PRINT January 1981


’Tis time to observe Occurrences, and let nothing remarkable escape us; The Supinity of elder dayes hath left so much in silence, or time hath so martyred the Records, that the most industrious heads do finde no easie work to erect a new Britannia.
—Thomas Browne, May 1, 1658

THERE IS SOMETHING EXTRATERRESTRIAL about neon light. This rare gas having the Greek name for new was discovered in 1898 in London and developed into neon light by 1911 in Paris. When low-voltage current is passed through the gas, it emits light. The gas, hardly present in the atmosphere, is produced in sufficient commercial quantities in connection with making liquid oxygen, although why this should occur escapes my technical vocabulary. There are two kinds of so-called neon light—neon, which is red orange, and argon, which is blue. All the other colors of neon are achieved by coating the inside of the glass tube, a practice which also gives the tube an even illumination. In its pure state, as in Robert Smithson’s work called The Eliminator, 1964, neon light looks rather wiggly, and you can see lines in it that are not those of the tube itself.

I have always loved neon light. It is dazzling in two ways—it is a source of light and thus participates in the splendor of the sun, and it can be cast into any configuration that glass tubing, an extremely supple material in the hands of certain craftsmen, can take. Unlike fluorescent light (which occurs in a vacuum in which the coating glows), neon light is thin and linear and hence typically associated with written signs all over the world. You can draw pictures with it just as well. The typical neon sign is very airy and it is often combined with glass vitrines in which the neon sign causes beautiful reflections and underscores which vary according to one’s point of view. When the electricity is off, a neon sign is quite unobtrusive; when it is on, there is nothing more attractive. I mention these things, most of which everybody knows, as an introduction to recent work by Keith Sonnier which he calls “Pictograms.”

One of Sonnier’s earlier neon pieces was shown in Vancouver in 1969. In a series of works extending over a few years, he took large pieces of variously tinted heavy plate glass, and partially framed them with straight lines of neon lights of various colors. (These were also shown at his first solo show in New York in 1970.) In these works, the characteristic voluptuousness of form that neon tubing is capable of was completely suppressed, as were, to a lesser extent, the reflective properties of the glass-and-neon combination. One of the primary aspects of these works was that the wiring and the transformers needed for the electricity were not disguised or hidden—in fact, the loose dangling wires formed what a Vancouver reviewer referred to as “calligraphy.” The wires dangled down right over the immaculate glass and were obviously attached to the tubes. The transformers, rather mysterious black boxes on the floor, were also used in the scene; they had the air that something for which one does not know the use (art) was being stored (in the gallery).

I have known Keith Sonnier almost since his arrival in New York from Mamou, Louisiana, via Lafayette, Louisiana, Paris, France, and New Brunswick, New Jersey. He is a drawer, but he draws in unusual ways. He likes to draw big. He has drawn with Japanese brushes many inches wide and with wide chalks and huge felt pens. He has drawn in colors and in blacks. As far as I know he has not used recognizable elements in his signs, except for his own initials and the dates of the hieroglyphs he makes, which often form very clear aspects of the overall drawing and are not just signatures like Picasso used or bureaucratic information attached to the back of the work for identification which is so usual today. Keith signs his work, but the signature is sometimes a large part of the work itself.

In the last ten years he has developed another mode, “Send-Receive,” which is possibly his most ambitious group of works. In this, he writes with radio and telephone and television images, or he draws in electrical waves that have, on one or two occasions, spanned the continent, once via satellite transmission. In another series of works, in which his drawing was fabricated into paper almost two inches thick, the signature was painted on with a big brush, almost ignoring the “design” of the object. In all of Sonnier’s work, I think, there is a grand, but at the same time severely limited, gesture.

So it is with the “Pictograms,” of which three were made in 1980 and shown in New York. The three works are different from each other, and they indicate considerable departures from Sonnier’s other work. In these pieces he allows himself, and us, to be seduced by the beauty of neon tubes in a way that is freer and yet controlled, more lovely yet not neater, than any of his other work I have seen. As soon as I saw this work, I was overwhelmed by a desire to photograph it,which I subsequently did.

Outside, on a terrace, was a relatively small, rather less complicated work made of five neon lines—two red, one blue. one green and one white. This piece looks like the markings of people, not necessarily children, who are just learning to write. Two loops and three straight lines in different planes: it’s like something a person might do to test a new or an old pen. A very big pen. since the whole thing stands about eight feet high and illuminates passersby the way HOTEL signs outside the window do in scenes of certain movies. However, Sonnier’s work does not allude to the outdoor advertising neon signs which are such a constant but unconsciously regarded part of most of our lives. From lowly NO VACANCY signs peering out from motels that are closed for the night to mighty spectaculars such as the marquees of some theaters and signs in Times Square (although they are being outmoded by the incursive digital technology in which the whole sign can be changed by programming) neon lights stare forth at us at every turn in the city and at every commercial opportunity in the country. In his work there are no puns, and he uses neon light in order to be able to draw with light in different colors—it participates in the universe of neon.

Inside the rather small apartment where I saw these pieces, there was one wall that had been removed down to the aluminum studs, and wired on to these studs was another, more complex, light drawing which you could see through. Since glass neon tubes are fragile, the possibility of having such work be freestanding is a limited one, and to do so can even be dangerous. Taking advantage of what happened to be a feature of the space (which he characteristically does throughout his work) it was possible to see what freestanding neon would be like. Furthermore, hanging it in this manner made it possible to see parts of most of the three works, because one could see through this one completely. Shards of reflections of parts of different pieces could be seen in the windows of the two rooms and on the one solid wall, and people were lighted by different colors of neon light. The “freestanding” piece has reds, blues, greens and a yellow top. It looks a little bit human, but not enough to be a portrait. It does have a bilateral symmetry of sorts, and a rather aggressive stance. Looked at directly, though, instead of in reflection, it can be seen more as a contribution to the carnival of color than as a clear-cut formal drawing. It was reflected in several different windows at once, in some of them together with the third piece in the series.

The masterpiece of the show was placed on the one solid wall, which was painted black so as to emphasize the design of its circle. It is as if in learning to write, one discovered first the qualities of the pen, then made a crude sketch of oneself and then drew a shape of considerable perfection. But it is not just a circle. It is an interrupted circle which is crossed by entirely different types of lines. There is something vaguely geometric about the design, but that’s not the point. Parts of it stick out from the wall as if there were a type of pen that could draw threads into the room—there is, and Sonnier used it. The line of the circle itself is also interrupted; one could say that it starts with a straight red line, becomes a white circle, and ends in a straight blue line. There’s no hope of describing it perfectly, but this work brings to mind kinds of writing, as well as kinds of writing instruments, which are marvelous to imagine. With a few simple lines of highly visible neon light in a few different colors, placed against darkness to strengthen the colors, whole moments of culture and language are alluded to without a smile or a sniffle.

Keith Sonnier is not the only artist to use neon—one should mention Bruce Nauman, Mario Merz, Joseph Kosuth, Stephen Antonakos and an early (1963) work by James Rosenquist that is unlike his other work.1 In Sonnier’s earliest pieces using neon, the light forms rather consciously crude squiggles of color. In these pieces, the neon is not apparently valued for itself, nor as a drawing medium, but instead is used in an assemblage of disparate materials. Now, in the “Pictograms,” the artist returns to neon with the ease of an old friend and makes things that outshine his drawings in other media and that, placed in a context together, interact as bits and pieces of a whole whose proportions are gigantic.

Ted Castle is a freelance writer who lives in New York.



1. See Robert Pincus-Witten. “Keith Sonnier Materials and Pictorialism,” Artforum, October 1969, pp. 39–45.