Review: Keith Sonnier, “Light Works”

Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain, Nice.

When examining the creative lineage of post-Minimalist art,Keith Sonnier is a prime case study to begin with. CombiningDan Flavin’s light with Robert Irwin’s space, as well as Robert Morris’s draping silhouettes and Robert Rauschenberg’s found-object collages, Sonnier mixes the aesthetics of his peers and mentors for his own brand of figuration, humor, and curiosity. This current survey, titled “Light Works,” of Sonnier’s neon sculptures, ranging from 1968 to 2015, reveals the nuances of his influences as well as his interest in anthropological studies, which provide more narrative readings of his abstract works.

In the darkened rooms, sculptures and installations are mounted from floor to ceiling, often citing Creole terminology, Greek mathematics, Indian festivals, or Chinese ideograms. Pieces such as Expanded Sel V, 1978–2006, hang on the walls as arrangements of imperfect neon ribbons in vertical, horizontal, and bowed lines or as irregular horseshoe shapes, each colored red, violet, blue, white, orange, or yellow. Referencing the fluid markings of Chinese calligraphy, these three-dimensional drawings in light display Sonnier’s devotion to finding spirited buoyancy in simple contours.

Elements of the artist’s Acadian hometown and local environment appear in works from the 1994 “Tidewater” and 2009 “Oldowan” series, which incorporate consumer waste products such as plastic detergent bottles and laundry baskets or gauzy fabrics from his deceased mother’s wardrobe, held together with steel armatures and witty anthropomorphic or organic neon forms, as in Faya, 2009. Ultimately, it’s Sonnier’s expressive, light-hearted, and sensual approach to imprinting space with light that sets him apart from any shadow of influence. He cleaved from the severity of Minimalism and found his own room to play.

First published on, October 20th, 2015.

arielle bier