10 Artists Who Made Masterpieces with Neon

Michelle Santiago Cortés
Dec 10, 2018 4:00PM

Neon has come a long way since its discovery in the late 19th century, finding its way into works across the spectrum of contemporary art—from dedicated light artists to multimedia powerhouses who dapple in neon art. We thought we’d highlight 10 artists who use neon in ever-so-creative ways—and in the process, we offer you a brief history of the use of fluorescent light as an artistic medium.

Neon is the fifth-most-abundant element in our universe. On its own, neon glows a fiery red shade of orange—but it’s versatile. What is casually referred to as “neon light” can sometimes be a combination of noble gases—with helium added to achieve pink, or krypton to generate green.

As a medium for commercial signage, neon got its start at the 1910 Paris Motor Show, where chemist and engineer Georges Claude debuted his upgrades to the existing neon tube. In 1912, a local barber shop was the first to buy one of Claude’s neon advertising signs. It only took a few more decades for such signage to become an integral part of the American landscape. Cities from Las Vegas to New York and Chicago were defined by the signs that colored their late nights and early mornings. When used as advertisements, neon spells out what a place is all about—it makes promises and stakes claims.

By the 1960s, perhaps inspired by Pop art, artists were using neon to make sculptures and stage public interventions that expanded the medium’s symbolic potential. The public’s fixation on the grit, romance, and commercial undertones that neon has come to represent is at least partially due to how artists like the ones we survey here have pushed its potentials.

Since 2006, Glenn Ligon has been making white neon sculptures that spell out the word “America” in a classic typewriter font. The white neon tubes are sometimes coated in layers of black paint that peel and crack to reveal small bursts of the light they conceal. It’s a subtle, but layered gesture. “There is this sense that America, for all its dark deeds, is still this shining light,” Ligon once told jazz musician Jason Moran.

Explorations into the meaning of color are at the core of Ligon’s art; by reflecting on the meaning of blackness in America, his work takes on a more personal and political tone. Last year, Ligon sat down with writer Hilton Als to discuss the importance of color in anticipation of an exhibition the artist curated entitled “Blue Black.” Ligon’s own contribution to the show, A Small Band (2015), turned the words “blues,” “blood,” and “bruise” into hurdles (or maybe fences) of white neon that barricaded a wall-mounted piece by Ellsworth Kelly, Blue Black.

In other cases, Ligon has used the eye-catching appeal of neon to draw attention to similarly evocative language. His Warm Broad Glow (2005) cast its soft yellow luster over Madison Avenue for four months to coincide with the artist’s 2011 mid-career retrospective at the Whitney. The 22-foot-wide sculpture spells out the phrase “negro sunshine,” borrowed from a 1909 Gertrude Stein novella. “I find her language fascinating,” Ligon told the New York Times.“It’s a phrase that stuck in my head.”

Mary Weatherford
Canyon, 2014
David Kordansky Gallery
Mary Weatherford
el mar, 2015
David Kordansky Gallery

Mary Weatherford started working with neon after an inspiring drive through Bakersfield, California’s neon-lined roads in 2012. Gestural marks of highly pigmented flashe paint swirl and bleed over her canvases, which are augmented with carefully shaped tubes of neon that pierce and complicate the composition. In sculptural paintings like The Gate or GLORIA (both 2018), Weatherford’s abstract motifs are literally cut by stripes of neon. (The glow of the light also bleeds into the wider environment, casting its reflection on a gallery’s floor—creating a “do-not-cross” line that moves relative to the spectator.)

For Weatherford, neon adds an extra layer of meaning and intensity to her paintings. “When I stumbled upon using the light, then that became clear,” she has said. “It was a way of making paintings about some kind of representation of the complex symphony of human experience.”

Iván Navarro
Silla Electrica Azul y Roja, 2003

Iván Navarro was born into a family of artists in Chile a year before a U.S.-backed coup ushered in Augusto Pinochet’s 15-year dictatorship. While a community of bohemians left autocratic countries in South America around this time and thrived as expats in Paris, Navarro’s clan wasn’t among them. The artist came of age under the Chilean dictatorship, living through the curfews, violence, and blackouts. By the time he started working with neon, he’d already been using electricity in his politically charged work.

Navarro turned his political critique towards the United States at the 2009 Venice Biennale. His centerpiece installation for the Chilean pavilion consisted of 13 doors, each illuminated with a series of neon tubes and mirrors that gave the illusion of a hallway stretching impossibly into the distance. Each door was assigned a color to match each of Ellsworth Kelly’s 1969 monochrome canvases from Spectrum 5 (1969). The installation may have looked pleasant, or even soothing, but its title—Death Row (2006–09)—nodded to the artist’s commentary on capital punishment. Another 2006 work, Red and Blue Electric Chair,is a neon riff on Gerrit Rietveld’s furniture design. In Navarro’s hands, it becomes a literal electric chair. “Neon is fragile,” he once said, “but it can electrocute you.”

This British powerhouse is known for a heart-on-her-sleeve approach to confessional art. Ever the controversial wild-child, she debuted her first neon works in a “museum” she opened in tribute to herself when she was just 32. (The grandly named Tracey Emin Museum opened in 1995, the same year she erected a tent that listed every person she’d ever slept with, just to spite a curator.) The artist’s interest in neon can perhaps be traced back to her troubled youth in Margate, England; her 1995 film Why I Never Became a Dancer shows us around her seaside hometown, studded with vintage neon signs.

Emin’s style has since become ubiquitous, even inspiring copycats and forgeries. Her early neon text sculptures rendered her own handwriting in lights, conveying often saccharine messages like “be faithful to your dreams”or “just love me.” In 1998, she created a pair of works that were childishly provocative in their wordplay: One read “Is anal sex legal?” while the other asked “Is legal sex anal?” Earlier this year, the artist got a bit more serious, unveiling a pro–European Union neon in London’s bustling St Pancras train station. With the United Kingdom’s days as part of the EU winding down, Emin’s message was forlorn and simple: “I want my time with you.”

Keith Sonnier
Expanded SEL V, 1978-2006
Häusler Contemporary

Keith Sonnier incorporated neon into his practice in 1968. His early sculptures brought together neon and glass, neon and fabric, and in one instance, neon wrapping neon. While these late-1960s works also included incandescent and black lights, Sonnier cemented his commitment to neon with his “Ba-O-Ba” series: geometrically shaped panes of glass intersected by strips of neon. Neon is his language, and “because of one’s language,” he’s said, “one learns to read the world.”

Recent years have brought about reinvigorated interest in Sonnier’s work. This past summer, the Parrish Art Museum gave him his first American museum retrospective, while the Dan Flavin Art Institute exhibited his early glass and neon works. A sculpture on view at the Parrish, Rectangle Diptych (2013), demonstrates a nearly seamless transition from Sonnier’s first experiments with the medium: its simple neon accents on twin panes of acrylic echoing the artist’s early interest in shape and color.

But Sonnier’s most visible works have been public commissions. International travelers may have experienced his permanent 1992 installation at the New International Airport in Munich, which spans 1,000 illuminated meters of moving sidewalks, linking terminals with its rainbow glow. And he juxtaposed red neon with blue argon in 2004 for one of the largest public projects in Los Angeles, Motordom, which featured hundreds of illuminated stripes that wrapped around the façade of California’s Department of Transportation building in downtown L.A.

One of Shezad Dawood’s earliest neon creations is called Epiphany (2003): eight wall-mounted letters that spell out the word “tandoori.” Epiphany is more than a cursory nod to the London-based artist’s Indian and Pakistani roots; it marks the beginning of a critical examination of his identity through neon. In 2007, Dawood created a series of sculptures that cast some of the 99 names of Allah in neon. Each piece, rendered in traditional script, is bundled in a clear box, along with some tumbleweed, and presented atop its own aluminum plinth. Works like The Judge, The Bestower, The Protector, and The Majestic all strive to represent divinity, or at least suggest it.

Since then, Dawood’s neon experiments have grown even more elaborate. The neon sculpture Wrathful Activity, Fierce Energy (2018)—accompanied by a virtual-reality experience in which viewers travel through a fictional world that includes the mythical Himalayan Hotel and a monastery—was part of an exhibition that envisioned a future of the Indian subcontinent. By examining religious imagery through a sci-fi lens, Dawood imagines a world where divinity and traditionalism and technology and innovation not only coexist, but are entwined.

Jung Lee
Day and Night #2, 2012
Green Art Gallery

A Jung Lee neon installation greets you from afar. Her phrases in neon glow from a distance, installed in desolate snow banks or on reflective lakes across the South Korean wilderness. (Some works, like we have nothing to envy and paradise on earth, were mounted provocatively along the border with North Korea, outside Seoul.) Lee appropriates phrases from books, television, and pop songs to make her neon pieces. I dream of you (2012) takes its titular phrase from Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse (documentation of the sculpture in situ shows it peeking through a snowy bush). After installations are complete, Lee, who studied photography at the Royal College of Art, documents them in their quiet landscapes.

For her 2016 series “No More,” the artist turned away from legible words and phrases in favor of abstract neon lines, installed and photographed in either snowy terrain or on dusky beaches. For Lee, neon casts a warm and familiar glow in otherwise bleak locales. “I’m a typical city dweller, who is familiar with artificial lights,” she has said. “I feel more comfortable with the signs of Starbucks or McDonald’s.”

Joseph Kosuth was initially attracted to the conceptual potential of neon. “I needed something with qualities I could unpack and separate,” he told The Guardian. When Kosuth and his contemporaries started working with neon in the 1960s, it was just another commercial medium. It demarcated exits and entrances, announced peep shows, and advertised pit stops. In the hands of artists, however, neon became an emblem of urban life and commercialism.

This pioneer of Conceptual art often committed his words to neon instead of paper, experimenting with the idea of what “wall text” can mean. His tautologies in neon started with the series “One and Eight—A Description” (1965). Each wall-mounted work consists of a straightforward, eight-word description of the work itself, such as neon electrical light english glass letters pink eight. In the “Essential C.S.” series (1988), Kosuth got playful: Each sculpture asserts “Yes, it is so,” but the neon winds back to cross out the words, like a retraction or a rejection. The works serve as a record of the assertions and hesitations of the creative process itself.

Bruce Nauman is a sculptor, performer, photographer, and an occasional fence-builder. He added “light artist” to his resume in the 1960s. In 1967, he made THE TRUE ARTIST HELPS THE WORLD BY REVEALING MYSTIC TRUTHS (Window or Wall Sign), its neon words spiraling inward, like the requisite introspection often demanded of the artist in her studio. A good portion of Nauman’s neon output, including this piece, is featured in a massive two-part survey at the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1 in New York, on view through February 2019.

Neon is a go-to medium for commerce, but Nauman used it to advertise his own wordplay. In the anagrammatic Raw-War (1971), the fiery neon tubes alternately flashed the words “raw” and “war.” Elsewhere, other verbal tricks abound; after seeing Nauman’s Eat Death (1972), you’ll realize that you can’t spell “death” without “eat.”

Nauman’s Hanged Man (1985), at Dia Beacon, is even more aggressive. One by one, each extremity of a noose-wearing stick-figure’s body lights up—including his erection—which switches off and on as the lights blink. When the neon tubes finally turn red in unison, we see the executed figure, his eyes turned to X’s. It’s like a perverse and morbid spoof on both autoerotic asphyxiation and the childhood game of Hangman, with Nauman skewing a familiar word game.

Olivia Steele
Face Down Tail Up
Art Angels

Olivia Steele is part of a lineage of female artists who haven’t been afraid to used neon to tread on earnest territory. In At Least I Can See You in My Dreams (2013), the work’s titular words glow from within a holographic plexiglass box, like a window into a dream. In Future Memories (Infinity) (2018), the titular phrase burns a fiery orange; sitting atop a shiny surface, it appears to reflect infinitely into the frame, regressing instead of progressing.

The Berlin-based light artist is also known for her public installations. During the Frieze Art Fair in 2011, Steele’s “Public Display of Affection” shone yellow-lit messages all over London that were anything but affectionate. Phrases written in neon (“That’s all folks” or “Wish you Were Here”) glowed against background images of mushroom clouds—like postcards from the apocalypse. She’s also a mainstay at the annual Burning Man Festival. Her 2018 contribution to the Playa asked: “What if this is all real?”

Michelle Santiago Cortés