The Art of Neon: Wrapping Up 2011 with a Celebration of Light

NEW YORK—With 2011 coming to a close, its seems fitting to end the year with a celebration of light.

Over the past year, contemporary artists have been making provocative statements with neon lighting traditionally used for commercial signs. Glenn Ligon lighting up Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side with a “Negro Sunshine” sign in the front window of the Whitney Museum in the Spring comes to mind. And a neon installation by Jeppe Hein at the Armory show in March (see image below) featured a message that is spot on for New Year’s Eve.

Neon lighting was invented a century ago in France and introduced in the United States in the 1920s. Soon graphic type signs powered by neon gas were a mainstay in New York City, advertising everything from restaurants to pharmacies.

Originally, the glowing light of neon signs was generated when an electrical current was introduced to a glass tube filled with neon gas. Now it is more common for electrical lighting created with tubes filled with alternative gases including argon and mercury vapor, to also be called neon lighting.

Once ubiquitous neon signs are fading fixtures in cities across the nation. Those that remain are regarded a vintage, artful treasures. There is even a blog, Project Neon, devoted to documenting neon signs in New York.

Today, neon continues to light the way to longstanding neighborhood businesses and legendary landmarks such as the Apollo Theater in Harlem. And like Ligon, many modern and contemporary artists and designers have also recognized the aesthetic value of neon and are using the medium in their work.

From the Armory Show and beyond, these images were captured throughout 2011.

All photos by Arts Observer

“Negro Sunshine” in the window of the Whitney Museum, part of the “Glenn Ligon: AMERICA” exhibit from March 10 to June 6, 2011.

“Untitled (I Sell the Shadow to Sustain the Substance),” 2005 (neon sign and paint) by Glenn Ligon, from “30 Americans” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., on view Oct. 1, 2011 to February 12, 2012.

A large neon installation at Brooklyn Glass. During Open House New York Weekend, on Oct. 15, 2011, Brooklyn Glass demonstrated how neon light is created and how artists work with neon tubing.

“Four Colors Four Words,” 1966 (neon tubing) by Joseph Kosuth, at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.

“Please…” 2008 (neon tubes and seven transformers) by Jeppe Hein, shown by 303 Gallery at the 2011 Armory Show from March 8-11, 2011, in New York.

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