psychedelic light show.6
In November 1965, Aldo showed Black Zero in a month-long Expanded Cinema Festival held at the Film-Makers’ Cinémathèque in SOHO. Most of the participants were expanding the use of film with projections beyond the screen, except for Andy Warhol, who presented a single-screen film. Warhol even needed to defend his work, releasing the statement: “Everyone is being so creative for this festival that I thought I would just show a bad movie.”7 Immediately after the festival, Warhol began capitalizing on the event, by assembling an entourage of poets, dancers, and musicians, in the manner of Aldo’s Electromedia, calling his group “Up-Tight.”
In June 1967, Aldo hosted the like-minded artist Yayoi Kusama’s premier audio-visual-light performance, Kusama’s Self-Obliteration, at the Black Gate Theater in East Village, the first theater dedicated to Electromedia, which he established with Otto Piene. Evincing a magnificent amalgam of light, sound, fashion, and painting, Kusama’s light show was to alter the spectators’ normal process of perception and liberate them from the conservative mind (fig.1). At the height of the ’60s counterculture movement, Aldo was in his element. But Aldo began fading once the art world decided to embrace the culture of uptight, the world of amphetamines and meta-amphetamines that make people alert and aggressive, attuned to capitalist competition. Whether to embrace Aldo or keep him locked up in history is our choice. But accepting him requires significant changes in our attitude. Aldo Tambellini’s reputation thus both depends and reflects upon us.
- In 1962, Tambellini founded Group Center with Elsa Tambellini, Ron Hahne, Ben Morea, and Don Snyder. Later, Jackie Cassen and Peter Martinez joined the group. The group wanted to establish a better connection between the artists and the community. Aldo Tambellini, “A Syracuse Rebel in New York,” in Captured: A Film/Video History of the Lower East Side, ed. Clayton Patterson (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005), 43.
- These institutions included the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Ibid, 42.
- Aldo Tambellini, "For Immediate Release," July 6th, 1962, Tambellini Papers, Salem, MA. Orthography as in the original.
- Statement of 1962, cited in “A Syracuse Rebel,” 43.
- Umbra poets were politically-oriented Black poets based in Manhattan's Lower East Side at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
- Tambellini, “A Syracuse Rebel,” 45. Once he decided to launch his "neurological art," Leary and his cohort met the light artists. Though the artists’ names are not mentioned, they were most likely Tambellini’s Group Center cohort, Jackie Cassen, and her then-partner, Rudi Stern. Both became Leary's light artists. It is possible that Tambellini's color slide projection initially influenced Cassen and Stern.
- Ibid. Though Junker’s article from 1965 describes Warhol’s contribution to the festival as a single-screen film, there is a more recent mention by David Bourdon of “Warhol’s two evenings, November 22 and 23, [which] featured split-screen movie projections accompanied by a rock group and the early glimmers of a light show.” Bourdon fails to mention his source, so more investigation is needed. David Bourdon, Warhol (NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), 218.