Bright is Light

Later, the scientist recalled what he and his colleague saw in that vacuum tube in 1898. “The blaze of crimson light from the tube told its own story,” Dr. Travers wrote, “and it was a sight to dwell upon and never to forget.” Not only neon, but the other noble gases would soon find application in signage and trim; that is the short of how inspiration found Stephen Antonakos (b. 1926) in 1960. While wending his way through New York’s Garment District at night, Antonakos was taken with the purity of color in the neon lights. Imagine—we are free to—storefronts piped in cherry red and tangelo, blue, blinking arrows in windows, establishment names ostensibly penned in hot-pink cursive. These are the commercial ends we know neon works for. But by most accounts, Antonakos saw God. In those tubes, he saw the line of horizon at sunset; he saw the waters off of Greece (his country of birth), and how they were sacred blue. Stephen saw yellow, haloing like the Byzantine.

Photo by Hye Kim, courtesy of SCAD MOA.

In a 1975 interview for for the Archives of American Art, Antonakos said,

With all the simplicity, if a person really looks at the neons when they are on, I think there will be a lot to see and understand. They are simple when you say, “a square, a tube, a square box, a cube.” The words are simple but look what happens to simple forms with neon tubes at certain locations on the walls. It is very different and they become very complicated then. It takes, I think, a person who must be interested in evaluating the problem. Of course, a person just casually seeing it as a tube and not analyzing it, he walks away happy, of course. It is just part of a tube on a wall and that is it.

Photo by John McKinnon, courtesy of SCAD MOA.

Antonakos’ exhibit “Tessares” is showing at Savannah College of Art and Design’s (SCAD) new Museum of Art until March 4th. (It is his third exhibit at a SCAD campus.) The title is the English of τέσσαρες (“four”): each of four glass showcases on the exterior front of SCAD MOA houses one of the artist’s neon back-lit panels.

The first time I see them, in the late morning, lavender and peach are barely breathing behind the first white panel; lavender and ultramarine discreetly bleed out behind the next panel, which is black with gold-leaf; peach fuzzes around a second white panel; and I can’t even see that there’s light-life behind the last red-orange panel. But in the evening, when I return, the sherbets have hardened, and by nighttime these are not the same walls. At least, they don’t feel the same.

Photo by Adam Kuehl, courtesy of SCAD MOA.

Such are Antonakos’ “theaters of light.” The slow chromatic flux is staged to emotional and perceptual effect. There are subtle changes all around. The relation between two otherwise straightforward geometries—a square and a plane—develops according to the colorful actions around them. And we understand the players differently as the show goes on.

At night, ultramarine pools around the black panel. The nearest section of wall has flooded, but the panel can raft us. All the colors are out full-force—I’m unsure we knew they had it in them.