SYZYGY Transmitter, 1992. Neon, mylar, and aluminum, 17 x 19 x 27 in. Courtesy Joseloff Gallery, Hartford Art School.

Electrifying the Inert: A Conversation with Keith Sonnier

Keith Sonnier arrived in New York in the mid-1960s, achieving early recognition with several prestigious national awards and representation by the Leo Castelli Gallery. Part of a generation of artists that included Eva Hesse, Barry Le Va, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, and Richard Tuttle, he turned early to the medium of neon in installations that celebrated the ecstatic visual heat of trapped, electrified gasses made to dance in physical space.

Born in 1941 in Mamou, Louisiana, Sonnier originally worked with materials like felt and fiberglass, sheet aluminum and copper wire, lead and fat, neon and glass. In the early ’70s, he was the first artist to employ video projection in his work, culminating with a coast-to-coast broadcast of video images by satellite in 1975.

Two recent shows, “Keith Sonnier: Transformer” at the Arts Club of Chicago and “Keith Sonnier: Sculpture/Drawing/Media Work” at the Joseloff Gallery at the Hartford Art School, in Connecticut, demonstrated that Sonnier continues to work between genres, seeking a “form” language to electrify the inert—whether it be a cold gas trapped in a tube and zapped with electricity, a nonsense mark made pregnant with suggestive meaning, or the vivid illumination of a kilometer-long underground corridor between airport terminals. His fascination with the very notion of interchange—electrical, perceptual, and global—has for over 40 years generated a body of work that leaps continents and genres, time and space, language and notational systems of meaning.