Keith Sonnier was a key figure of the 1960s art scene, experimenting along with contemporaries in New York such as Eva Hesse, Richard Tuttle and Bruce Nauman with how sculpture could be radically redefined. It was in his early twenties that Sonnier began making art that went beyond wall-based painting and creating works using more traditionally non-art materials such as foam rubber, latex or lights with incandescent bulbs and, perhaps most notably, neon.
Light was, and is, a key factor in Sonnier’s work, allowing for an extra layer of material depth and perceptual experience, especially in terms of colour. Through light he found that his work could not only become energised but living and breathing within a space. The Whitechapel Gallery’s exhibition ‘Keith Sonnier: Light Works 1968-70’ brings together just four works from this early period in the artist’s career. We are taken from the gestural drawn line of neon, through to geometric compositions and large assemblages. The exhibition forms a more than decent introduction to the work of Sonnier, an artist who celebrates his 75th birthday this year and still works prolifically from his studios in New York and Bridgehampton in the Hamptons.
The largest work in the show, and also the latest, is ‘Ba-O-Ba VI’ (1970). The title refers to a colloquial Cajun term (the artist grew up in Louisiana). Sonnier’s ‘Ba-O-Ba’ series spanned over 40 years and has included gallery-based neon work as well as site-specific installation and video. In this ‘VI’ iteration, foam rubber sheets tumble from the wall and are then framed by red, white, yellow and purple light. The industrial sheets were originally used in his studio for sitting or lounging but also provided another opportunity to do away with the traditional ‘base’ of artwork such as the canvas. The light tubing digs into the rubber in that pleasing way a fingernail digs into a foamy flocked wallpaper.
I say ‘light tubing’ here as it would be easy to assume that all the light on display is just neon but in fact true neon (as in the gas) only ever shows up as deep orangey-red. All the other colours of what we see as neon involve a mixture of other gases such as argon, mercury or helium. ‘Neon’ just sounds a bit sexier. In fact, the only true neon work on display is ‘Lit Circle Red with Flutex’ (1968), one of the visually simplest works on view and arguably one of the most interesting and sophisticated. A red arc of neon encircles the lower segment of a giant circle of flutex glass, half of which is clear and smooth, while half is textured creating a landscape or sunset effect. The circle rests against the brick wall of the Whitechapel’s nineteenth century galleries, the red light forming a giant smile of neon and reflecting itself on to the floor. The focus on the red neon glow of this work is quite special, allowing the viewer to focus on the internal red fire of true neon.
More focus on the capacity of light in terms of drawn lines comes from the work ‘Neon Wrapping Incandescent’ (1969). Wiggly spirals of neon are arranged around two lit incandescent clear bulbs, each painted black on top as if to represent eyes and all arranged around a simple curved green line that seems to act as the nose for the composition. The neon pops out of the wall as a strange half portrait. The final work, ‘Dot Dash Corner’ (1969), is positioned in a corner of the exposed brick galleries and this structure provides an armature for the work. The architecture becomes part of it. Here, Sonnier is doing something a little different with the neon, which is painted with black dashes in a Morse-code effect. There seems to be a message it is trying to communicate although it’s not clear what that is.
At first glance, the bringing together of just four works from Sonnier at the Whitechapel Gallery may seem slightly limited but this exhibition manages to explore some of the key and enduring concerns within Sonnier’s work. My recommendation? See the exhibition in the evening and then step into the neon-filled landscape of the East End night.