Water Mill

Keith Sonnier, USA: War of the Worlds, 2004, neon tubing, transformer, found objects, approx. 48 × 48 × 28".

Keith Sonnier, USA: War of the Worlds, 2004, neon tubing, transformer, found objects, approx. 48 × 48 × 28".

Keith Sonnier

It comes as a surprise that “Keith Sonnier: Until Today,” a selection of thirty-nine works made between 1967 and this year, really is “the first comprehensive museum survey to consider the arc of this iconic artist’s achievement,” as curator Jeffrey Grove writes in the catalogue. After all, Sonnier has been a renowned figure for five decades; by thirty he’d exhibited at the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He also participated in legendary shows such as Lucy Lippard’s “Eccentric Abstraction” at New York’s Fischbach Gallery in 1966; “9 at Leo Castelli” (organized by Robert Morris) at New York’s Castelli Warehouse in 1968; and, in 1969, both Harald Szeemann’s “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form” at the Kunsthalle Bern in Switzerland and James Monte and Marcia Tucker’s “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Sonnier was a protagonist of the burgeoning post-Minimal or “anti-form” trend then widely seen, in Lippard’s words, as “opening up new areas of materials, shape, color, and sensual experience” in sculpture—and in which, per Morris, “considerations of ordering are necessarily casual and imprecise and unemphasized.” This was the milieu in which such now-canonical figures as Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman, and Richard Serra emerged. Why hasn’t Sonnier been accorded similar prestige?

Martin Filler’s catalogue essay implies that it might be because Sonnier’s “protean nature challenges the received notion that creative development is a linear process,” but the selection of work here doesn’t really bear this out. Yes, the artist made lateral moves regularly enough, but not all of them were successful: Works incorporating found objects—a pair of US flags and a globe in USA: War of the Worlds, 2004, for instance—tend to lack the offhand elegance that characterizes much of Sonnier’s work, and are instead fairly generic assemblage sculptures; likewise, some painted Hydrocal blobs (among them Elgin Fragment I, II, and III, all 2011) add little to the familiar realm of gritty biomorphic sculpture. The 1975 sound installation Quad Scan, which brings elusive wisps of ship-to-shore transmissions into the gallery, only weakly fulfills its promise “to bring distant places into one volume.”

On the other hand, some subtly colored, geometrically compact bamboo constructions made in India in 1981 are among Sonnier’s best. Still, if he is going to have a lasting place in the history of art—as he should—it’s not going to be as an uncategorizable chameleon like Morris or Nauman, but for his most familiar role, as a pioneer in the use of neon, often in combination with glass (or, later, Plexiglas) or aluminum. Or maybe my use of the word pioneer is misleading, because the ultimate value of Sonnier’s neon works lies not in the fact that he was an early adopter of the medium but in the way he uses it: inventively, with a sense of delicacy and precision, and with a profoundly architectural feeling for each work’s relationship to the wall, floor, or both (and even, in Passage Azur, 2015/2018, to the ceiling). Perhaps because he is so attuned to neon’s sensuous qualities—“psychologically very loaded and erotic,” as he once put it—he can use it in a quasi-structuralist mode without minimizing its allure, as in the early Ba-O-Ba I, 1969 (he glosses its title, presumably in the Louisiana Cajun dialect with which he grew up, as a reference to “the effect of moonlight on the skin”), or in the more recent Rectangle Diptych, 2013, which seems to be its rectilinear companion. In works such as Circle Portal A and B , both 2015, by contrast, he graffities the wall with his neon colors in a bout of outrageous freedom and humor, yet the works retain the intensity that bespeaks the seriousness of his intent. If we’ve yet to take the true measure of Sonnier’s accomplishment, it’s because we still haven’t let him convince us that neon can be used with a range that rivals those of stone, wood, or steel.

Barry Schwabsky