There are several reasons artist Keith Sonnier bought his property in Sagaponack — but one of them was a tree.
Specifically, an ancient tulip tree.
“Marie Antoinette’s father, having been a great Prussian gardener, was familiar with the tulip tree and convinced Catherine to order from America about 30 tulip trees for the garden in Versailles,” Sonnier explained, “and these come from around the Long Island area and still exist in Versailles.”
There are also the generic maples, which live for 95 years — and his great Japanese maples that live for 350 years — each described with a deep-seated fervor born out of his childhood in southern Louisiana, a far cry from where he now calls home.
His relationship with nature reverberates throughout his work, a five-decade-long international career that will be explored in the comprehensive solo show, “Keith Sonnier: Until Today,” opening Sunday at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill — the first of its kind in 35 years.
“It was only when I came to Sagaponack that I began to actually make work that was somehow based with an ideology and a sense of nature, in the Hamptons, that related to my nature experience growing up in Louisiana,” he said. “Which was very nature-based but, of course, hot as Hades. So it was very pleasant having this wonderful climate and attachment to the ocean.”
Brutal humidity aside, Sonnier’s fascination with trees began as a boy, playing among them while scavenging for roots and leaves — his only real options for childhood activities.
“Quite frankly, at that time, I had never seen art in a museum,” he said. “My only exposure to art was my distant cousin, a sign painter, who painted the sides of buildings and rice dryers and cotton gins — scenes from nature, and on corrugated tin. So you’d see them and it was like seeing a movie as you drove past it, as you saw animals or the trees begin to move as you drove past them.”
He would graduate with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette in 1963 before studying at Rutgers University, where his lack of preconceived notions — when it came to art — fully blossomed in a tangible way.
Unrestricted by the bounds of traditional materials, or even traditional construction, he utilized a wall-to-floor support system, exploring the perversity of material — from string, latex and rubber to felt, satin and flocking — before working with what would become a defining element of his work.
It was the late 1960s and 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,’” Sonnier recalled. “It was so metaphysical in its depth, and the name stuck with me.
“When I came back to New York, I wanted to make works in light. And I started with this ‘Ba-O-Ba’ concept, of the shape of the half moon,” he continued. “I went and found a man in New York, this older black man in Harlem who had a small neon shop, and he made me my first neon arc.”
It was 5 feet high and whitish blue, Sonnier said, and he hung it up on his wall. As he stepped back to consider it, he realized it was missing something, he said. 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.”
His circa-1969 pioneering series “Ba-O-Ba” will be represented the Parrish show, which will also feature site-specific neon works, including “Passage Azur,” hung from the spine of the museum.
“I had first attempted the piece for a show in France, in Nice,” he said. “When you think about the coastline here, you see this amazing bluish haze and there is the sense of waves and movement, and this particular piece is based on those sensations — not literally, like a wave, but it was about doing a construction that moved through the aerial architecture of the passage. And, in the end, it turned out we have a much more interesting piece than what we did in Nice.”
At age 76, Sonnier keeps at his art practice daily. “Since I have been ill, it’s been very difficult, but I’ve made drawings every day,” he said, a selection of which will be on view in “Tragedy and Comedy,” opening Saturday at Tripoli Gallery in Southampton.
The significance of the Parrish Art Museum survey is not lost on him, he said, though he does not consider it a retrospective “at all,” he said. Working with curator Jeffrey Grove, they selected a body of work through material and theme investigation, he said, “and we were very successful in that, in having it relate to Long Island.”
“I think that’s it’s going to be very good for me, and Long Island, to finally have a real dance together,” he said with a laugh. “I think it’s going to look very good and I think it’s going to work with the community – especially the artist community here – that we can finally address things that have drawn artists to long island for so many years. And lift the bar to a more serious kind of aesthetic, and hopefully create an art world that has a dialogue among itself and the community, which is very important.”
“Keith Sonnier: Until Today” will open on Sunday, July 1, at the Parrish Art Museum, located at 279 Montauk Highway in Water Mill, and will remain on view through January 27, 2019. For more information, please call (631) 283-2118 or visit parrishart.org.
A parallel show, “Tragedy and Comedy” curated around new drawings and related sculptures, will open with a reception on Saturday, June 30, from 4 to 6 p.m. at Tripoli Gallery, located at 30A Jobs Lane in Southampton, and will remain on view through July 29. For more information, please call (631) 377-3715 or visit tripoligallery.com.