In the 1930s and ’40s nothing said “glamor” like a gleaming neon sign.
The height of new media advertising, a city’s new cocktail bar was most stylishly announced with a neon martini glass, and a state-of-the-art theater, of course, had to come with a neon marquee. As the material became cheaper and readily available, cities became illuminated with the signage, transforming cityscapes in just a matter of a few years.
Gauche and ubiquitous, the medium became a fascinating subject for artists of the late 1950s and ’60s. Grand Pop Art maestro Andy Warhol called neon one of “the great modern things” and French artist Martial Raysse became one of the first to work with neon in a strictly artistic sense. His works, which blend Pop Art portraiture with neon accents, helped move neon into the cultural conversation, further blurring the divide between the new consumerism and art.
It wasn’t until the ’60s and ’70s, faced with a deluge of fading and flickering neon, that the signage became associated with the seedy underbelly of cities, most famously New York’s Times Square. The neon medium began to represent a disenfranchised economy, and became less intrinsically linked to consumerist agendas. A few progressive artists in the 1960s began exploring neon more vigorously such as Joseph Kosuth, whose neon-lit text pieces helped push conceptions of art. Dan Flavin, now considered a grandfather of the medium, moved beyond text and representational pieces, creating minimal light installations with neon. Vancouver’s late Joan Balzar, an often-overlooked hero of the medium, integrated it into her bold minimalist and hard-edge neon and acrylic paintings in the early 1970s.
In the 1990s, neon again began to re-emerge in the cultural zeitgeist, this time championed by the Young British Artists (YBAs). Cerith Wyn Evans, an early student of Warhol, created neon works that merged cinema and literature—asking questions about how we communicate and the effectiveness of language.
Another YBA, Tracy Emin, has perhaps become the most recognized artist using neon. Emin’s personal and confessional work lit up in neon creates a dissonant between subject and medium—her most well-known pieces such as “Wanting you” feature confessional hand-drawn declarations that highlight the disconnect between language and motive.
Neon’s immediate aesthetic hit—bright, Pop Art-infused—makes it an obvious fit for the social media era. Today, neon art is an almost irresistible Instagram moment, and artists like Ben Skinner create works that engage with the concept of the social share. Skinner works within a variety of slick and technical materials, evoking an almost fetishistic affinity for the sleek and the industrial. Works such as “The Heart Makes a Bad Hula Hoop” combine Emin-like confessionals with irreverent phrasing—is Skinner being earnest or does the medium now denote insincerity? We’re familiar with neon now in a whole new way, another brush for the artist to paint with. Warhol would be proud.