They often look their best from a distance, their colors merging like mist in the room so that the air almost appears to glow. We are standing in Keith Sonnier’s house, looking across together to his “barn.” In the window, you can vaguely make our the gleam from one of his sculptures. Fresh snow has obliterated the ground; deer glide by. A blizzard is expected for tomorrow.
All is bright inside the light artist’s house, a small Victorian building on Long Island with a modern extension he added three years ago. Now the sun falls on art and plants, and masks he brought home from his many travels. Since suffering a stroke, he sometimes has problems walking, but he nevertheless appears bright, enthusiastic – and pleasure loving. This man enjoys receiving visitors.
Mr. Sonnier, you must have had plenty of electric shocks…
There were a few! But that was in the beginning, when I had just started working with neon. I was smoking too much dope… (laughs).
It’s a trapped gas, ignited by the electrical charge… and then the light extends out into the atmosphere. I am very drawn to that perception element of it. It’s much more seductive than digital lighting. It’s a color that glows. Like a flame. It IS a flame!
So it’s all about seduction…
When you perceive something, it washes over you. There is an emotional response that makes you aware of your five senses. I want my art to have this. I want it to imbue you.
What is more important: color? Or light?
My first neon work was white. So it was all about the glow. Then I discovered the primary triangle red, yellow, blue… What had drawn me to pigment was the thickness of the raw material, like vermillion red. But light intensifies color to such a new level, it even gives volume to it. I couldn’t conceive of making new works without trying different color combinations in space and form.
Off-the-shelf neon tubes won’t do for Sonnier’s works: He has his light made to order. “The traditional way to make neon is flat, like writing text with spaghetti. I wanted it to bend and come out into space.” Sonnier’s sculptures often look fragile, appear to be in motion, rolling. Looking at them, you are more likely to be put in mind of a snapshot of a primitive organism than a sculpture for eternity.
The production studio is just a five-minute drive from his house in Bridgehampton. Each of his works begins with a sketch from which the model will later develop. Sonnier decides on the color, in other words, the gas or gas mixture, using the sample tubes in his neon charts. The model then goes to the glass blowers’ workshop, where the hot glass is blown into the desired shape, corks are pushed into the ends of the tubes and they are left to cool. For some colors, the hollow glass additionally receives an inner coating before the ends are reheated, the corks replaced by electrodes, a vacuum is created and finally, the noble gas is let in – then the electrical circuit is closed.
In the studio, Sonnier finally pieces the individual components together. Once it is ready to be photographed, the finished sculpture is taken to the light-flooded barn, a second studio on his property. The entire production set-up is a well-oiled artisan operation, perfectly attuned to the needs of the art market. Sometimes, the ultimate destination of a piece influences its design: Sonnier favors the plain blue and red of the noble gases argon and neon for public spaces, for example, because they are easily replaced – a neon tube has a life of less than 15 years.
Why don’t you prepare the tubes yourself?
The artisans are fabulous, I have been working with some of them for more that 30 years now. And they’re always happy when they can make something that is not advertising. I don’t have the time and interest to make my own neon. I would much rather see a cooking show! I’m not a good recipe follower, though… (laughs).
Your kitchen speaks volumes: You love to cook…
Yes! I have always been interested in food. Men and women from Louisiana all cook. In Louisiana, first of all, you have to know how to make a roux. It’s basically poached flour that ends up being the color of chocolate. It even looks like fudge. This is the main ingredients for several of our dishes, and everytime I go to Louisiana, people still ask me: How’s your sauce?
Well, how is your sauce?
I have quite perfected it! I use lemongrass now and many other herbs I have come to know through my travels. That plant at the end of the hall is a lemongrass tree. Also, I don’t make my roux with actual wheat flour, I use almond or chickpea flour. And it tastes fabulous!
In food and in art – you like to be next to the flame…
Absolutely. The flame can be very soothing. And I can make myself feel better by making food. I am rarely depressed because I can rely on this as a mode to get me past things.
Sonnier’s grandmother was a traiteur, as people used to say in the Louisiana patois: She was a healer who used food to cure people. Anyone could come to her and she would take them in and help them without asking a cent in return. Otherwise, she spent the whole day playing cards on her veranda, surrounded by magnificent sycamore trees. Ask Sonnier about his career and he says very little about himself but lots about his teachers. His grandmother, he says, was his first mentor. “I still remember seeing her at 77, clearing a fence in one jump – and she was a tiny woman!”
My work is a celebration. It has to celebrate perception
Sonnier was born in Mamou, Louisiana, in 1941, where he spent a happy childhood amid subtropical plants, extensive rice fields and damp, misty air – everywhere, the light was reflected and refracted in fascinating ways. But the depictions of hell and heaven on opposite sides of the Catholic church where he served as an altar boy were the only art Sonnier knew.
His favorite aunt was the manager of the movie theater in Mamou. Keith tore the tickets upstairs, where the blacks had to sit. He saw Quo Vadis around 40 times. “I knew everything about this movie. How the light affects the mood and sets the scene for perception…. And then there was Deborah Kerr in that fabulous blue gown!”
Sonnier was 15 years old when he and his aunt were involved in a serious car accident. While critically ill and running a high temperature, he had out-of-body experiences. “I remember the white light. It was bright and intense.”
Was that the moment when you decided to become an artist?
As a kid I was on my own a lot. To get past my boredom, I had to be inventive. So I always made things out of twigs and bits of branches. It looked abstract, but to me it was like little scenes – the sky was made out of banana leaves. But I never thought that this could be art. Even later, when I showed my work in New York, I was still shocked that people would buy something I made.
Back then you left purist minimalism behind you with inflatable sculptures…
Minimalist art was very good, but what I wanted as an experience from my work was not the response I got from it. Aesthetically I liked it, especially a painting by Josef Albers. But I was not going to make an Albers painting. I wanted to make something that I manifested. It had to be my recipe, my sauce! (laughs).
At first glance, your pieces are abstract. But they are also lively, you could almost say: happy…
Yes and that has been a real issue. People would say: Oh, it’s very decorative. I think it’s just the opposite: a celebration. This is a very important aspect of my work. It has to celebrate perception.
Sounds like you’re having a lot of fun at work…
Well, I wouldn’t exactly call it ecstasy… (laughs). But I know a lot of artists who speak of their work as of some kind of drudgery. If I had an attitude like that towards art, I wouldn’t even bother making it!
Sebastian Handke was born at a very early age. He spent his childhood in San Francisco and the heartland of Swabia. Once it was over, he earned his living as a director’s assistant, a Flash developer, a musician and a journalist. These days, Sebastian is the editor responsible for Lufthansa Magazin Online.