Chryssa (1933–2013)

Chryssa. Photo: Eleni Mylonas.

I FIRST SAW Chryssa’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, in Dorothy Miller’s “Americans 1963” show. I was impressed. I continued to be impressed by the sculptures and reliefs for which she is best known. They looked startlingly fresh and original. I did not meet her until later, and had no idea whether she was a man or a woman, American or foreign; I just knew that this was a really strong artist with a personal vision. Chryssa worked in many different media—including painting, drawing, and prints. In all media, her imagery often recalled calligraphy. However, she became famous for her sculptures and reliefs made of steel, aluminum, and plastic encasing neon lettering or fragments of letters, sometimes distorted or layered so they cannot actually be read.

Artists had used neon before, but Chryssa made the colored tubes the basis of her sculptures. Sonia Delaunay experimented with it in the 1920s. In the ’60s, it came to be associated with the urban environment as well as with technology; Pop artists such as Larry Rivers and the French Nouveau Réalist Martial Raysse also used neon. But Chryssa was not a Pop artist. She came from an ancient Greek culture that was distinctly not contemporary but grounded in antiquity. She was excited by the strangeness of the “neon wilderness,” as writer Nelson Algren called the blinking barrage of signs and images that created psychic overload. In a sense, neon itself signified America and its technological advances. But there was a darker, dystopian Bladerunner feeling about the failure of technology to produce progress, which made Chryssa’s constructions both glamorous and ominous.

Chryssa’s neon pieces used artificial colored electric light as a structural element, as linear calligraphic drawing encased in geometric, Minimalist structures. She did not combine text with images like other artists did. Text literally became her image. In the ’80s, she used Chinese characters inspired by the neon signs in Chinatown, a neighborhood not far from her SoHo loft on lower Broadway. Chinese was even more foreign to her than English, which she spoke well but with a decided accent.

In New York, Chryssa was both highly visible and totally invisible. She was American but not American, fascinated by the strangeness of Pop culture like Marisol (another totally underestimated artist). But she was not beautiful like Marisol. Chryssa was a nomad, born and educated in Athens (where she studied social work). In 1953, at age twenty, she moved to Paris, where she met the Surrealists. Then she spent a year in San Francisco at the California School of Fine Arts. By 1955, when she became an American citizen, she was living in New York. Her neon images of automobile tires and cigarettes led to her first major neon work of interwoven light and letters, the 1962 relief Times Square Sky.

I never understood how she mastered the technology, but apparently she simply marched into factories and started working. She transformed the honky-tonk sleaze of Times Square into an electrified landscape of glowing neon. She brought the vulgar advertising signs of movie marquees, restaurants, and bars into the world of fine art. Chryssa never repeated herself or worked in series, and she did most of the hard physical labor of making the sculptures herself. There was much of the stevedore about her; yet she was capable of producing elegant and fragile surfaces in her paintings and drawings and all of her work displays craftsmanship and fine detail.

Chryssa. Photo: Eleni Mylonas.

In addition to being a nomad, Chryssa was a workaholic. She was always fascinated by language, perhaps because she had to learn not only a new language in the US, but also a new alphabet, since the Greek alphabet is Cyrillic. After two years in New York, in 1957 she produced her first major work The Cycladic Books, an installation of mute, minimal, white-plaster reliefs that suggested an undecipherable ancient alphabet based on the mysterious marble Cycladic idols of the Aegean Islands. She showed these in her first New York show at the Betty Parsons gallery in 1961, the year she also had a solo show at the Guggenheim Museum.

Chryssa was a pioneer of art and technology, although she was never part of any group. Her masterpiece is probably The Gates of Times Square, 1966. Built of cast stainless steel, Plexiglas and neon tubing, it is a huge cube, ten feet on each side, a monumental architectural installation in the form of a capital letter A—which becomes a gate through which viewers can pass—inscribed with symbols and illegible text and lit with brilliant neon. Timers turn the lights on and off; the black glass in which they are encased conveys the sense of night. It was the sensation of her show at the Pace Gallery that year and is now in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo.

Chryssa was a bizarre kind of genius, isolated but sociable, intense (too intense for most), given to emotional outbursts but totally focused on her work, which she knew was important. She was furious that others did not understand its originality and uniqueness. Chryssa’s association with the Pace Gallery, where she regularly had shows during the ’60s, began in 1963. Pace’s director Arne Glimcher was a great believer in her work and encouraged her most outlandish experiments. (Pace also eventually represented her best friend Agnes Martin.) Her shows were widely praised and she exhibited in leading museums both in the US and abroad. But that was never sufficient. She would appear and disappear. And when she appeared, it was as a demanding virago out of Aeschylus who scared her dealers to death, claiming they were not doing enough for her. Castelli gave her a show in the ’90s and tried to humor her, but she was too much even for lenient Leo.

She became fixated on Arne Glimcher, her dealer during the great years of her career. Glimcher continued to admire her work, but he also valued his life. In 2000, she was given a full retrospective in Athens. I wrote the catalogue, which meant I spent a lot of time with Chryssa, looking at her early pieces made of newspapers, her many paintings and drawings and piles of prints. I could imagine her exploring the “neon wilderness,” alone and dazzled. With her appearances and disappearances, her threats of violence, one could say Chryssa was her own film noir. One day in her studio, I noticed a gun. She pointed to it and said she was planning to shoot Glimcher. Sure she was being mistreated and ignored in New York, she shut her studio on lower Broadway for good and apparently returned to Athens. There were rumors she had moved to Florida, but she stopped communicating with friends. Fittingly, no one knows where she died last December. Despite the fact that she is buried in Athens, she will long be remembered in New York.

Barbara Rose is a critic based in New York and Madrid.