Keith Sonnier: Light Works

Exhibition, Musée d'Art Moderne et d'Art Contemporain (MAMAC), Nice, France, until 29 November 2015.

Keith Sonnier is less renowned as a sculptural light artist than his pioneering contemporaries Dan Flavin and Bruce Nauman. But this exhibition at the Musée d'Art Moderne et d'Art Contemporain (MAMAC) in Nice reveals how the American artist's uplifting work is deserving of closer attention. It sees neons being employed in more expressive ways, differing from the rigorous approach of Flavin and the more conceptual art of Nauman. Around 30 works by the American artist are on display, revealing the joyfulness and playfulness of his curvy neon and multi-media pieces.

Anna Sansom November 2015
Now aged 74, Sonnier was born in Louisiana in 1941, eight years after Flavin but the same year as Nauman. He began working with neons in the 1960s, drawing inspiration from his own environment and using mostly soft materials such as metal grids, fabrics, ribbons and curtains. His assemblages reveal the influence of Robert Rauschenberg and an interest in consumerism. In one wall sculpture, two American flags are attached to a globe. Dynamo cleaning products rotate around a kitchen bowl in another, neons dangling down like spilt liquid. Objects connect through the looped, coloured neons, as if Sonnier is weaving narratives together. The voluptuousness of Sonnier's sculptures makes them seem to sing and dance in their spatial environments, the neons bearing the lyricism of musical notes.
Tisket-A-Tasket, 1994. From the Tidewater series. Mixed techniques, neons and found objects. 106.7 x 66 x 45.7 cm © ADAGP, Paris 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery, New York. Photo: Steve Tucker
Sonnier's exhibition is part of an umbrella event grouping Nice's museums, titled Nice Promenade 2015 which is named after the shorefront Promenade des Anglais. With this in mind, Sonnier created a site-specific piece for the MAMAC that takes inspiration from the French Riviera city. It is a lit passageway in wavy blue, green, mauve and yellow lines, evoking the colours of the sea and landscape and referring to the changing history of the city.
However, Sonnier had already created a resonance with Nice's famous artist Yves Klein back in 1970 through his piece Dis-Play II. Cubes and cylinders in rubber foam, a scattering of fluorescent powder, fragments of glass, neons and lights create a vibrant combination in a palette of colours favoured by Klein.