A pioneer in the use of industrial neon as an art medium beginning in the 1960s, Keith Sonnier (American, born 1941) has experimented with illuminated colored light for nearly five decades. These three major works—from the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s―belong to different series that highlight distinct concepts in Sonnier’s continually evolving style.
The pivotal work Neon Wrapping Neon (1969) explores the three-dimensional space between the wall and the floor, with neon projecting across the gallery space and down to the floor. The flat, gestural forms of Expanded Sel IV (1979) derive from an early, abstract form of Chinese writing called Sel-calligraphy. Dyad III (Dot Dash) (1988) shows the artist’s interest in science and technology. The painted glass elements interconnected with neon tubes―interrupted by dashes―suggest circuitry and the text language of Morse code. Throughout his extensive exploration of neon, Sonnier has continued to reveal a wide range of interests.
The three neon sculptures presented in this exhibition were part of a major gift to the Wadsworth Atheneum in 2004 by the Castelli family in honor of Leo Castelli, a prominent American art dealer for major contemporary artists of the twentieth century.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website
Whether or not you go, Keith Sonnier: Portals documents the artist’s latest eponymous series of 14 wall-mounted sculptures, in which neon is investigated architecturally as well as iconographically, serving as an entrance point for readers to examine Sonnier’s process. The artist has taken the orphic allegory of the portal and explored its various historical manifestations with delightful humor, evoking something more corporeal than architectural in the tension between penetration and accommodation. Sonnier was a leader in Postminimalist art who radically reinvented sculpture in the late 1960s. He experimented with previously unused materials―latex and satin, found objects, transmitters and video―until he settled upon his signature work with neon. Sonnier sketches lines, arches and curves before rendering them in glass tubing enclosed neon, creating works of line and color that become architectural installations.