Neon, An Overture

By Allison Krier

Radiant. Lurid. Vulgar. Chic. Modern. Nostalgic. Popular. Direct. These words capture the many qualities associated with neon lighting and signs. It is with this rich array that the moniker for this new e-zine on arts and culture materialized. As the scope for this magazine project began to solidify the name still eluded me. Titles are so tricky. Several notions flowed in and back out of my head, and they were all too pedantic or too lofty, not quite representative, or just lame. Living in the dense, topsy-turvy Lower Eastside of Manhattan my wanderings carry me from crass Chinatown commercialism, to hip nightspots, to contemporary art galleries, and to the stylish boutiques of Soho. Glimpses of neon are persistent; their cameo appearances are like beacons in the modern urban landscape. I began to notice the multiple ways in which neon or other day-glow colored light tubes were used and realized how they flamboyantly enhanced or announced their cultural context.

Contemporary view, Las Vegas

Contemporary view, Las Vegas

Just what is it that makes neon so appealing, makes it so enduring? Does the electric-charged artificial glow continue to signify modernity, or perhaps boldness, individual creativity and invention? Neon began its heyday in the 1920s. It was then a Packard dealership in Los Angeles bought signage from a European company, Air Liquide, in order to draw attention to its lot. Through the 1940s American commercial architecture applied neon signage and detailing to its facades, and it is often associated with the streamlined American Art Deco so epitomized by the buildings of South Beach Miami. And of course the old downtown Las Vegas Strip. The intensely bright and colorful lights counter and even obliterate the landscape of the Nevada desert. The iconic and captivating neon cowboy prominently positioned outside the Pioneer Club casino is a symbol of indulgence, mass commercialism as well as Americana. It is not hard to imagine the architect Robert Venturi’s cult-like fascination with the Strip as he began to reject Modernism’s restrictions and searched for new paradigms as described in the seminal Post Modern treatise Learning from Las Vegas (1972) with co-authors Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour – architecture as symbol, architecture as signage. 

The scientific experiments of the nineteenth century yielded the emblematic element for the next century – from steampunk to the streamlined American diner. Neon’s vivid glow results when a high-voltage current is passed through certain noble gases such as neon, argon, xenon or the more rare krypton. Neon gas is used to produce red and orange hues. Argon generates bluish hues and when mixed with neon violet is made. Xenon is needed to make greens as it mixes with argon, and krypton can be used for yellow and greens as well. Tints are often used to heighten the saturation of a color, and to bend the glass tubes heat is required so that words and shapes can be formed. The chemistry nerd meets industrial manufacturing and advertising, and so ensues artistic practice and materials for the conceptual.

As commercial neon signage waned to the use of fluorescent lighting in the 1960s, it is then that it emerged as a means to challenge existing notions of what art is and should be. A redux. Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth began to employ neon light tubes in order to depart from conventional methods of art making. Like the Minimalist artists he attempted to push art away from the visceral act of creation – painting and the pictorial – and toward ideas as asserted in his influential manifesto “Art After Philosophy” (1969). Art is a concept within the framework of art, and Kosuth’s works are self-referential as exemplified by Self Defined-FIVE COLORS (Reads: FIVE WORDS IN FIVE COLORS, 1965). The idea, title and physical rendering are collapsed into one. Neon afforded a radical approach to frankly articulate the concept. The industrially produced commercial material shifted to the realm of the theoretical and of high culture. And here it flourishes.

'Self-Defined-Five Colors', 1965 Reads: FIVE WORDS IN FIVE COLORS Green, violet, orange, blue and yellow neon, transformers.Overall dimensions: 3 15/16 x 78 3/4 inches (10 x 200 cm)  Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery

'Self-Defined-Five Colors', 1965
Green, violet, orange, blue and yellow neon, transformers.Overall dimensions: 3 15/16 x 78 3/4 inches (10 x 200 cm)

Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery

Neon’s rich properties continue to be fodder for artists. Contrasting  Kosuth’s objective approach to content and concept, British artist Tracey Emin’s textual and pictorial neon works are shocking in a markedly different way. Known for their candid personal and emotional revelations as well as erotic subject matter, her works invoke empathy, distaste, trauma, kindness, sympathy and even humor. The neon text is formed to mimic the handwritten suggesting human involvement and interaction, such as the powerfully pink Trust Yourself (2012). Keith Sonnier, well known for neon too, often combines light tubes with banal household objects. The popular is emphasized. Los Angeles-based artist Mary Weatherford’s recent painterly abstract artworks incorporate neon light tubes as they reference place over decades – California's Modernism as well as time spent in New York. Growing up in Southern California her works represent a memoir such as 1969 (2014). The darkly painted canvas evokes Los Angeles and its infamous smog juxtaposed with a slender gleaming light blue-purple neon tube. The thin linear form of the tubes also relates to drawing and line as suggested in her work as well as some of Emin’s neons. Weatherford’s work offers a contemporary and original interpretation of traditional painterly methods countered, interrupted and complemented by artificial luminous neon tubes. 

And so this anthem to neon lights and signs. Relish the various channels in which they infiltrate our multiple layers of culture of both past and present. Bask in the glow!