The Architecture of Light and Space: An Interview with Stephen Antonakos

Neon Barrier, 1968. Neon, 2 x 2 x 30 ft.

Stephen Antonakos has been a pioneer in the sculptural use of light since the 1960s. In addition to a number of ground-breaking gallery installations in New York, such as Neon Barrier and Walk-on Neon, he has also created permanent public works in New York, Tacoma, Chicago, Los Angeles, Cologne, Tokyo, San Antonio, and numerous other cities. He has in recent years constructed a number of architectural installations, including The Chapel of the Heavenly Ladder, which was featured in the Greek pavilion during the 1997 Venice Biennale.

The Chapel of the Heavenly Ladder (exterior), 1997. Steel, neon, and concrete, 22 x 25 x 25 ft.

Zoe Kosmidou: Why did you choose to show “The Chapel of the Heavenly Ladder” as your contribution for the Greek pavilion in the 1997 Venice Biennale?

Stephen Antonakos: The idea for “The Chapel of the Heavenly Ladder” came to me in 1995, inspired by reproductions of John Klimax’s “Icon”. That year I had an iron model with the golden ladder made. Work like this is not just an image. It is something you arrive at after years of living and working, and it is meant to be experienced inwardly and spatially, as well as with your eyes. It seemed natural to exhibit a work with these qualities, and that was rooted in Byzantine art, in response to the invitation to represent Greece at the Biennale. The timing was a bit marvelous because “The Glory of Byzantium” exhibition had just arrived at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Among its treasures was “The Icon with the Heavenly Ladder of John Klimax” from the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine in Mount Sinai. Seeing it brought me great joy. We went to see the show again and again. Also, the monks who were in New York in connection with the exhibition came to my studio and saw the model for this and other Chapels, a few panels such as “A Golden Angel” (1996), and my book “Alphavitos” (1986-90). Their response was very strong and completely sophisticated aesthetically. They were incredible. It was a wonderful experience for me to feel this connection to their world.

The Chapel of the Heavenly Ladder (interior detail), 1997. Steel, neon, and concrete, 22 x 25 x 25 ft.

Kosmidou: What was the experience of participating in such a big international event? Do you feel contemporary art is being effectively represented?

Antonakos: Naturally it is very gratifying to have my work seen in this context by such a broad audience. And, as this Chapel is different from my usually more gentle and contemplative white Chapels, even people who know my work had a surprise. In terms of contemporary art in general, yes, I thought this was a terrific Biennale. There was a good amount of strong work in the national pavilions and the Italia and Arsenale shows had an abundance of both established and relatively young artists. The Biennale offers the opportunity to see a great variety of art in immediate conjunction. It was quite lively.

The Chapel of the Saints (at the fortress of Rhodes), 1992. Neon, iron, marble, and paint.

Kosmidou: Can you talk about the fabrication of the work, and how the site in the Giardini del Castello affected your work?

Antonakos: The “Chapel” was fabricated from hot rolled steel in Greece, with the tremendous generosity of Prodromos Emfietzoglou. It was shipped to Venice in modules which were bolted to each other and to its square concrete base. The construction took only a few days, but getting the permits took weeks! The Greek Commissioner, Efi Strousa, and her assistant, Maria Panayides, were extraordinary in managing all of this. The most crucial element for me as an artist was my site in the Giardini, near the entrance to the Biennale. Formally, this site was a very long open rectangle framed with tall trees so that there was a sense of approach and arrival from both the front and the back of the “Chapel”. The area was broad enough to give the right sense of scale for this structure, whose walls are 18 feet high and almost 25 feet in length and width. Also, the cross over the door projects up above the roof line, and the diagonal golden ladder is 40 feet long. So the proportions of the site had to be right. I also liked the dirt of the ground there, and how it related to the loose stones of the floor of the “Chapel”. Grass would have been too “polite.” Also, in addition to the formal and material conditions, I liked very much that the site intersected with the real everyday life of the Venetians in the neighborhood, as well as the art people. There was a sense of flow of people walking in this area all day and in the evening, and the changing light and the nearness of the canal were excellent. I feel that both the aesthetics and the meaning of this “Chapel” were accessible in this site.

The Blue Box, 1965. Neon, 2 x 2 x 2 ft.

Kosmidou: In his 1996 Odyssey magazine essay, “Sacred Light,” Peter Pappas wrote about a work of yours from the mid-’60s, “The Blue Box”, that “This piece remains as (spectacularly) lucid and concise a statement today as it was thirty years ago of what Stephen Antonakos’s art is all about.” Many years later we recognize a blue (as well as a red) neon square as a major element in the Biennale work. Does it play an equally significant role in your life as in your art?

Antonakos: That is a very perceptive question. The open airspace of the interior of that blue neon cube from the 1960s is something you can sense in front of you. However, at the same time, you sense that the space of that cube flows out into the space around it, which you occupy as a viewer. It is distinct, and yet it is continuous. The blueish glow from the neon tubes fades very subtly around it, to different degrees depending on the amount of other light in the area, and whether it is day or night. And there is the further issue that the blue light from these tubes is not exactly “solid” material. The release of the visual into the spatial is one thing this piece is about. The blue gas in those tubes and in the square around the opening of the “Chapel” roof is actually argon; the clear red orange under the “Chapel’s” canopy is pure neon. These two colors, the red and the blue, which I have used in complete and incomplete geometric forms for so many years, are in a sense the alpha and the omega of my work. They are at the root, and they are elements that I can never come to the end of.

A Golden Angel, 1996. Gold leaf on wood with neon, 24 x 24 x 4.5 in.

Kosmidou: You are a New York artist but your works and installations are shown all over the world. What was the beginning of that international career?

Antonakos: In the 1960s there were many international group exhibitions in America and in Europe, so we naturally thought of our work in this broad context of artists. Even when we showed in New York, the art audience was quite international. So this was the context from the beginning. In addition to the Europe-United States axis, there were venues such as the São Paulo Biennale and exhibitions and public art projects in Japan.

Kosmidou: When and how did you discover neon light as an art medium?

Antonakos: I “discovered” neon walking the streets of New York one night in the late 1950s. I had been making assemblages and three-dimensional constructions in the 1950s, using various found materials such as wood, fabric, letters, rods, nails, and pillows. Strong color was very important to me and there was always a sense of inside and outside in my work. I had used red electric light bulbs in the “Pillows” series, but my work was becoming simpler and more geometric and abstract. At this point, I really connected with the experience of neon in the streets of the night city. As I realized what neon alone could do, how flexible it was, it was a rush to keep up with the ideas it offered, a rush that continues today. So, in the early 1960s I began working with neon in purely geometric forms. My forms do not represent, symbolize, or refer to anything outside of themselves. Such specific correspondences would limit the work’s meaning, whereas pure abstraction, liberated from any external references, is capable of saying so much more. My neons relate formally to architecture and space, but they do not represent anything outside themselves.

Neons for Carpenter Center, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University, 1992. Wood, paint, neon, and coal.

Kosmidou: In a 1996 statement, you mentioned that “Both my studio work and public art sets off or embraces parts of the visual environment.” Can you talk about the rooms, the “Pillows,” and other works that have formal and spatial relationships with their architectural context?

Antonakos: You could say that one of my rectangular panels with neon behind its edges is four feet by four feet, but the colored glow of the neon extends out along the wall and out in the space that we occupy. This glow is impossible to measure at any one time. Moreover, it has different intensities and volumes at different hours of the day and the evening. So in this factual sense, the glowing art and its physical environment could be said to be in an embrace. The vocabulary of my outdoor and indoor public work is usually complete and incomplete circles and squares and straight and wavy lines of neon tubing. The combinations and placements of these forms have a strong internal relationship to each other and to the walls, corners, materials, and scale of their architectural sites. But beyond these things, the way the colored forms and their colored glows reconfigure the space of these sites and the spaces visible beyond them (from 360 degrees and from near and far), and their different qualities during the day and during the evening, powerfully engages them with their visual environments. The roots of my rooms were in the assemblages of the early 1960s. The “Pillows” were transitional works which helped me see that psychological and emotional qualities could be evoked more purely though geometry. These “Pillows,” like my boxes and constructions of that period, had interiors and exteriors. In a sense, the books I have made more recently have interiors and exteriors too, though obviously these involve time in a distinct way. By the time of the exhibitions I did at the Fischbach Gallery in New York in the mid-1960s, the red and blue neon geometries already closely engaged the architecture of their sites and the spaces they defined.

Kosmidou: When did you first make a full-scale room?

Antonakos: The 1968 red “Neon Barrier” in the 20-by-30-foot gallery at Fischbach spanned the length of the room at waist-height. It was a two-foot square in cross-section. Visitors could enter the room from a door on either side of this work, but you could not cross it. It was a powerhouse. The same year I did the “Walk-on Neon” that was a room space defined by the 12-by-9-foot glass floor, under which ran straight and curved parallel lines of neon.

Mistra, 1988. Wood, paint, and neon, 83.5 x 52.25 x 5.5 in.

Kosmidou: What is the difference between private and public art, considering the factors of art, audience, production, and involvement?

Antonakos: Both require the complete aesthetic dedication of the artist. There are no artistic compromises. “Public” and “private” are not very precise terms. In practice, fortunately, even work made in the studio may be seen by the art public in exhibitions. Permanent public installations, especially when installed outdoors, are seen by wider audiences. In my own case, even in studio work, the bending of the neon tubes is done by a shop outside the studio. When it comes to permanent installations, the shops do all the fabrication and installation, but they do it according to drawings and plans I have made. Of course I supervise all the work step by step. One thing that excites me with public work is the chance to work on a very large scale. It can be magnificent to see sculpture in formal and social relation to urban architecture. Also, the sculpture relates beyond the architecture to the space around and above it-in different ways during day and night.

Kosmidou: How do you foresee the future of the arts in the United States after the cuts in federal support?

Antonakos: The lack of government support reflects the absence of a general national appreciation of and program for culture, which some other countries have exercised historically. We have a long way to go in spite of being a terrifically advanced community of artists (by which I mean practitioners of all the arts) and art professionals. Beyond the obvious practical losses, a gutted National Endowment for the Arts is a moral and philosophic wound that will be felt not only here and now but in the big picture and in the future. All children naturally draw, sing, dance, act, and work with words; the arts are basic human impulses, necessary elements for every whole person.

Kosmidou: Do you think that contemporary art conveys a message to the broader public today, more than it did before, or is it strictly addressed to limited groups and individuals?

Antonakos: Perhaps the diversity of contemporary art today is as historically remarkable as the diversity of its audience. Both have broadened. In every era there are artists who work not to “convey a message” about society, but to try to find out why we are alive, to look for answers to older questions, and to find ways of connecting the inner and the outer person.

Kosmidou: Living in New York, a city of many cultural groups, and also working in other parts of the world, you must be experiencing cultural diversity and seeing the possibilities of art as a means of sharing values. Do you believe that art today can bridge cultural differences?

Antonakos Oh yes, more than ever, with advanced communications. But in a deeper sense, though we are exposed to more, I still feel the most valuable encounter is direct personal experience, the responsiveness across the space between the viewer and the work of art. This encounter engages the eye, the mind, the feelings, the spirit-all that one knows or approaches knowing.

Alphavitos, 1986-90. Silver, leather, and paper, 19.5 x 15.5 x 2.38 in.

Kosmidou: Do you think that artists are undervalued today in the United States, or in Europe or Japan? And how would you describe artistic values in the United States today-what do you think that an artist could offer to society through his or her art?

Antonakos: Various European and Asian cultures as well as those from other continents have very old cultures that are very rich and treated with great respect. If you want to talk about an ideal society, then I would say that humanistic teaching and learning, religion, all the sciences, and all the arts are our most valued activities, because they all so obviously make life more meaningful and enjoyable. Also I believe that they help people look outward to others as individuals and as communities. But in the here and now the picture is very complicated. In spite of its problems and all the varieties of interests, perhaps the international art world is a good example of a kind of community that believes in something and acts upon this belief. Certainly the economic, medical, and educational realms have crucial claims, but ideally the model should be the possibility for the whole man, the whole woman, and the whole child to experience and to function in both the natural world and the civilized world in rewarding and responsible ways. Art allows for an individual’s imaginative and intelligent growth and enjoyment of life through the visual.

Kosmidou: How long have you been designing structures with religious connotations, and what was the incentive for doing so?

Antonakos: Thank you for introducing this subject. I started designing the small “Chapels” in the late 1980s. A turning point occurred with “The Chapel of the Saints” installation in the old fortress of Rhodes in 1992. The incentive must have been ready inside me, because when the externals (those walls, that space!) presented themselves, everything fell into place. My ideas were affected by the atmosphere, the history of the martyrs, and working all alone in that intense interior for three months. The natural light came in only through two or three small openings in that high, arched ceiling. My materials became much tougher, and the way the metal and neon panels developed around the one called “Chi-Rho” (1992) seemed to me like the apostles around Christ. The unity of that work and that place came like a gift to me. There have been certain spiritual themes and even Byzantine motifs present in my earlier work, but this is when it came to the fore.

Kosmidou: In your works, light and space create a very unique atmosphere. How would you expect the viewers to experience them?

Antonakos: Well, you have found the essence. Yet light and space remain mysteries to me. I am constantly surprised here in the studio by what happens to me, how I feel myself in thespace of the work. There is a great deal beyond the formal aspects. These aspects can be understood. But the thing I hope for and the thing I need are rather a new, perhaps more hopeful, sense of myself, my awareness in the world. I do not want to tell people how to experience art, mine or anyone else’s. I simply want to try to find for myself ways of putting things together visually so that the possibility for a kind of higher consciousness may occur in the experience of the art.

Kosmidou: Spiritual expression, an urgent and continuous effort to understand life, is transmitted through your art, and your statement that “We live to reveal life” is intriguing. How do you relate this statement to your work?

Antonakos: That question really can be answered only by my work, but I will try. When I am working, what I am searching for isn’t just an answer to a new site or a way of continuing a series. I am working with a certain kind of awareness that involves my senses, my mind, and my feelings, everything I am and everything I ever have been. This large awareness is like the lure of a large question I can’t put into words. The question itself is part of the answer. I grow into this question, partly seeing and partly blind, with every new work.

Kosmidou: Where would you wish your next art project to take place?

Antonakos: I would like to build some meditation chapels in the light, the landscape, and the mindscape of Greece.

Zoe Kosmidou is a writer and a frequent contributor to Sculpture.