Keith Sonnier: Neon Innovation

Keith Sonnier: Neon Innovation

Pace Gallery traces the artistic legacy of Keith Sonnier (b.1941), exploring his career from early pieces in neon and mixed media, to a vibrant new series in which he continues his signature style. Ebo River and Early Works illustrates his lasting influence, which lies in the unique manipulation of light and colour. To accompany the exhibition, the gallery published a catalogue, featuring a discussion between Sonnier and art historian Richard Shiff.

With a career spanning over 45 years, characterised by the application of light and industrial materials, Sonnier can be considered as a figure who invented the use of neon as a fine-art medium. With pieces from 1986 to 1970, the foundation of his creative practice is outlined and the beginnings of his trademark style can be identified. Progressing from these early works, two compositions from the 1990s Tesla series also demonstrate the development of the method for which he became so renowned. These sculptures, which have not been shown in over 15 years, were dedicated to physicist Nikola Tesla, and feature live electricity arching between copper rods. The inclusion of this selection in the exhibition documents his experimental approach to art, and use of voltage as a material, sculptural element.

The exhibition comes up to date with the radiant new sequence Ebo River. This collection sheds light on new elements of Sonnier, revealing him as a skilful colourist. Combining bold hues, lit neon tubes and complex harmonies, the pieces are as visually arresting as they are evocative. The compositions flow and complement each other, combined with concave mirrors and industrial metals that manipulate the light and modify their forms. Taking inspiration from a river in the Congo, known natively as the Legbala, the series is titled after towns and tributaries in the area. An interest in African art and culture is a recurrent concept throughout Sonnier’s oeuvre, dating back to his time spent as a teaching assistant to Carroll Janis, who lectured on the subject while at Rutgers University.

Sonnier notes: “Neon has always been a material in signage that one lays flat, and one in fact writes with. But I began to lift it from the board, and pull it out into space, and use it in a much more three-dimensional form.” The exhibition marks the continued innovative experimentation that has been recurrent throughout the artist’s career.

Keith Sonnier: Ebo River and Early Works, Pace Gallery, New York, until 21 January.

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1. Keith Sonnier, UCUA (2016). Courtesy of Pace Gallery, the artist and Artists Rights