I often wonder what will make my workseem dated in 20 years, and whether or not I can change those things now. A similar question nagged me as I made my way through Keith Sonnier’s intermittently exhilarating show of work from 1967 to 1975 at Ace Gallery: Can any of us, in the end, do anything other than make good on what-ever inherent qualities have been in our work from the start?
Sonnier is an artist whose considerable artistic gifts were absolutely in sync with and briefly in front of his own time. Yet his art hasn’t entirely transcended his period. Back in the day—from around 1965, when he was a gorgeous 24-year-old, to 1975—this Louisiana native was one of the golden boys of post-minimalism: an artist who helped shake art up, break it down, dematerialize and reform it, while demonstrating that art could be almost anything, made anywhere, and of any material. Nobody displayed their means quite as blatantly, buoyantly, or with such élan as Sonnier. Electric cords, lightbulbs, and wire mesh were employed as visual structure. What the work was made of, its nuts and bolts, was out there, right in front of you, utilized as framework and decoration. One of the inventors and codifiers of an anti-formalist language that is still in use today, an idiom that helped advance art beyond pop and minimalism, Sonnier pioneered the use of neon, foam rubber, flocking, strobe, sound, and black light in sculpture; he was a proto installation artist and a minor master of light. I remember drooling over his work in art magazines in my twenties and wondering if I could ever be as avant-garde as he was.
Yet while fellow post-minimalists like Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman, and Richard Tuttle, among others, developed and extended the intrinsic characteristics of their work—Serra his power, Nauman his skepticism, and Tuttle his quirky urgency—Sonnier was either unable or unwilling to evolve his essences, which turned out to be joy and atmosphere. Sonnier’s was a kind of physicalized American gladness, avant-gardism crossed with Cajun music and Mardi Gras. He was a homegrown Arte Povera artist without the artiness or politics. Notwithstanding an elegant series of geometric bamboo wall pieces from the 1980s, a number of arresting public light commissions, and occasional echoes of earlier work, since around 1981 Sonnier has basically made recapitulations of older pieces.
At Ace you can see what a strong start Sonnier had and how ahead of the curve he once was. Fluorescent Room (1970) is a black-lit gallery with blocky foam chunks that have been sprinkled with what appears to be fluorescent fairy dust. It’s a walk-in revelation that feels brand-new. Live Video (1970), a live camera feed split into two images, slips into an edgy low-tech gap between semblance and self. My favorite, Scanners (1974), consists of six wall-mounted radio scanners tuned to various frequencies so that you hear random telephone conversations, ship-to-shore calls, and police communications. Not surprisingly, considering how voyeuristic it is, another version of this piece was bought by Andy Warhol, who installed it in the entrance to the Factory on Union Square. At Ace, crackles of “10-4,” “Stand by,” and “Remove everyone in the building” waft in; it’s like eavesdropping on the buzzing mind of the city.
I wish that the show had included more early pieces (the work I saw in the art magazines) and fewer of the neon and neon-and-glass sculptures. Among these absent efforts are scuzzy-looking rectangles of flocking, cheesecloth, or what might pass for dryer lint or crusty scum that Sonnier hung on the wall and illuminated with bare lightbulbs or colored neon. In other works, sheets of glass were attached to the wall, smears and streaks of latex visible behind them, and electric cords snaking all around. System and process were always emphasized. And always there was light. But sadly, none of these are at Ace.
As much as I love some of Sonnier’s neon sculptures, too many of them is a bad thing. Initially, these wall works, which look like mathematical theorems illustrated by Dan Flavin, are sexy and incisive. In the Ba-O-Ba series (1969), Sonnier synthesizes form and light in these delicious neon squiggles. As beautiful as a few of these pieces are, occasionally they resemble airport sculpture. Looking at them, I thought the light, as sweet and seductive as it was, would have worked better had he delved deeper into the materials that surrounded it, experimented more with configurations and the placement of pieces in space, or had combined the ebullient spirit of his art with something, anything, other than joy. Then I wondered if he had a choice. Then I worried about my own work. At this point, I went back to Scanners. I listened in on all that was going on in the city outside and told myself that numerous paths exist at any given moment and that if we listen carefully, and are self-critical enough, there’s always a possibility to follow one of them.