“When Dan Flavin first brought [neon] into art galleries during the 1960’s,” The New York Times wrote in 1981 on the occasion of Flavin’s major exhibition at Leo Castelli, “he was, in effect, doing what Marcel Duchamp had done with his ready-mades nearly 50 years earlier.” No artist is more associated with neon, and indeed Flavin was instrumental in bringing the much-maligned tubes of light to the art world, exploring, “through color, the medium’s expressive possibilities.”
Working on the opposite coast from Flavin, and associated with the Light and Space movement instead of minimalism, Irwin used fluorescent light in several of his most powerful works. “Until now, Dan Flavin has had a sort of monopoly on fluorescent light in art,” the LA Times once wrote. “Irwin’s use of the material is more painterly, supple and sophisticated. It demonstrates that the world is big enough for both artists. And his art’s true competitor is nature, whose visual effects often pale in comparison to Irwin’s extraordinarily nuanced works.”
Another of the iconic neon artists of the 20th century, Sonnier differs from many of his minimalist and post-minimalist contemporaries in the vague figuration of many his works in fluorescent light, which often reference natural forms. “The light is a trapped gas,” he says of the medium. “A gaseous light has more extension, and it begins to make color become volumetric.”
Part of the younger generation of Light and Space artists still very much active today, Dill cites both Irwin and Sonnier as major influences, along with Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim, and even Robert Rauschenberg—all artists who, as he describes, work “with earth materials, light, and space as an alternative to easel painting.”
Nauman was less focused on neon as an expressive medium than as a reference to American consumer culture and a vehicle for his bold statements, questioning the role and function of art in society. Though he produced a huge number of neon works, including many that were quite sexually explicit, his best known work in the medium might be his spiraling 1967 statement, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths.
Some of Conceptual artist Kosuth’s best known works were done in neon, including his famous “tautologies”—self-referential pieces like “FIVE WORDS IN RED NEON” (written in red neon) or “Light is colourless” (written in white tubes of light). “Texts about art works are experienced differently than texts that are art works,” he famously said.
When asked how he first came to work with light as a medium, Chilean artist Navarro had an unusual response. “I was in art school … experimenting with photography,” he said. “I was obsessed with watching and following albino people on the streets because of their intolerance to light. That was the first time I thought of light as a very powerful material to work with.”
Multimedia artist Dawood is one of the most creative practitioners of neon art today, using the medium to explore ideas related to his mixed British-Pakistani-Indian cultural heritage. In one series he rendered many of the “99 beautiful names of God” in neon, presenting them suspended in tumbleweeds atop marble plinths. “I only make one of roughly every fifty to a hundred neon works I design,” he says. “A very long time is spent trying to distill as much meaning as possible into the simplest possible design. For me, it is almost an inner practice, or a spiritual one.”
Jung Lee, The End (2010). Image courtesy of Green Art Gallery
Lee has made a big splash over the past two years, exhibiting in Dubai and Seoul her “Aporia” and “Day and Night” series—lush photographs of sentimental, romantic phrases written in neon and set amidst harsh, often barren landscapes. Her work is inspired by a Roland Barthes essay, A Lover’s Discourse, in which an allegorical figure endlessly searches for signs that he is in love.
Emin’s confessional works transpose into neon her lovesick confessions—written in her own handwriting. During February 2013, several of her neon phrases, like “You touch my soul” and “I promise to love you,” lit up Times Square’s billboards every night at midnight.