CARACTERE: The second life of neon: from barber's shop sign to art icon

CARACTERE: The second life of neon: from barber's shop sign to art icon

thursday 20 july 2017 | Press review, News&Press, Interviews
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The arts literally "light up" starting from the thirties thanks to neon. The artist László Moholy-Nagy was the first one to theorise that night illumination, typical of fluorescent signs in towns, could have become "an expressive field" for artists. And from a luminous outdoors propaganda sign, the "glowing tube" soon found its place inside museums, where it became the actual artwork.

Neon, invented by Georges Claude in 1910, actually tells a significant story: from a rapid commercial success, to a fall and, finally, an artistic rebirth. In fact, as it is produced it catches the attention of Industrialists and advertisers: after a first timid employment by a merchant for his barber's shop, the Italian house of vermouth, Cinzano, experiments along the Parisian Champs Elysées with the sign with the illuminated letters of the Trademark that are more than a meter high. An imposing sign that rises above the roofs of the city "of the lights". It takes very little, and thanks to neon's flashy "over-the-top" colours and its versatility, it begins to dominate both public and domestic areas. It even starts to redesign neighbourhoods and even cities like the American Las Vegas, exemplary icon of consumerism.
Over time, progress and the need for devices with less energy impact gradually decrease the presence of neon, even if it does not disappear completely.
Anyway, the employment of this artificial light has been brought back by the artistic field, developing greatly. Fontana is the first, around the Thirties, to use neon and blacklight (Wood's lamp) for some of his "Ambientazioni" ("settings").
However, only from the Fifties and Sixties neon becomes the preferred material of experimental artists and "conceptualists" because, being easily manipulated and with "lively" colours, it is suitable to become written words, an outline of objects to illuminate and moulded shape in sculpture. Among the many emerging artists such as the American Dan Flavin in whose installations the lamps occupy the space while lending rhythm and colour, and James Turrel who hides the light sources,
 in its large coloured environments, in order to project the flow in a targeted way and convert the whole architecture into light .
Neon texts make their first appearance with Joseph Kosuth, Mario Merz, Bruce Nauman and Maurizio Nannucci. They are sentences that often describe only themselves but which in their brightness become abstract objects, images floating in space, true visual works: "Four colours four words" declaims a colourful work by Kosuth; a tube of white light outlines "che fare?" ("what to do?") in a pot filled with wax in the work of Mario Merz. To constantly explore the relationship between words and images is the work of Nannucci, as well as that of Bruce Nauman, who has transcribed a hundred ways of living and dying with neon.

Thanks to these names, and to others, the "glowing tube" combines chemistry and technology, living a second rebirth: after having the old clothes undressed of the commercial medium, it is adorned with symbols, meanings, new functions and consequently becomes an art icon. The exhibitions and the museums - like the MOna of Los Angeles - are set up. There are art schools that attract more and more young experimenters, on one hand, public institutions and above all companies, on the other, that as "patrons" sponsor and produce.
In this new life, neon also becomes an "artistic" expedient of urban upgrading thanks to its peculiar versatility. As in the case of the recent restyling project of the "Cavour" metro station in Rome, where the neon letters "Ti amo", "Bye bye", "Wait" by the young Roman artist Rub Kandy are displayed on the cleaned up walls in a temporary exhibition. Or the upgrading plan of the old Napoleonic road "Il Terraglio", which connects Treviso to Venice, conceived by F/ART - an international company of transformers for neon lamps.

With a great passion for art, Marisa Graziati, the CEO of F/ART, has two long-cherished dreams: to create a Foundation in the future to collect vintage or modern neon works; and to upgrade the old Napoleonic road with neon installations. "The project was born a few years ago from my desire to restore the prestige of one of the most beautiful Italian roads - Marisa explains - I visualise the street as a sculpture park, with artworks directly visible from the road. We start from the artistic and architectural culture of the territory to give a new eminence to this historic road junction ".

F/ART has collaborated for some years - by sponsoring and producing - with artists, architects and light designers in numerous international projects: such as the installations by Marcella Barros, the luminous portraits by Dusty Sprengnagel, the monumental spirals written with neon by Stephan Huber; and the work of Maurizio Nannucci "All art has been contemporary": 150 metres of neon tubes that animated the facade of the Altes Museum in Berlin.
Currently, it is at the Bienniale of Contemporary Art, in the collateral event M.O.D.U.S. - Tecniche, poetiche, materiali nell’arte contemporanea, with the work created with Neon, "ToutVa" by the Italian duo Marotta & Russo, produced by the company itself.
Neon and contemporary art: for Ms Graziati the future of this combination is 'bright'. "Neon has given artists the chance to conceive colour as volume in space: Fontana, Navarro, Flavin, Nannucci are just some of the best known names among the artists who have embraced neon poetics. The future can only be bright, given the fierce revival of the medium in the field of the arts, architecture and advertising. The UL Certification Body has recently reiterated that neon is the most ecological light source in strict sense, namely, recyclable and with a lower consumption of energy and natural resources ".

Read the article here: CARACTERE.IT