New York

Keith Sonnier, Ba-O-Ba Nice II, 1977/2018, neon, glass, paint, wire, transformer, 6' 11 1⁄2“ × 14' 8” × 11". From the series “Ba-O-Ba,” 1969–.

Keith Sonnier, Ba-O-Ba Nice II, 1977/2018, neon, glass, paint, wire, transformer, 6' 11 1⁄2“ × 14' 8” × 11". From the series “Ba-O-Ba,” 1969–.

Keith Sonnier

Red, yellow, and blue neon tubes were illuminated. Wires hung loosely and were expressively slack. A flat black plane, rectangular or square, was often thrown into the mix. Everything was finessed into the gallery’s smooth, white walls like a bas relief. The works’ finitude and self-containment were exacting, perfect: Such is the formula for Keith Sonnier’s technological constructions, which were arranged like altarpieces within Kasmin’s West Twenty-Seventh Street space in Manhattan’s Chelsea. The compositions have a peculiarly sacramental character, all the more so because their radiant colors cast an auratic spell. Sonnier created a church of pure art—inside of which audiences paid fealty to its hypnotic concoctions. 

The sculptures read as an epitomizing homage to abstraction: The square alludes to Malevich, for instance, and the slender wires are memento mori of gesturalism—core opposites, as Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s famous diagram tracing the development of modernism argues. All this suggests that Sonnier’s exhibition “Louisiana Suite” was a summing up of abstraction, not to say the form’s strangely hushed last hurrah, or perhaps even a regression to its origins in the service of its ego—to use a psychoanalytic concept—under threat as the technique is by such phenomena as Pop and Photorealism. (Formalism seems to have become a decadent strategy in the artist’s objects, even as they maintain the dignity of their predecessors.)

But the fundamental raison d’être of Sonnier’s “Ba-O-Ba” series, ongoing since 1969, is personal. As the artist has said, “Ba-O-Ba is a Haitian-French slang term which means color or light bath.” The luminescence of these works—such as Ba-O-Ba Nice II, 1977/2018, and Ba-O-Ba Nice III, 1977/2019—washes over us like a gentle storm, especially when we get close. And the unresolved dialectic of their geometric and gestural aspects—that is, the tension generated by their inconclusively integrated contradictions, between hard and soft, evanescence and surety, or even the sacred and the profane—is thrilling. There’s no doubt in my mind that Sonnier latched onto the colloquialism Ba-O-Ba because he was born and raised in Mamou, a small town in Louisiana that bills itself as the “Cajun Music Capital of the World.” Hence the title for Sonnier’s presentation, which feels very much like an immersive arrangement of abstract melodies. (Music, after all, inspired Kandinsky’s painting, and the critic Walter Pater thought it was the highest art because in it form and content are merged and rendered indistinguishable from one another.) “I use psychologically loaded materials,” Sonnier has said, which, to my mind, echoes Kandinsky’s assertion that “color is a means of exerting direct influence on the soul.” But Sonnier’s Apollonian art has a Minimalist tautness and insularity, while Kandinsky’s rich formalism—Dionysian by comparison—has a maximalist excess and forceful spontaneity, as its lavish, libidinous palette and facture suggests. One might say that what began with the painter’s abundance ends with the sculptor’s reductivism.

Sonnier’s La Doucette, 1977/2019, is a Mondrian-style thing that could have been based on—or sliced out of—any one of the Dutch painter’s scintillating compositions. Its title seems a play on the French douceur, which translates ambiguously to “sweetness” or “gentleness.” But overall, Sonnier’s abstractions seem more “tough-minded” than “tender-minded,” to use William James’s distinction, as their isolated and attenuated grandeur, and their chilly lambency, suggests.