Art was “turned on”, literally, already starting from the thirties, thanks to neon lighting. It was artist László Moholy-Nagy who first theorized that the typical night lighting of city fluorescent signs could have been an “expressive field” for artists. And from exterior luminous advertising signs, the “fluorescent light tube” soon found space inside the museum, where it became an effective work of art.
The neon light, invented by Georges Claude in 1910, tells a significant story. From quick commercial success to decline and, finally, to artistic revival. Neon lighting indeed caught the attention of industrialists and advertising firms shortly after going into production. After an initially-timid use by a trader for his barber shop, it was the Italian vermouth producer, Cinzano, that experimented with lit signs over a metre high, along the Champs-Élysées, making an impressive presence amidst the other lights of the “lit” city.
Thanks also to their “exaggerated” colours, both glamorous and versatile, it was not long before neon lights were being used in prominent public and private locations. They soon redesigned certain districts or even whole cities, such as Las Vegas, an exemplary icon of consumerism.
Over time, new technology and the need for lower-energy solutions meant neon lighting was used less and less, even if it did not disappear altogether.
It is in the artistic arena that this artificial light has been recycled and where it is enjoying much popularity. Fontana was the first, in the ’30s, to use neon and black light (the Wood lamp) for some of his “settings”.
But it was from the ‘50s and ‘60s that neon lighting became a favourite of experimental artists and “conceptualists”. Being easy to work with and capable of producing “strong” colours, it lent itself to writing, to being a contour of illuminated objects, and as to have life as a sculpture. Among many emerging artists, we can mention the American Dan Flavin, in whose installations the lights measure the space, giving rhythm and colour, and James Turrel who in his large and colourful environments, hides the light sources to project the flows in a targeted way, turning the overall architecture into light.
With Joseph Kosuth, Mario Merz, Bruce Nauman and Maurizio Nannucci, neon wording made its first appearance with phrases which often only describe themselves but which, in their brightness, become abstract objects, images floating in space, and visual works in their own right: “Four colours, four words” recites a colourful work by Kosuth, a white light-tube writes “what can one do?” in a pot filled with wax in the work by Mario Merz. Always seeking the relationship between words and images are the works of Nannucci and of Bruce Nauman, who used neon to transcribe a hundred ways of living and dying.
Thanks to these names and others, the “fluorescent tube” which combines chemistry and technology is enjoying another revival: after removing its threadbare advertising clothes, it is decorated with symbols, meanings, new functions, and thus becomes an art icon. Exhibitions are set up, museums opened – like the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles – and vocational art colleges are opening that attract increasing numbers of young experimenters on the one hand and public institutions – especially companies that sponsor and produce as “patrons” – on the other.
In this new life, Neon also becomes an “artistic” expedient of urban regeneration due to its unique versatility, as is the case of the recent restyling project of the “Cavour” metro station in Rome, where the neon writing “Ti amo”, “Bye bye”, and “Wait” by the young local artist Rub Kandy are exhibited on the cleaned walls in a temporary exhibition. Or the plan to embellish the old Napoleonic road Il Terraglio between mainland Venice and Treviso, designed by F/ART, an international manufacturer of transformers for neon lighting.
With a great passion for art, Marisa Graziati, Managing Director of F/ART, has two secret dreams: to create a foundation that collects vintage or modern neon works, and to re-qualify the old Napoleonic road with neon installations. “The project was started a few years ago from my goal to return one of Italy’s most beautiful roads to its former prestige”, explains Marisa. “I imagine the route as a sculpture-park with the artworks visible directly from the road. All by starting from the area’s artistic and architectural culture to give new lustre to this historic road section.”
For some years, F/ART has been sponsoring and producing many international projects in collaboration with artists, architects and lighting designers such as the installations of Marcella Barros, the bright portraits of Dusty Sprengnagel, the monumental neon spirals by Stephan Huber, and the work by Maurizio Nannucci “All art has been contemporary”, with its 150 metres of neon tubes that animated the facade of Berlin’s Altes Museum.
F/ART is currently present at the Biennale of Contemporary Art, in the M.O.D.U.S. collateral event called Techniques, poetics, materials in contemporary art, with the neon work entitled “ToutVa” by the Italian duo, Marotta & Russo, and produced by F/ART.
Neon and Contemporary Art: for Marisa Graziati, the future of this combination is ‘bright’. Neon has given artists the possibility to conceive colour as a volume in space. Fontana, Navarro, Flavin, and Nannucci are just some of the best-known names among the artists who have embraced the poetry of neon. The future can only be bright given the strong return to its use as a medium in the field of art, architecture and advertising. The US Certifying Body UL has indeed recently reiterated that neon is the most ecological light source in the narrow (recyclable) sense, and uses less energy and natural resources.”
Cover. Marotta & Russo – ToutVa
1. Dusty Sprengnagel, Pasolini
2. Francesca Marangoni, Go Up, 2013, sponsored by Fart
3. Marisa Graziati
4. Laddie John Dill, Sand&Light