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News

In Loving Memory of Keith Sonnier

1941 – 2020

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Keith Sonnier.

An early proponent of Postminimalism who did pioneering work in video, performance, and light art, Keith Sonnier was a uniquely protean artist. He rose to prominence in the late 1960s, imbuing his practice with the daring, experimental spirit of this moment. Spanning six decades as well as a wide range of media, his highly idiosyncratic oeuvre resists easy categorization, revealing through its twists and turns Sonnier’s unbridled curiosity and imagination. His lifelong sensitivity to unconventional materials—from industrial neon to ephemeral, high-tech radio waves and tactile, soft elements, such as flocked latex and foam rubber—impelled him to reenvision sculpture as a capacious medium, marked by heterogeneity, juxtaposition, and a sensuality surpassing the merely optical.

Born in Mamou, Louisiana in 1941, Sonnier grew up in a close-knit Cajun community, defined by an eclectic mix of African, French, and English cultural traditions. The marshy landscape of southern Louisiana, where fog and still bodies of water regularly refract light to sublime effect, long gripped him. Begun in 1969, his floor-to-wall Ba-O-Ba series, for instance, offers perfectly equipoised compositions of geometric glass panes set aglow by colored neon lights, whose reflections and spatial diffusion of color enlist the viewer in a phenomenological experience true to the eldritch ambience of the bayou, specifically, to “the effect of moonlight on the skin” referenced by the series’ Creole title. Sonnier spent much time as a child watching the films played at the local movie house run by his aunt—a pastime that foreshadowed his later experimentation with novel, time-based technologies, including video and satellite transmission. Additionally, his father’s hardware store, as well as his mother’s occupation as a florist, early on awakened him to a broad universe of materials, one free of biases against the decorative, industrial, or everyday.

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Keith Sonnier, Ba-O-Ba V, 1970, neon, glass, electrical wire and transformer, 83" x 16' 7" x 11" (210.8 cm x 505.5 cm x 27.9 cm), Collection of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi © Keith Sonnier

With the support of his family, Sonnier began his studies in figurative painting in 1959 while attending the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1963, he traveled to Normandy and Paris, where he was drawn to Henri Matisse’s experiments with color and form. While visiting the Musée d’Art Moderne, he was struck by Oracle (1962–65), an assemblage by Robert Rauschenberg, a fellow Gulf Coast native whose predilection for unvarnished, haptic materials resonated profoundly with Sonnier. Indeed, Oracle’s juxtaposition of found objects and electronics, including a car door, ventilation duct, and multiple radios, radically expanded Sonnier’s understanding of sculpture. In 1966, a year after returning to the US, Sonnier began pursuing an MFA under Robert Morris and Robert Watts at Rutgers University, whose impressive faculty included other eminent figures—Roy Lichtenstein, Allan Kaprow, and George Segal, among them. The school had, in addition, shaped influential figures, notably Lucas Samaras, and was visited by key artists, such as Yoko Ono and George Brecht, during Sonnier’s time there. It was also while at Rutgers that Sonnier met his first wife, the Newfoundland-born sculptor Jackie Winsor.

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Keith Sonnier, Neon Wrapping Incandescent, 1969, neon, incandescent light bulbs, and transformer, overall vertical installation dimensions variable, 64" x 48" x 9-1/2", Collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston © Keith Sonnier

This prestigious graduate environment provided Sonnier with a true hotbed of experimentation, where Minimalism, Fluxus, Pop, and performance art collided to suggest new avenues of exploration. By graduation, he had already shifted from painting to a type of sculpture that embraced contingency through its floor-to-wall placement and atypical, pliable materials, which repudiated the static and rigid nature of most traditional art. Noting their radical departure from the austerity of Minimalism through a sensuous, even erotic, evocation of corporeality, Lucy Lippard included Sonnier’s early work such as Untitled (1966)—along with pieces by other little known but now eminent artists, including Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, and Bruce Nauman—in her landmark exhibition Eccentric Abstraction (1966) at Fischbach Gallery, New York. In the ensuing years, Sonnier’s art continued to appear in seminal group exhibitions, such as 9 at Leo Castelli (1968) curated by Robert Morris, Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form at Kunsthalle, Bern (1969), and Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials (1969) at the Whitney Museum, which heralded the advent of Anti-Form and Process art. In a testament to its enduring impact, Live in Your Head, whose title had been coined by Sonnier, was reprised in 2013 as When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013 by curator Germano Celant at the Fondazione Prada.

Sonnier received his first solo exhibition at an international museum in 1970 at the Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven. It was followed just a year later by his first solo museum exhibition in the United States, Projects: Keith Sonnier, held at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. By this time, Sonnier had already become one of the first artists to experiment with new forms of media such as video projection, integrating these with improvised performances. He further explored performance in the Projects exhibition, producing participatory light and sound environments that actively engaged the viewer as yet another component of the work. His interest in live-broadcast and surveillance technology evolved into multimedia performance works, such as Send/Receive/Send (1973) held at The Kitchen, New York, and Send/Receive Satellite Network: Phase I & II (1977), the latter of which used NASA telecommunication systems to establish a live satellite feed between groups of artists in San Francisco and New York. Pointing to the machinations of the mass media, the artist retroactively explained that there was a “political thrust” to his cooptation of such a communication network, which undercut its propagandistic nature by “making that tool culturally possible” or available to artistic expression.

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Keith Sonnier, Palm Saw Tooth Blatt, 2004, neon and transformer, 68" x 70" x 5" (172.7 cm x 177.8 cm x 12.7 cm), Collection of Parrish Art Museum © Keith Sonnier

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Keith Sonnier, Dismantled Weapon, 2004, neon, transformer and found objects, 63" x 32" x 15" (160 cm x 81.3 cm x 38.1 cm) © Keith Sonnier

Aside from exploring new technologies, Sonnier’s omnivorous approach to art making led him to investigate the art of continents beyond Europe and North America. In parallel to other artists of his generation, namely Lynda Benglis, he visited India extensively in the early 1980s, deeply appreciating Indian culture’s incorporation of ritual objects in the flow of everyday life. His appreciation for foreign visual traditions would only grow through his second marriage to Brazilian curator Nessia Pope, who arrived to New York from São Paulo in 1975 and met Sonnier six years later. In response to the art of India, as well as Brazil, Japan, Bali, and Africa, Sonnier decisively broke away from the wall, creating free-standing sculptures, such as Quadruped (1984) and Trois-Pattes (Triped, 1984). Made out of earthy materials, notably bamboo and wood, these works sought to recover a psychosomatic connection and craft-based quality absent in his previous works based in technological mediation. His travels would long continue to inspire his eclecticism, as seen with the exuberantly contorted neon lights of Passage Azur (2015/18). First realized in shades of blue and green at the Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain in Nice and recreated in a broader color scale at the Parrish Museum, the ceiling-bound installation alluded to the plumes of vibrantly hued powders thrown on crowds during India’s Holi Festival, while also nodding to the ebullience of Mardi Gras parades in Sonnier’s native Louisiana.

During the 1980s, Sonnier also began to include corrugated aluminum plates in his neon sculptures, creating geometric, free-standing arrangements with an almost monumental presence, as evidenced by Kiosk II (1987). This shift in scale coincided with his growing attunement to color’s potential as a volumetric presence or “solid form” in dialogue with architecture—a line of investigation that led to progressively large-scale and site-specific projects housed in public spaces. With Motordom (2004), for example, he created one of the largest permanent public projects in Los Angeles. Produced in partnership with Morphosis Architects and located in the courtyard of the Caltrans District 7 headquarters, the installation of red neon and blue argon lights is operated by a computerized lighting sequence that—in its emphasis on horizontality and movement across space—evokes the accelerated dynamism of California’s freeways. Similarly attuned to the everyday motion of bodies, Lightway (1989–92), one of Sonnier’s most important commissions, is a permanent installation spanning a 1,000-meter walkway of moving sidewalks that link the terminals at the New International Airport of Munich. The work immerses visitors in a rhythmic, mood-shifting environment as surprising in its progression as Sonnier’s own artistic evolution.

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Keith Sonnier, Lunar Slice, 2013, neon, acrylic, aluminum, electrical wire and transformer, 11' 1" x 9' 3-1/2" x 4" (337.8 cm x 283.2 cm x 10.2 cm) © Keith Sonnier

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Keith Sonnier, Elliptically Lobbed, 2013, neon, acrylic, enamel paint, aluminum, electrical wire, and transformer, 10' 1-1/2" x 88" x 10-1/2" (308.6 cm x 223.5 cm x 26.7 cm) © Keith Sonnier

Sonnier realized over twenty public commissions for architectural landmarks, including the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, Washington, D.C. (1998); San Francisco International Airport (2001); the AFG Arena, a sports complex in St. Gallen, Switzerland (2008); and the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Baton Rouge (2013). He also produced temporary public commissions that transformed Pether Zumthor’s Kunsthaus Bregenz (1990); Mies van der Rohe’s Neue National Galerie in Berlin (2002); Gordon Bunshaft’s iconic Lever House in New York (2003); and the Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain (MAMAC) in Nice (2015).

He has been the subject of over 150 one-artist exhibitions, which include a retrospective held at the Alexandria Museum of Art, Louisiana (1987) and, more recently, a 2018 retrospective, Keith Sonnier: Until Today, at the Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York that subsequently traveled to the New Orleans Museum of Art, Louisiana in 2019. Monographic exhibitions have been presented at numerous venues worldwide, including Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (1979); P.S. 1 Institute for Art and Urban Resources, Long Island City (1983); Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. (1989); Sprengel Museum, Hanover (1993); The Drawing Center, New York (1994); Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria (1999); Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin (2003); and the Arts Club of Chicago (2005). Recent exhibitions have been held at the Hall Art Foundation, Reading, Vermont (2015); Musée d'Art Moderne et d'Art Contemporain, Nice (2015); the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut (2017); The Dan Flavin Institute, Dia Bridgehampton, New York (2018); and National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (2018).

Featured in over 360 group exhibitions, his work has been included in the Tokyo Biennial (1970); Indian Triennial, New Delhi (1971); Documenta 5, Kassel (1972); the Venice Biennale (1972, 1982); the Whitney Biennial (1973, 1977); International Biennial Exhibition of Prints, Tokyo (1974); Biennale de Paris (1975); Biennale des Friedens, Hamburg (1985); and the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture, Hong Kong (2015).

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Keith Sonnier, Kuito, 2016, neon, plastic convex mirrors, black galvanized rubber pads, black enamel paint, black electrical cable, transformer and rubber end caps, 72" × 60" × 10" (182.9 cm × 152.4 cm × 25.4 cm) © Keith Sonnier

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Keith Sonnier, Turbo, 2019, cedar, encaustic and flocking, 33-1/2" × 28" × 3-1/2" (85.1 cm × 71.1 cm × 8.9 cm) © Keith Sonnier

Sonnier’s work is held in over fifty public collections throughout the United States and abroad, including Centre Pompidou, Paris; Guggenheim Abu Dhabi; Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; Kunstverein St. Gallen, Switzerland; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Musée d'Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean, Luxembourg; Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona; Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Tate, London; Tel Aviv Museum, Israel; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, among others.

Among his numerous awards and honors, Sonnier was presented with the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 1974, the same year he was awarded first prize at the International Biennial Exhibition of Prints, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. He has twice been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, Washington, D.C. (1975, 1981), and was presented with the Arts and Letters Award in Art by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York (2013). In 2014, Sonnier was honored with a SPARK Lifetime Achievement Award, conferred by the University of Louisiana, Lafayette (2014).

Keith Sonnier has exhibited with Pace since 2005. One-person shows of his work at the gallery include Keith Sonnier (2005); Recent Work (2008); Elysian Plain + Early Works (2014); and Ebo River and Early Works (2017), for which catalogues, featuring writings and interviews by Richard Shiff, Klaus Kertess, and Richard Kalina, were published.

He is survived by his daughter Olympia Sonnier and brother Barry Ledoux.

News — In Loving Memory of Keith Sonnier, Jul 20, 2020