Keith Sonnier – bathing in light

Sonnier – the name speaks volumes! Louisiana, all things Cajun and Mardi Gras come to mind. Without this multicultural background it wouldn’t be possible to understand this exceptional artist. To this day the folk in Louisiana still speak either French or Cajun. An extraordinary cultural mix. The Mardi Gras is the French variation of carnival, with delectable foods, processions and extravagant costumes introduced by the Catholic Church to inhibit the boisterous pagan saturnalia of rambunctious festivals. If one were to add the sub-tropical climate of Louisiana with its swamps, the Mississippi Delta, the biodiversity of fauna and flora to the mix, then one gets an idea where and how Keith Sonnier grew up. 

Characterised by an eventful life and no longer as verbose as in his most active days, the almost 80-year-old artist takes us right back there from where he came, to Louisiana, in our short almost spiritual telephone interview:  

Keith Sonnier during the Flocked Car Project, commissioned by collector Larry Warsh, 2016. © Caterina Verde
Keith Sonnier during the Flocked Car Project, commissioned by collector Larry Warsh, 2016. © Caterina Verde

«The landscape and its light was important for my inspiration.»

His grandmother still practised the primordial method of healing used here – which has left a deep impression on him to this day. He would sometimes accompany her on treatment visits.

«Until today it was one of the most impressing performances I’ve ever seen. She was an inspiration for all my life.»

From Louisiana to New York

It was from this natural world whose culture has a way of capturing the imagination that he walked away from – and landed up in Paris to begin with. Keith Sonnier belongs to the few American artists, who subsequently experienced almost more recognition in Europe than in their homeland. “It was almost easier for me to implement my art in Europe, since the trained artisans implicitly supported me in the making of my work – especially in producing curved neon tubes.”

Then there came the step that took him to New York, which has become his second home to this day. What a conspicuous contrast – a liberating, inspiring experience. “I loved it, I felt like I had come into the world!” New friends, everything a little unusual, new experiences. Sonnier took everything on board and turned it into something completely new! Also integrating into his works his mother’s expertise in repurposing old materials into something new; be it discarded laundry baskets, pink silk fabrics – everything served an experimental purpose. 

Let there be – a light artist

It was from home that he also brought with him his culinary streak. He would apparently cook for entire artist groups in his studio in New York and outstandingly at that. Gordon Matta-Clark and Lynda Benglis were among his companions, while Donald Judd and Dan Flavin were around too, but were older and already established in New York. After graduating from Rutgers University he experimented with latex, satin and other materials. Then in 1968 came the first experiment with light. Now going beyond pure minimalism and using copper tubing as a template, Sonnier began sketching lines, arches and curves that he ultimately had come into their own in glass-tubing-enclosed neon. The linear quality of neon allowed him to draw in the surrounding space with light and colour, the light and colour in turn interacting with space. His trips to Bali and India, the Holi Festival with its explosive colours of raw pigment that people smear one another with, inspired works like Dis_Play II, 1970. 

The world stage

Keith Sonnier became part of iconic exhibitions like “Eccentric Abstraction” in the Fischbach Gallery in New York city (1966, curated by Lucy Lippard) and “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form” in the Kunsthalle Bern (1969), under curator Harald Szeemann, who worked with him again at Documenta 5 1972. At the same time Sonnier’s works were also included in the groundbreaking “Anti-Illusion” exhibition of the Whitney Museum of American Art. It was the biggest showcase ever for post-minimalism in an American museum. The year 1968 was also when the life-long collaboration with Leo Castelli (New York) and Rolf Ricke (Cologne) began. The collection that emerged from the latter was later acquired by the State Museum of Modern and Contemporary art in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, and the St. Gallen Art Museum. Today it forms the backbone of the permanent exhibitions there. 

Bathing in moonlight

However Keith Sonnier also wanted to create larger spaces with light – again he went one step further combining light & architecture and what came about was an extension of the sculptural series BA-O-BA. 

Sonnier: «I discovered the term on a trip with Gordon Matta-Clark through Haiti in 1969. One evening we were standing in front of a fishing boat that was baptized in this name. The fisherman explained to us that the Haitian Creole phrase could be loosely translated as “bathing in moonlight”.»

BA-O-BA took many forms. Sonnier transformed en-tire buildings and squares into illuminated works of art, in which one could ‘bathe’ in the light. He created what has to be one of the largest and most spectacular works of art at Munich Airport: the 1.2 km neon work Lightway. It came about between 1989 and 1992 and is found on Arrival Level 03 of Terminal 1. Passengers are literally immersed in the light. Sonnier’s play of light and colour excites the senses, envelopes the body like a lightweight colourful coat, spurring on the imagination – and probably also has an effect on reducing stress.

High-Lights

In 1999 he transformed Kunsthaus Bregenz one of Europe‘s leading museums of contemporary art designed by Peter Zumthor into a kaleidoscope of light. In 2002 he had Berlin’s New National Gallery designed by Dutch star architect Mies van Rohe ‘wrapped around’ with light. With the advent of dusk a fascinating dialogue would present itself between the dark steel architecture and the brilliant luminescent neon colours. By affixing neon contours to the window area the transparency of the Mies architecture would become even more exaggerated. The colours selected for the installation, red, yellow and blue, and the right-angled grid achieved a veritable Piet Mondrian effect. However, what Keith Sonnier turns it into for the observer, is a playful conversation with space, reflections and interactions. 

One of the largest light installations, created in 2004 for the Thom Mayne’s Caltrans District 7 Building in Los Angeles, shows the timeless elegance and aesthetics of Sonnier’s works. Hundreds of exhibitions were held and many awards were received by him until the Arts and Letters Award in Art 2013. He has ultimately also touched the hearts of the big American museums like MoMA in New York, MOCA in Los Angeles and the Whitney Museum. In Europe he is represented by Häusler Contemporary, which has been providing him with support for 25 years and will have his works exhibited in Zurich until the 14 August 2020.  

In conclusion, this is how Sonnier sees where he’s at:

«I stopped cooking, I concentrate all my energy to go on making artworks with light and wood. Artists never retire!” 

Bathing in light – what a marvellous description of his work!

Titelbild: Keith Sonnier during the Flocked Car Project, commissioned by, collector, Larry Warsh, 2016. Foto © Caterina Verde

Daniel Chardon
Daniel Chardon

Initially, a simple research article was planned. Rather unexpectedly the opportunity arose to have a personal telephone conversation with Keith Sonnier. It was a process of weighing up and finding the right time when his mind, defying the medication, was receptive to questions. Although healthwise already marked, the few clear words were imprinted deeply in my memory. His memories were drifting back to his childhood in Louisiana and to his grandmother, the healer. At the same time the unrestrained urge for creation of art came out of this artist’s soul, culminating in the phrase “artists never retire”.
He was hospitalized a few days after this interview and died after a short illness on July 18, 2020. Our thoughts are with him, his companions and relatives.

FAREWELL

KEITH SONNIER

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At our interview on June 24, 2020 Keith Sonnier was already present and absent – like one of his illuminations glowing and extinguishing in the evening light before the sky. His grandmother, the healer, was over present, life and death had probably already reached out their hands. This weekend we were dismayed to learn of his death on Saturday, July 18, 2020.
Death? He and his work remain present – bright, powerful.
If birth illuminates the sky like lightning, his illuminations have illuminated our everyday life. When death slides back into the ocean like a wave, his works remain on the beach of life as a lasting legacy. And we, to remain in the spirit of Sonnier, are the bathers in the moonlight, listening to the flickering of his lights. BA-O-BA – all the best on the journey to the stars, Keith Sonnier.

Our deepest sympathy goes to the family and companions at Studio Sonnier.

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