With the exhibition American Neon Signs by Day & Night the Nederlands Fotomuseum pays a homage to the Dutch artists Toon Michiels (1950 – 2015). During his road trips through the United States in the mid 1970-s Toon Michiels fell under the spell of the neon signs that hotels and restaurants had installed alongside the highways, to lure drivers into making a stop. For him these signs symbolized the typical American on the roadculture. He photographed the neon signs systematically, one by day and again by night which resulted in a series of handsome diptychs. More than thirty-five years later Michiels’s work has been rediscovered and reevaluated and it is being exhibited for the first time in both the Netherlands and abroad.
Road Trips Through the American West
In the mid-1970s Toon Michiels visited the USA a number of times, travelling in a rental car to cities such as Reno and Las Vegas. He fell under the spell of the neon signs that hotels and restaurants had installed alongside the highways to lure drivers into making a short or longer stop. Something like this didn’t exist in Europe. To European eyes, they symbolized a typical American idea about freedom, the automobile culture and the urge to be ‘on the road’ in the wide open spaces of the American West. Their big letters and playful designs appealed to Michiels, partly due to his professional background as a graphic designer. The neon signs often looked like the futuristic structures that were mainly erected during the heyday of American space travel. They created a playful, freewheeling impression and contained many of the motifs from the popular idea of the American West – palm trees, cactuses and cowboys.
Neon Signs as Diptychs
At night these neon signs were even more spectacular, forming great beacons of light against a darkened sky. Michiels decided to photography them systematically, once by day and again by night, head-on and from the same position. The result is a series of handsome diptychs. A selection was published in American Neon Signs by Day & Night in 1980.
Toon Michiels’s work is unique in the history of photography, although it does display interesting parallels with the work of other artists and photographers of the 1970-s: the systems of conceptual and minimal art, early artistic colour photography and their interest in popular culture, in areas such as architecture and urban planning. More than thirty-five years later Michiels’s work has been rediscovered and reevaluated and it is being exhibited for the first time in both the Netherlands and abroad.
Toon Michiels was born in 1950 in Boxtel and graduated in graphic design and photography at the Academy of Art and Design in Den Bosch. He acquired a reputation with his photo book Zeldzame mensen [Exceptional people] (1974) in which he made a visual record of an aged farming couple, in the village of Liempde in the province of Brabant. He went on to pay frequent visits to the United States, going on long road trips for his photo series, American Neon Signs by Day & Night (1980). Thirty-five years later this series won him international fame, including a presentation at the international festival of photography Les Rencontres d’Arles. In the 1980s he developed into a passionate landscape photographer, a form in which he also gave free rein to his fascination for found texts in the landscape.
With thanks to: Ministry of Education, Culture and Science | Rotterdam municipal council | BankGiro Lottery |Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds | the Wertheimer Fonds