In the late 1960s, Keith Sonnier, along with contemporaries Bruce Nauman, Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, Richard Tuttle, Jackie Winsor, and Barry LeVa, radically reinvented and reframed the meaning of sculpture by questioning its definition and experimenting with uncommon, never-before-used industrial materials. In Sonnier’s case, these have included latex, satin, bamboo, found objects, aluminum and copper, glass, satellite transmitters, video, and currently wax on wood. But he is best known for his mastery of light (neon and fluorescent) and reflective materials. (His fondness for odd materials and his attraction to gadgets stem from spending time in his father’s hardware store in Mamou, Louisiana, the heart of Cajun country.)
Although celebrated in Europe, Sonnier has not had a major American museum exhibition before last year’s “Until Today” at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York. This retrospective, organized by Terrie Sultan, director of the Parrish, and guest curator Jeffrey Grove, showcased 39 pieces from 1967 through the present, providing a broad context for works displayed concurrently at the Dan Flavin Art Institute in Bridgehampton and Southhampton’s Tripoli Gallery. “Until Today” went far beyond the familiar neon works, including several previously unseen sound sculptures and early constructions inspired by Sonnier’s travels to Bali, Brazil, India, and Indonesia, where he “saw color come alive with incredible shapes and patterns, especially in the streets. I wanted color to become a volume instead of being isolated.” In Brazil, he rented an old steel factory filled with parrots to use as his studio; he recalls that their colors were “amazing.” He “made work among the birds, ate lunch with transvestites, and stepped into another world that changed me.” (All quotations are from a 2018 interview with the author.)
Sonnier began experimenting with neon in 1968, and it continues to be a signature element in his work. Neon fittings, with their exposed electrical cords, lend themselves to drawing in space, where the soft quality of the light interrelates with the architectural context. Sonnier was one of the first artists to explore light as sculpture in the 1960s, and he still pushes its creative boundaries. He recalls that “at first it was hard to find someone to work with to make neon works. In Harlem, I found a small factory where I made my first neon piece. It was a half moon reminiscent of the Home Half Moon Lounge in Louisiana, and I added cloth to resemble a fence—inspired by my mother’s hospital room.”
“Until Today” emphasized not only the depth of Sonnier’s investigations but also their breadth and strength. One began to understand how transparency and openness have been his fundamental compositional criteria, regardless of material. Everything is on view in his constructions— police scanners, radios, antennae, soft fabric, glass panes, connectors, transformers, and black electric wires. The soft floor sculpture Untitled (1967, part of the “File” series) was a surprise, with its 10 feet of silvery satin stretched over identical loaf forms made from foam rubber and felt. As was Rat Tail Exercise (1968, from the “Cloth” series), a bare-bones composition of string, flocking, rubber, and latex that creates a wall-to-floor connectivity. Both works demonstrate Sonnier’s early link to Minimalism.
Through line, color, shape, and delicate shadow, many of his neon sculptures evoke the sensibility of a three-dimensional drawing. The enigmatic light constructions Palm Saw Tooth Blatt (2004) and Propeller Spinner (1990) reveal a melding of abstract lines, glass, and light in space, inferring a mysterious language of cultural, mystical, and psychological association. Sonnier agrees that “they are a type of drawing, and I would be disappointed if viewers didn’t think of hidden, multiple meanings.” Ba-O-Ba I (1969) radiates soft light and a commanding presence. Planes of geometric glass and subtly glowing neon with exposed wire fuse to form a structure that stands independently in architectonic space. When asked what it means, Sonnier recalls a fisherman referring to “the effect of moonlight on the skin.”
Juxtapositions throughout the galleries underscored just how radically Sonnier can depart from his light sculptures. The organic forms of Elgin Fragments, Long Stone, and Tooth Wedge (2011), which recall Franz West’s papier-mâché sculptures, resemble colorful stone rubble. (When Sonnier visited the Theater of Dionysus at the Acropolis, he was inspired to make drawings, influenced by how the “sunlight was hitting the stones and eccentric shapes.”
Arabic Fringe and Baghdad Relic (both 2004), which evoke Arabic calligraphy, resonate with a perilous red glow. Sonnier believes that “art is supposed to reflect culture—the terror that faces the world today.” Despite the serious subject matter, a distinct Pop predisposition invariably runs through his work. Spirited playfulness likewise coincides with solemn ideas in USA: War of the Worlds (2004). In this bricolage of an American flag, a tipped globe, and spirals of black twisting coils, Sonnier addresses politics and war: “It looks like a bunch of space trash floating in the atmosphere.”
Passage Azur (2015/18), a site-specific work installed above the main corridor of the Parrish Museum, circumnavigated the ceiling with twisting and turning spirals of neon color reminiscent of lightning bolts. The original concept stemmed from Sonnier’s experiences in India during Holi, the festival of colors, when people gather, cavort, and spread colorful raw pigments on each other with a celebratory energy worthy of Mardi Gras.
Sonnier’s immersive installation Dis-Play II (1970/2018) forms the centerpiece of “Film and Videos 1968–1977,” on view at the Dan Flavin Art Institute through May 26, 2019. Viewers entering a darkened room must traverse a site filled with geometric shapes and panes of glass aflame with fluorescent pigment. Glowing neon and black lights, strobes, and sound meld to create a unique spatial environment, demonstrating Sonnier’s early multimedia aptitude. He says that experiencing “9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering” (1966) at the 69th Regiment Armory “was key” to his decade-long exploration of sound and media work: “I hadn’t seen anything like it in my life. It was bedrock for me as an artist and life-changing.”
New drawings and small neon sculptures featured in “Tragedy and Comedy” at Tripoli Gallery. As Sonnier’s health has declined, he has found it a “struggle to make work—however, I made one or two drawings every day as a mantra to cope with my disease.” The drawings disclose the continuing connection between his two- and three-dimensional process. Sonnier still has new pieces in the studio: “I am working with encaustic on wood, and I’ve done 30 drawings. They are memory pieces from places like Haiti that resemble totems but are abstract—no light or neon.”