By Margot Clark-Junkins
Two worthwhile exhibitions of neon art have just opened simultaneously at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase. “Bending Light: Neon Art 1965 to Now” is a colorful and fun overview of neon works by approximately 15 artists. Just behind it, the site-specific installation “Stephen Antonakos: Proscenium” fills the museum’s vast Theater Gallery in a spectacular way.
In 1898, British scientists William Ramsey and Morris W. Travers discovered neon, an inert gas found in the Earth’s atmosphere, which can be made to emit a bright reddish-orange light. A French engineer and inventor named Georges Claude quickly figured out how to produce neon tube lighting using electrodes, which he presented in 1910 at the Paris Motor Show at the Grand Palais. Neon signs were quickly adopted by businesses all over the world wanting to market their products in a novel way, particularly in the United States.
Once Claude’s principal patent expired in 1932, the production of neon signs soared. Sign makers realized they could use neon tubing more artistically and in other colors, to replicate the products being advertised and to highlight architectural forms. Its use declined during World War II and was gradually supplanted by fluorescent-lighted plastic. The complicated process required to manufacture neon tubes continued to be shared among those in the trade, however, and was eventually adopted by artists in the 1960s and ’70s (notably Bruce Nauman and Dan Flavin). By the 1980s, several artists had become well known for their work using neon.
Stephen Antonakos (1926-2013) created “Proscenium” especially for the Neuberger Museum in 2000. Here, the gallery walls appear to be painted with neon. The effect is captivating. Straight rods and curvy arcs of glass tubing filled with neon gas stretch across acres of wall space, each emitting one color while casting an under-glow in a contrasting color.
Next door, in “Bending Light”, each artist has deployed neon in array of shapes, colors, styles, and, in some cases, meanings, to communicate his or her own artistic aesthetic. Glenn Ligon provokes the viewer with his <Warm Broad Glow> (2005), which reads “Negro Sunshine” and yet the words have been painted entirely black. The backside of the tubing remains unpainted, casting a white version of the message directly on to the wall.
<Ampersand V> (1965) by the Greek artist Chryssa speaks of an earlier era, when Pop Art was a major player. Five identical blue-glowing ampersand symbols stand upright, one in front of the other, inside a Lucite box. Looking closely, it is a revelation to see that unyielding glass tubing could be forced into these sinuous curves.
With <Holding My Breath> (2014), artist Sarah Blood has chosen to bend light in pursuit of pure abstraction. Her simple spiral of white neon glass is sheathed in clear PVC tubing spiked with 5,000 dressmaking pins. The piece is beautiful and threatening, spare and delicate. It carries enough power to stand alone, minus the upholstered pillow on which it rests.
Rudi Stern’s <3-D Neon Chair> is a classic from 1978, made in collaboration with Let There Be Neon Studio.
The exhibits, curated by Avis Larson and Helaine Posner, are on view through June 24. The public is invited to attend the opening reception on February 14 from 4:30-7:30 p.m. A panel discussion, “In Conversation: NEON”, will be held February 28 from 4:30-6 p.m.
The Neuberger is open Wednesday from 12-8 and Thursday through Sunday from 12-5. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors and students, and free for children 12 and under. On the first Saturday of every month there is no admission charge.
#6989 Chryssa, <Ampersand V>, neon and Plexiglass, 1965
Collection Neuberger Museum of Art
Courtesy of the artist
#6980 Sarah Blood, <Holding My Breath>, 2014
Glass, Argon, dressmaking pins, PVC tubing, fabric, braiding and tassels, upholstery filler
#6967 Rudi Stern, <3-D Chair>, neon, c. 1978
Fabricated by and courtesy of Let There Be Neon, New York.
Stephen Antonakos, <Proscenium>, neon and painted raceways, 2000
Collection Friends of the Neuberger Museum of Art