Making three-dimensional drawings with neon, American artist Keith Sonnier (b.1941) bathes spaces and bodies in the radiance of coloured light. Coming of age with a group of artists that included Lynda Benglis, Mary Heilmann, Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra, he uses a post-minimalist language that is physically immediate yet associative. American critic Donald Kuspit remarks, ‘Sonnier’s sculpture attracts our attention, like semaphore signals from a strange zone of feeling’.
Four major early neon works made between 1968 and 1970 transform the 19th-century architecture of the Gallery. ‘Neon has always been a material in signage that one lays flat, and one in fact writes with. But I began to lift it from the board, and pull out into space, and use it in a much more three-dimensional form’. He combines neon with other industrial materials like glass, foam rubber and wiring. Geometric form contrasts with dashes of colour and a luminous glow to suggest the syntax of poetry and a nod to Sonnier’s roots in the multi-lingual, Creole culture of Louisiana.
In Sonnier’s case, materials ranged from latex and satin, to found objects, transmitters and video. In 1968, the artist began creating wall sculptures using incandescent light and sheer fabric. Frustrated by the standardized forms of incandescent light, he started experimenting with neon. Using copper tubing as a template, Sonnier began sketching lines, arches and curves ultimately realized in glass tubing enclosed neon. The linear quality of neon allowed Sonnier to draw in space with light and color while colored light interacted with the surrounding architecture.