The Dan Flavin Art Institute in the tony hamlet of Bridgehampton is a temple to formal piety. On the second floor of this former First Baptist Church, originally built in 1908 as a firehouse, nine of Flavin’s minimalist fluorescent sculptures snap to invisible grids to align cleanly with hardwood floors and austere white walls. They have been here since 1983, installed as a permanent shrine according to the artist’s vision. (Flavin oversaw the installation with an architect, Richard Gluckman.) The mood is reflective, sacrosanct. Purity is key. Outside, the lush landscape is blocked out by scrim that cloaks windows. Inside, the sculptures demand the kind of humble absorption familiar to churchgoers. In a back gallery, atop a worn lectern, an old Bible sits open for any sympathetic reader.
But on the ground floor of this Dia branch, past a closed door and into a darkened room, there is a small installation of blinding, flashing lights, neon dust, lumpy geometric sculptures, and black light that brazenly spoils the cleanliness of Flavin’s chapel. The work, Dis-play II (1970) by Keith Sonnier, comes on strong — too strong, in fact, and the glaring light and clashing colors quickly become exhausting — but it nevertheless works as a succinct introduction to his work, which is the subject of a selective and impressive career survey at the nearby Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill. (The Dia presentation is a tie-in; the foundation has operated the institute since its founding.) Instead of Flavin’s elegant, minimalist zeal, Sonnier is after “dirtier,” uglier, more audacious sorts of inventions, ones that draw freely from the detritus of the world, and that traffic in the noise and fizzle that the orthodox minimalists wanted to keep out.
Passage Azur (2015/2018) is the first work at the Parrish and it announces Sonnier’s intention boldly. Down the museum’s narrow long central corridor, hanging from the tops of the walls, are a series of neon squiggles of electric light — reds, blues, yellows, purples, and greens, some in tied bundles of tubing, others curving wildly alone, all of them held up by steel cables that run from wall to wall across open space. It’s a boisterous scene of light, seemingly drawn freehand in space, and it’s made even busier by the installation of Quad Scan, a 1975 work, just below. In that piece, Sonnier tunes a radio scanner into the local weather station, and if you listen closely enough, you’ll get reports of conditions and patterns in the nearby Little Peconic and Mecox bays.
Sonnier traces his restlessness to his upbringing in Louisiana. He was born in 1941 in the tiny town of Mamou, where he grew up surrounded by a carnivalesque culture. “We have a very old-fashioned Mardi Gras that’s done on horseback and the costumes are out of the ordinary,” he said in 2016. “They’re made almost to look like fantasy ghouls or elements from another world but made out of very simple materials.” Mamou’s annual parade, the Courir de Mardi Gras, has no determined path, and “capture[s] the very essence of Sonnier’s free-range artistic production,” as the architecture critic Martin Filler notes in the exhibition catalogue.
Sometimes his free-range approach leads down problematic paths. Sonnier — a late modernist in his heart — has the westerner’s vaguely troublesome relationship with foreign cultures. Seeking ideas from afar, he has travelled widely — Japan, Brazil, India — and worked with artists he has admired and learned from. Through the process, Sonnier has built for himself a storehouse of visual ideas and skills that are the building blocks of some of his best his works. Ganesh (1981), from his “India” series, is a handsome, wall-mounted bamboo piece with a protruding staff that mimics the trunk of the Hindu god Ganesha, who is depicted as an elephant. This sculpture succeeds through specificity: We understand what we’re seeing and the sources of its charm. But sometimes, Sonnier seems to consolidate otherness too efficiently, in a way that looks distasteful today. In the catalogue, we read that another series, “Exotic Works,” inaugurated a “new formal language, evoking another culture and steeped in its craft tradition.” Which culture exactly?
This may be more a problem of language than of art-making; perhaps it’s not the work that’s at fault, but the words we use to describe it. And anyway, all artists, in one way or another, benefit when they look near and far, and must then distill their complex experiences into useful, perceived essences. An abstract way of seeing is crucial, even if you are not an exclusively abstract artist. This is one of the most delightful surprises of the show: how often Sonnier condenses into clever formal games things we already know from everyday life. Circle Portal A and Circle Portal B (both 2015) each make silly, sympathetic frowny faces in multi-color neon; Sitting Abri (2000) is an aluminum ladder leading up to a balcony; and several sculptures in the show include castaway garbage such as bottles of antifreeze and household cleaner, which today look like comments on climate change, even if this wasn’t Sonnier’s intention.
These works aren’t “characteristic,” precisely because Sonnier has no “style” to speak of. This fact has always been to his credit. He is a promiscuous sculptor. He can bounce from objects made of poor materials — such as an unassuming, ten-foot long, satin-covered, bulbous, foam-rubber log, made shortly after he graduated from Rutgers University with an MFA in 1966 — to Ba-O-Ba I (1969), the first work in a series in which neon tubes sit restlessly atop sheets of glass. And somehow — in a way that is continually surprising and practically without precedent — he never loses his individual touch. You can still always recognize a Sonnier.
And this, in the end, is his real success. Sonnier is not unlike many of the other excellent artists who coasted in on the waves of post-minimalism. In their own ways, Eva Hesse, Rona Pondick, Nancy Holt, David Hammons, and Richard Tuttle, among others, each developed consistent and cohesive bodies of work while persistently refusing a signature touch. Sonnier is the same: a drifter with purpose, who surely surprises himself as much as he surprises everyone else. What remains steady throughout is a sense of delight. Mastodon (2008) is one of the best examples: a joyful set of streaking, neon curves fixed to a solid steel base as strong as a mammoth, but with all the playfulness of a child’s outsize toy. It may be the best sculpture in this convincing show, and perhaps the richest expression of Sonnier’s keen and impudent eye.