When Chryssa (1933–2013), a Greek-born American artist, first arrived in New York City in 1955, she was dazzled. It was an improvisational moment for art, a time without rules: Robert Rauschenberg was creating Combines from stuff found on the street, Jasper Johns was obscuring the symbolic meanings of flags and numbers with encaustic, and Ad Reinhardt was reducing painting to a single color and basic shapes. By the late ’50s, Chryssa had become an important figure in this world of formal and conceptual innovation, embracing industrial processes and found commercial materials while reconsidering the connections between art and everyday life. Though her work prefigured and influenced many well-known male icons of Pop art and Minimalism, fate has, until recently, relegated her (like many other women artists) to the footnotes of art history. “Chryssa & New York” (on view through July 23, 2023) restores her legacy, presenting a full selection of the startling minimal constructions, experiments with text and signage, and innovative neon sculptures that she created from the late ’50s until the 1970s.
Struck by New York’s seductively pulsing lights and flashing advertisements for everything from Admiral TVs to Pepsi, Chryssa seized on the potential of neon as a medium for art. The natural light of her native Greece was also etched in her memory, however, particularly the way that it bathed and warmed ancient sculpture and architecture. Early on, this light commanded a presence in her work, as in the “Cycladic Books” series (1954–57), first made by pouring plaster into cardboard boxes. The patterns and textures in the resulting casts absorb natural light within their folds, much like the simplified, abstracted forms of Cycladic sculpture.
There is little precedent for the synergies that Chryssa created as she scripted odd conversations involving hushed archaic forms, natural light, and the frenetic, often vulgar signage of Times Square. For example, in the muted sculptural relief Arrow: Homage to Times Square (1958), an arrangement of thin white aluminum bars projecting from a white-painted aluminum background coalesces in a large, downward-pointing arrow that recalls one-way street directionals and bold neon entrance signs. Here, as in similar works, Chryssa transplants strident urban forms into the realm of silent and faded Greek relief sculpture, an ephemeral world where human communication becomes a transcendent expression of form and light.
Unconcerned with narrative, she consistently blurred familiar symbols in this way, imbuing them with mystery. The exhibition features many examples of her early experiments with lettering, including Large Untitled Letters (n.d.), a jumble of handcrafted, simulated typeset letters that defy connections to words, and Newspaper (ca. 1962), a large print made from a discarded New York Times printing plate of classified advertisements. Chryssa smudged the grisaille print, rendering the information on the original plate illegible. The worn surface converts the timeliness of the newspaper as we know it to a relic, ironically prophesying what print is fast becoming in our digital age.
In the early ‘60s, as advertisers replaced old metal signs with plastic, Chryssa began collecting the discarded metal channel molds once used for commercial cursive lettering and incorporating them into her work. In Times Square Sky (1963), the word “air” in blue neon script floats above a composition formed from layers of obsolete channel fragments. This is one of her earliest works to involve neon, and it serves as a prelude to The Gates to Times Square (1964–66), her magnum opus and the centerpiece of the exhibition.
Chryssa conceived this monumental architectural sculpture as a conceptual passage through the heart of the city, which she defined as “a garden of light.” Built of cast stainless steel, Plexiglas, and neon tubing, and measuring 10 feet on each side, The Gates to Times Square forms an entranceway shaped like a giant bisected capital “A.” This complex but compact installation once again bows to the ancient past while celebrating an exuberant present. The angled sides echo the Bronze Age Lion Gate of Mycenae, erected around 1250 BC, but Chryssa’s abstraction is intended to compress the impact of walking through Times Square, where the eye excitedly ricochets between open space and constraining scaffolding, kinetic and natural (or “static”) light, transparent glass and dense stone, sky-high stacked geometries, and the vehicular triangle of streets formed by the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue.
Neon studies for The Gates to Times Square, many of them restored for the occasion, form the remainder of the exhibition. Most of these vibrant sculptures consist of abstract neon lettering and signage contained in Plexiglas boxes. Among the most elaborate is a five-unit, multicolored group titled Five Variations on the Ampersand (1966).
Recalling her childhood in Axis-occupied Greece during WWII, Chryssa wrote about a “Greek underground at work that would keep people informed. They wrote their messages on walls of buildings—in the dead of night. Then some brave souls would venture out to read the news before the enemy could erase what had been written.” This history may explain why, while she gravitated toward language and text, she kept meanings ambiguous, doing so in the service of a new vocabulary for modern art. There is much left to know about this under-recognized artist and her later influence. This impressive show is sure to spark further conversation.
“Chryssa & New York” will open at the Menil Collection, Houston, in September 2023.