Departure, 2007. White paint on Versacel and neon, 61 x 51 x 5 in.

Stephen Antonakos: Complex Simplicity

The new Benaki Museum Annex, re-designed by architects Maria Kokkinou and Andreas Kourkoulas and situated in an industrial section of Athens, hosted a retrospective of the work of Stephen Antonakos last year. Although the building’s stone façade seems formidable, it wraps around a courtyard that offered a protective intimacy for Antonakos’s neon chapel. Curated by Katerina Koskina, the show covered Antonakos’s artistic production, which spans over 50 years and involves two main methodologies. One is seen in his backlit cubes and drawings, and the other is conceptual, as evidenced in his “Pillows” and “Packages.” These two proclivities are not separate, however; they often act in synchrony, one operating within the other. This interchange is most evident in his ’70s works, which are Minimalist in their reductive shapes and colors yet partake of the conceptual in that they employ industrial materials such as neon that, like readymades, place the emphasis on the idea rather than the means of expression.

In the mid-’50s, Antonakos began to incorporate found objects, collage, and what he termed “Sewlages” into three-dimensional constructions that became enclosed spaces by the early 1960s. These works contain the kernel of his later chapels and other architectural structures. Untitled (1954), for example, uses fabric, paint, flowers, tar, and found objects on canvas. Five white flowers bloom on a delicate stem that appears to sprout from a rough black ground full of strewn objects—a sardine can opener, an open safety pin, a rusty nail, and an old key—all of them partly covered by tar. The background is sky blue, as are the implied fabric-strip clouds. Behind the flowers, a transparent glue outline refers to glass. In this and other constructions, Antonakos’s optimism comes through: he seems to be saying that it is possible for flowers to bloom even in the asphalt jungle.

With his adoption of neon in the early ’60s, Antonakos began to work out the formal and conceptual implications evident in his use of opposites (void/solid, three-dimensionality/flatness) while simultaneously incorporating text into pillow constructions that reference dreams and psychological states. Untitled Pillow Drawing (1963), which juxtaposes the flatness of paper against two centrally located pieces of apple-green rubber, offers a meaningful exploration into volume and flatness. Another three-dimensional work, Untitled Pillow (1963), presages Antonakos’s use of neon. Here, a vertically oriented blue- and white-striped pillow is pierced by three electrical sockets containing yellow bulbs. Three old-fashioned pull-switches lead down the surface of the pillow to a wooden shelf with three red rings attached to its underside. Antonakos’s pillows are sometimes made of roughly cut and sewn burlap, often with lettering alluding to the dream state. At other times, like Lucas Samaras’s pin boxes, Antonakos’s pillows signal danger, as in the deployment of nails in Untitled Pillow (1963).

In the early ’70s, Antonakos increased his scale while continuing to examine the potential of neon. Fluorescent tubes were already being used by artists such as Dan Flavin and Chryssa to create pulsating light sculptures. But whereas Flavin denied any transcendental meaning in his works, Antonakos recognized it as an important element. While Flavin used raw industrial neon, Antonakos bent, shaped, and colored his light sculptures. Green Neon Incomplete Circle (1974), The Room (1973), and Incomplete Neon Square (1977) evince Antonakos’s ability to manipulate color and form while enlarging scale. Executed for the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (Fort Worth Art Museum), Green Neon Incomplete Circle spanned the building’s gridded cube with a diagonal curve, playing one form off its opposite. The architectural installation The Room, which used red neons to intersect a cube-like interior and its exterior corners, looks forward to Antonakos’s chapels.