‘Keith Sonnier: 68–70’ at Mary Boone Gallery

Courtesy the artist and Mary Boone Gallery

As she has done for David Salle and Peter Halley in recent years, Mary Boone is giving the historical treatment to one of her artists in a new show, this one at her Chelsea branch. Though this exhibition of early work by Keith Sonnier is less revelatory than those two shows, it still offers an opportunity to revisit a less-discussed artist from recent art history.

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In the mid to late 1960s, Minimalist artists began experimenting with industrial materials. Donald Judd teamed with metal fabricators to make his boxy sculptures, Dan Flavin picked up fluorescent light bulbs, and Mr. Sonnier took to neon. Seven works that he made between 1968 and 1970 using neon and glass line the walls at Boone.

Mr. Sonnier’s work has aged less well, critically, than that of some of his machine-minded compatriots, likely because it flouts their very serious, rigid geometries. A Sonnier can feel joyful, almost embarrassingly breezy, and there is often a hint, however latent, of much-forbidden expressiveness, as in the awkward Neon Wrapping Incandescent III (1970), a line of five cartwheeling neon tubes (tangerine and red-orange) that arc through three silver-topped incandescent bulbs. His work sometimes comes dangerously close to referencing neon’s kitschier uses, at shopping malls and tanning salons.

But such dismissals ignore his many strengths, as when he’s using neon to carefully color a sheet of glass, teasing out a kind of ephemeral Color Field-style painting from those materials, as in Lit Circle Blue with Etched Glass (1968), a circular slice of glass limned along its bottom half with blue light, or Neon Wall Slant (1968), which sets straight orange and blue rods along opposite edges of a trapezoidal slice of glass, sending a light wash of color through its body. A green rod floats above, an elegant little line drawn in space. Perhaps we can come to see Mr. Sonnier’s restraint in these moments as a courtly confidence, and one of his genuine charms.

By the early 1970s, West Coast artists like James Turrell and Robert Irwin, who were experimenting with new technologies, began to outflank Mr. Sonnier in terms of sheer visual effects. His art may not amount to the defining work of its era, but there is plenty to admire in its not-inconsiderable achievement of bringing a distinctly American sensibility to the language of Russian Constructivism.

Throughout the city, neon lights are now being converted to LEDs to save energy. As those curved glass rods become increasingly rare sights, and neon’s kitsch associations fade, it’s possible that we’ll come to see these Sonniers differently—perhaps as line drawings that he rendered from the very materials of mythical postwar America. (Through Feb. 23)

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