New York

Keith Sonnier

Leo Castelli Gallery

As trite as it might sound, art is not a seed, but a flowering; not a promise, but a realization over time. One-shot greatness, as in the spectacular first one-person show, is only a promise. An artist’s work gains meaning only as it matures along with the artist. There is no “ideal greatness” in art which can be used to measure an isolated achievement. And the use of art history to place unknown art on a graded curve seems to me a way of avoiding the work by comparing it to a model. Art generates meaning over time for both viewer and artist, as successive works focus attention on primary concerns and multiply the possibilities inherent in these concerns. Art is an ongoing activity, not a one-shot deal.

Keith Sonnier surprised viewers with his first work in the late ’60s, the beautiful, ethereal neon and flocking sculptures. He seemed to be possessed of the most refined color sense, with a delicate feel for different kinds of fragile texture, an eye drawn to degrees of light, opacity and reflectivity. The work looked original, and its look was what carried it. The neon and fabric pieces existed as a promise—where would Sonnier go from that point? He opted for the disembodied effects of light, light projected from film and video. The former prettiness and rarified materiality were dispensed with (or became by-products), for what evolved as Sonnier’s central concern was theatrical space permeated with nonmaterial energies. His work turned into nothing more than a telephone connection between New York and Los Angeles. It was the idea of the nonmaterial energies of electricity itself (earlier, the disembodied qualities of neon light) which fascinated Sonnier. So the earlier work takes on a different meaning when seen from the perspective of what followed. This perspective also situates Sonnier outside the concerns of Minimalism, because he does not repeat known solutions, and he risks inconsistency in order to move, to go on. His first sculptures cannot be seen as the perfect answer to some artistic question, as the right thing at some historical moment. And his refusal to repeat them is a sign of restlessness which seems healthy to me.

But what concerns me right now are the drawings he showed, the “Black Ground” series. Some things vaguely associate themselves with earlier work: the colored lines look almost fluorescent against black paper, and the colors repel each other as neon and flocking repel. The drawings are a composite of lines, straight and curved. On circular paths, filled-in circles occupy seemingly strategic points in space; they’re illusionistic enough to simulate spheres. The main lines appear to be tracings of orbits; the drawings are too small to make one think of rotation or celestial mechanics. The circles often have scribbly “bolts” of electricity (?) coming from them—rather like the old RKO signature of radio towers with their primitive visualization of electric energy as lightning bolts.

I was unsure of what this all was until I saw the show’s poster later on. It presents a map of some orbital and spherical configurations, with additional indications such as “wax” and “wane.” It was hardly a triumph of intelligence on my part that I could tell the drawings had something to do with orbiting spheres, and the information from the poster didn’t get me anywhere. All I can say is that I found the poster more interesting than the drawings: some of the spheres were half-filled, and they changed position successively on the curved line, and there was even a slice of moon. Something’s wrong when a show’s poster is potentially more visual than the show itself. There was a lingering thought that Sonnier might lean toward a mystical symbolism involving invisible forces governing earthly activity (moons influencing the tides, planets preordaining man’s fate). Surely Sonnier has not come all this way to plot abstract astrological charts.

Keith Sonnier