Keith Sonnier. Courtesy of Pace Gallery.

Keith Sonnier (1941–2020)

Sculptor Keith Sonnier—whose work with neon, flocked latex, performance, and video stretched the boundaries of sculpture and composition—has died at seventy-eight after an extended illness. A key member of New York’s post-Minimalist scene of the 1960s and ’70s, Sonnier created an oeuvre concerned, according to critic Robert Pincus-Witten, with “answering the question of how to structure light and, in so doing, how to be art.”

Born in Mamou, Louisiana, in 1941, Sonnier, whose father owned a local hardware store, grew up enmeshed in Cajun culture, singing Catholic songs with his aunts and listening to Creole musicians at local venues. After graduating from the nearby University of Southwestern Louisiana in 1963, Sonnier traveled to Paris, where he studied painting and drawing at Fernand Léger’s old studio. Upon his return to the United States, he enrolled in Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and learned from professors like Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Morris, Allan Kaprow, and Robert Watts. In 1966—the same year Sonnier received his MFA and moved with his first wife, sculptor Jackie Winsor, to New York—curator and critic Lucy Lippard included the artist’s early cloth and vinyl pieces in the landmark exhibition “Eccentric Abstraction” at the city’s Fischbach Gallery alongside works by Alice Adams, Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, fellow Rutgers alum Gary Kuehn, Bruce Nauman, and Don Potts.

In 1968, Sonnier began to use colored neon, the material with which he is most closely associated, in sculptures that combined the tubes of light with large panes of glass, rubber, and other nontraditional materials. In the same year, Robert Morris featured three of the artist’s works—Mustée, Rat-Tail Exercise, and Untitled, all 1968—in “9 at Leo Castelli” at the Castelli Warehouse on West 108th Street, a display of pieces that Morris viewed as engaged with his concept of “Anti-Form.” The next year saw Sonnier’s inclusion in two landmark post-Minimalist exhibitions: “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and Harald Szeemann’s “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form” at Kunsthalle Bern in Switzerland. Also in 1969, Sonnier began his “Ba-O-Ba” series, which he would continue for the rest of his life. Titled after a Cajun expression meaning “color bath” or “light bath,” the “Ba-O-Ba” works combine colored neon and reflective glass shapes in abstract compositions based on the golden ratio. In the early ’70s, the artist extended his interest in experimental media into the realm of video with the “T-Hybrid-V” series of 1971 and Channel Mix of 1972; these pieces edited segments of daytime television footage together with washes of color and light to create luminous projections.

Later in his career, Sonnier started to make large-scale public artworks: Lichtweg (Lightway), 1989–92, is a kilometer-long light corridor in Munich’s international airport. For Motordom, 2004, he installed computer-choreographed neon and argon tube lights on the exterior of Los Angeles’s District 7 Caltrans building. “Keith Sonnier: Until Today,” the artist’s first US solo exhibition in thirty-five years, was held at the Parrish Art Museum in 2018. He received two National Endowment for the Arts grants, in 1975 and 1981, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, in 1974. Sonnier’s works are held in numerous public collections, including those of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Centre Pompidou, Paris; and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.