In ‘Light Works, 1968-70’ at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, Keith Sonnier (b.1941, Louisiana) effectively discusses the limits of objecthood from a modernist point of view. Taught by Robert Morris at Rutgers University, New Jersey, he is not only part of those artists that challenged the conventional notions of sculpture such as Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra but he also engages in a debate with Dan Flavin that brings light to the dilemmas around the relationship between modernism and minimalism.
What I liked about the show is its matter of fact specificity. Using neon light as a gestural object, he tackles Flavin’s idea of ‘irony’ as a (visual) rhetorical figure of displacement where a ready made object (light tube) projects a certain degree of illusionism (which could be allegorized as ‘divine light’). Flavin’s allusion to Russian Icons should be born in mind here in the way his works are displayed and are supposed to be seen (as paintings).
Sonnier’s neons are not ironic (as in objectual and illusionistic) but relational and those relations happen at two levels. The first one has to do with replacing the brush stroke with a ready made called ‘electricity’ which, in spite of being a readymade, has the unevenness of a brushstroke. Sonnier’s Neon Wrapping Incandescent (1969) is an attempt to transform the ready made into a subjective expressive gesture. The second level is, however, the more relevant and has to do with very specific questions about how neon (or light) sculptures should behave in its physical and architectural context.
This is particularly interesting because one has the impression that in Dan Flavin there is a disregard for architecture. This same disregard is taken to the extreme of cancelling the architecture altogether in order to make it explode as pure illusionism in James Turrell. In Sonnier, however, the focus lies in the setting and how a sculpture made of light should function if there is no pedestal to hold it and point at it as ‘work of art’. His works, seem to hold against the wall or spill over a stage like surface. What in Flavin is self contained illusionism, in Sonnier is more liquid and precarious.
In Lit Circle Red with Flutex (1968), the neon does not coincide with the border of the circular glass and functions as a way to hold it. This brings the viewer’s attention into the relationships between the neon as frame and the neon as a pedestal of sorts. Something similar happens in its spectacular Ba-0-BA VI (1970) which spills over a stage-like platform challenging the notion of modernist self containment but not quite because the neon seems to frame it (although it does not quite succeed at that). I loved the economic seriousness of this show. J A T