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Neon

About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Term used in its widest meaning to refer to luminous devices containing neon, mercury vapour, argon or other inert gases and their combinations used in electric signs or lamps generally tubular in shape. This extended definition is also applied in an artistic context. In its narrower, more technical sense, neon (from Gr. neos: ‘new’) is a rare inert gas that was discovered in 1898 and that was immediately recognized as a new element by its unique glow when electrically stimulated. The vapour-tube device filled with neon gas was invented by Georges Claude in Boulogne-Billancourt near Paris in 1910. When a high voltage was applied to the two electrodes at either end of the tube, it emitted a deep red light. With other gases, mercury vapour and their mixtures, a small range of colours was obtained in the following years in tubes that could be cut to any length, bent and formed by skilled craftsmen into almost any shape and used for signs that had, however, a very limited lighting capacity. When industrially produced, low-tension fluorescent straight tubing of white (and occasionally coloured) light in standardized sizes came into use in the 1930s, results approaching natural lighting were obtained.

Artists have incorporated both straight and curved ‘neon’ devices in pieces of sculpture or in interior or exterior environmental statements. Although neon tubes were widely used in the 1930s for decorative and advertising purposes, only very few artists employed them in their works during that period, for example the Czech artist and architect Zdeněk Pešánek (1896–1965) in a sculpture entitled Man and Wife (1935–6; Louny, Benedikt Rejt Gal.). The first attempt to use neon light as the principal material of a sculpture can be ascribed to Gyula Košice in Buenos Aires in 1946. His constructivist, dynamic Luminous Structures were conceived in the spirit of Lucio Fontana’s Manifiesto blanco; Fontana in turn created an elaborate, elegant neon ceiling called Spatial Concept for the Triennale in Milan in 1951.

In the works of American artist Stephen Antonakos (b 1926), chromatic high-tension neon, available in a large spectrum, takes a prominent part in both his interior and exterior environmental pieces. Of the latter such permanent installations as Incomplete Neon Circles (1978) at the Federal Building, Dayton, OH, Neon for 42nd Street (1981), New York, or Neons for the Tacoma Dome (1984), Tacoma, WA, display a formal language of circles and squares; their fragmented versions, composed of arcs and right angles are rather different from the preceding Minimalist artistic statements and in particular Dan Flavin’s works, whose fluorescent light systems with standardized tubes were put to their most effective use in large-scale interior installations, exploring the phenomenon of coloured perception in space (e.g. Untitled (To Donna), 1971; Paris, Pompidou). The conceptual artists Joseph Kosuth and Bruce Nauman had introduced neon light both for the purpose of a critical commentary on language mechanisms (e.g. Kosuth’s Five Words in Orange Neon, 1965; Paris, L. & M. Durand-Dessert) and for a graphic demonstration in de-forming real space (e.g. Nauman’s My Name as Written at the Surface of the Moon, 1968; Bordeaux, Mus. A. Contemp.). Nauman sometimes also tested the capacities of apprehension of the spectator in such fluorescent lamp installations as Dream Passage with Four Corridors (1983–4; Paris, Pompidou). Neon is present in some works by the Arte Povera artist Mario Merz (e.g. Giap’s Igloo, 1968; Paris, Pompidou), principally in order to stimulate the perception of materials such as stone, concrete, wax, textiles or paper in their daily usage, or in the works of Keith Sonnier in order to test the perception of hardness, colour and light (Sel VII, 1978; artist’s col., see 1989 exh. cat.; Sel Piece, 1981; Paris, Gal. Fabre).

Martial Raysse also attempted to challenge the perceptual capacities of the spectator in pieces in which he outlined human faces, hearts and palm trees with multicoloured neon tubing, thereby alluding simultaneously to the artificiality of modern times, and to the purity and innocence of a new way of life (e.g. America, America, 1964; Paris, Pompidou). Brilliantly coloured neon tubing is also the principal building material in Chryssa’s sculptures, which contain mysterious symbols and alphabetical elements in an attempt to bridge the gap between Classical Greek and Byzantine civilization and the modern electrically dominated environment (Clytemnestra, 1968; Washington, DC, Corcoran Gal. A.; Gates to Times Square, 1966; Buffalo, NY, Albright–Knox A.G.).

Piotr Kowalski (b 1927) and François Morellet used neon devices in their sculptural works and installations with the intention of implicating the public in the apperception of basic physical and technological facts. Kowalski’s Manipulator No. 3 (1967; Paris, Pompidou) placed the spectator into an active situation, whereas his Pyramid (1973) in Bordeaux tested his architectural awareness. Morellet used neon light conspicuously in his early programmed installations in museums, galleries and in the street, and more subtly in later geometrical works or in outside installations such as Neons with Two Rhythms of Interference (1986) at the Grande Halle de la Villette, Paris.

The various uses of neon in art correspond to the need for creating coloured dynamic light effects, for modelling interior and exterior spaces and for modifying existing architecture. Although it can be maintained that neon light, from Las Vegas to Tokyo, symbolizes the energy and vitality of modern life, its presence in works conceived by artists operates rather as an antidote to hectic agitation and invites quiet contemplation and meditation.

Frank Popper
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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