A Light Goes Out: Neon Artist Keith Sonnier has Died at 78

Keith Sonnier at the Parrish Art Museum’s opening reception of Artist Choose Artist Exhibition in front of his work, Gran Twister, 2012 and Wall Extension (Patio Series), 2013. Photo: Sunny Khalsa

By Annette Hinkle

Throughout the course of his long career, Keith Sonnier was known as an artist who broke new ground and embraced emerging technologies as well as non-traditional materials in his work.

Mr. Sonnier, who lived in Bridgehampton, died on July 18 at Southampton Hospital. He was 78.

Born on July 31, 1941 in Mamou, Louisiana, Mr. Sonnier grew up in a tight-knit Cajun community. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette in 1963 and earned his MFA from Rutgers University in New Jersey while studying under Robert Morris and Robert Watts. It was there that his lack of preconceived notions when it came to art fully blossomed in a tangible way. It was also at Rutgers where Mr. Sonnier met his first wife, Newfoundland-born sculptor Jackie Winsor. The marriage ended in divorce in 1980.

Beginning in the 1960s, Mr. Sonnier pushed the boundaries of what’s possible in the world of art — particularly in terms of sculpture. Along the way, like many of his contemporaries, he discovered the diverse and endless forms of expression available through the use of unconventional source materials. Chief among them was neon, which became a signature medium early on — and his use of it was legendary. Neon was a defining element of his art and the idea of working with it first came to him in the late 1960s, when Mr. Sonnier found himself wandering around a small Haitian town, admiring the small fishing boats in the bay.

“One of the fishing boats had a title on the side, ‘Ba-O-Ba,’ and I asked the fisherman, ‘What does this mean?’ and he says, ‘Oh, it’s the moonlight on your skin when you’re in the water,’” Mr. Sonnier recalled during a 2018 interview with the Express News Group. “It was so metaphysical in its depth, and the name stuck with me.”

Back in New York, Mr. Sonnier began exploring what he called the Ba-O-Ba concept and soon found a neon shop in Harlem that made his first neon arc in the shape of a half moon. After hanging the whitish blue piece on the wall, Mr. Sonnier said he felt something was missing, so he strung up large strips of colorful fabric sourced from a huge box of 1950s prom gowns his mother had collected while suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The pinks and blues glowed as he turned the neon light on and off — like clouds would against the moon, he said.

“It began to look like it floated in space,” he said. “I just loved it.”

Though neon became a signature material, over the years, Mr. Sonnier also employed tactile fabrics, such as felt, satin and flocking, and, beginning in the 1970s, delved into the realm of sound and video, all while incorporating his life’s passions and experiences into the work.

Inspired by the natural world, Mr. Sonnier’s career as a working artist began when he lived in Europe in the 1960s, and he cited examples of other great abstractionists who were also influenced by nature, including Ellsworth Kelly, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, and, in Europe, Jean Tinguely, whose animated abstractions he found filled with references to sexuality and humanity.

“I hadn’t seen this kind of work in America. Europe was a very key part of my development,” Mr. Sonnier admitted in 2018. “In Brittany [France], I got so interested in the Celtic world, anthropology became my second interest and love.”

That interest inspired site-specific wall pieces that the artist created by building up layers of liquid latex and pieces of shredded rayon called flocking.

“They used it for wallpaper in France, and when I started ordering this flocking, it changed the nature of the material and the context,” Mr. Sonnier explained. “I would paint it on and pull it off to create an abstract casting of the wall.

“It looked like an ancient hide on the wall,” he added. “It was abstract, but had this human psychological element. I became fascinated by ancient Paleolithic art and started collecting ax heads, and they became influences as well.”

Two years ago, the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill presented “Keith Sonnier: Until Today,” the first solo exhibition of the artist’s work in 35 years. Organized by guest curator Jeffrey Grove and then-museum director Terrie Sultan, the exhibition covered a half-century of Mr. Sonnier’s work and included several of his iconic neon sculptures, along with sound pieces, a site-specific installation, and “Mastodon,” Mr. Sonnier’s large-scale African-inspired neon installation that was created in 2008 for his “Herd” series and was inspired by his deep interest in other cultures. Also on view were more recent neon works featuring found objects and detritus from his family home in Louisiana.

Despite the comprehensive nature of the Parrish exhibition, Mr. Sonnier was reluctant to label it “a retrospective.”

“I said, ‘I don’t want to do a retrospective, because that’s a lot more work,’” Mr. Sonnier joked at the time.

Mr. Sonnier may not have wanted a retrospective, but his art embodied his experiences. The many places he lived, worked and traveled — including the East End — figured prominently in his pieces which were largely a response to the language of the natural world.

“I’ve always been fascinated by nature,” he explained. “What sustains me in still making art out here has to do with the environment. I think what affects me is the relationship of the land mass to the water mass, these are big elements of the experience.”

But also affecting Mr. Sonnier were smaller, more personal aspects of the environment —the plants in his garden or the stands of bamboo that marked the entrance to his Bridgehampton property, and even the lingering effects of Lyme disease, which kept him close to home in his later years.

“Lyme has informed my work — it’s inside me,” said Mr. Sonnier, who professed a deeply held interest in science and even found beauty in the deadly Ebola virus, which, in microscopic form, was the inspiration for one of his neon works.

“I had seen photographs published of a red-and-blue strain of wiggly virus. Red and blue are basic colors in neon, and it was natural to use them,” he explained. “When I started these sculptures, after I did the drawings, I thought they looked like Matisse figures with gestural movements I hadn’t seen before.

“But don’t tell anybody it’s Ebola,” he grinned.

Because Mr. Sonnier and many artists of his generation came of age outside of the United States, he explained that he felt, collectively, they had managed to create something unique and interesting in the form of an international art world.

“Before art fairs and art marketing, art became something you could experience,” he said. “Now people can have access to seeing an artwork that changes our perception of who we are.

“That’s what art does.”

Keith Sonnier, who was represented by Pace gallery for many years, is survived by his daughter Olympia Sonnier, from his second marriage to Nessia Pope (ended in divorce in 1998), and a brother, Barry Ledoux.