The Art of the Neon Sign

Posted by Jhan Dudley on

In the 1930s and ’40s gleaming neon signs were to be found everywhere. The colorful, eye-catching signage imparted an air of glamour and excitement. Neon signs became the rage, and 'main street' establishments everywhere advertised their presence in neon lights. Within only a few short years, major avenues were transformed with the artistic illumination of these colorful signs.

Neon Becomes Kitschy

Barely 30 years later, however, the medium had lost much of its glamour. The unfettered proliferation of the sometimes fading and flickering signage, began to feel trashy and unattractive. But, perhaps in part because of its tacky association, artists of the late 1950s and ’60s became interested in its possibilities for artistic expression. Andy Warhol even referred to the invention of neon signs as "one of the great modern things". Some progressive artists, like Joseph Kosuth and Dan Flavin, began to explore neon as an artistic, rather than advertising, medium. Dan Flavin, for example, created what came to be known as 'minimal light installations'. And in the early 1970s, Vancouver artist Joan Balzar integrated neon lighting in her acrylic paintings. In Europe, French artist, Martial Raysse, created works that blend PopArt portraiture with neon accents.

A Whole New Genre

In the 1990s, neon re-emerged as a legitimate artistic genre, this time championed by a group known as the Young British Artists. Cerith Wyn Evans, for example, has created 'lighting designs' that stand on their own, bearing no relation the the advertising messages of its forbearers. YBA artist, Tracy Emin, is today one of the most recognized artists working in this genre. Her well-known pieces, such as 'Wanting You', feature romantic, hand-drawn message imagery.

All this goes to illustrate an important point about the meaning of 'art'. That is, art is not always intentional. Sometimes, 'art' can be created by taking something mundane out of context. The Canadian author and philosopher, Marshall Mcluen, once proclaimed that "the medium is the message". Certainly, the journey of neon from advertising to art illustrates Mcluen's meaning perfectly!

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