Stephen Antonakos in Conversation with Phong Bui

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
"Entry." White Paint on Versacel with neon. 57" × 49" × 4 1/2". Courtesy of the artist.

A few days before leaving with his wife, the writer Naomi Spector, for his retrospective at the Benaki Museum-Pireos in Athens, artist Stephen Antonakos welcomed Rail publisher Phong Bui to his SoHo loft/studio to talk about his life and work. (The exhibit is organized by the J.F. Costopoulos Foundation, curated by Katerina Koskina and it will be on view from December 18, 2007 to March 9, 2008.)

Phong Bui (Rail): One of the most memorable reminiscences from the long interview that Paul Cummings did with you for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art in 1975 was when you recalled the stamina and discipline that you were able to maintain so that, while earning a living, you were able to keep up your practice as an artist. Like many artists we know—de Kooning, Warhol, Philip Pearlstein, Tom Novkowski—who had various jobs doing illustration, graphic design or layout for commercial magazines or catalogs, you were also in that line of work. You said that after finishing your daytime job at 6 p.m., you would go to your studio and work until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. (Dorothy Pearlstein recently told me the same about her husband Philip). Could you tell us what kept you going or enabled you to sustain yourself through those conditions?

Stephen Antonakos: First of all I was younger [Laughs]. But I was very ambitious and serious about being an artist, so it was clear from the outset that whatever I wanted to get done in the studio, it had to be in the evening. It was no problem either physically or mentally for me that I was able to cut off what I was doing during the daytime and come back to my real life at night. It usually started at 6:30 or 7 o’clock and then I’d work until, as you said, 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. That was a very intense period and it went on for many years, till the late 1960s when I was in various Artist-In-Residencies. It was in the early 1970s, that the studio began to support itself.

Rail: What sort of illustrations did you do?

Antonakos: They were pharmaceutical illustrations and on some occasions I did some designing works as well. Thinking back now, pharmaceutical illustrations were good exercises for me at the time because it was such a detail-oriented kind of activity, which in some ways required my maximal ability to concentrate, while at the same time it was very calming. In fact, I didn’t mind it at all. That was why I got quite good at it.

Rail: That makes sense. But is there continuity in terms of materials and techniques from what you did in your illustrations to the early collages?

Antonakos: I know a few critics and other artist friends of mine had found some connections, but as far as I know they were never related to each other, simply because I was very conscious of making a distinct break between the two activities. The illustrations were never that comparable to the experimental nature of the early collages. I was also very anxious about what I wanted to accomplish with the little time I had in the evenings and weekends. I felt that I had lost a lot of time since I had a late start.

Rail: You mean the two years that you spent in the army between 1945 to 1947 and the postwar sentiment?

Antonakos: That and also my own feeling of urgency in general, which I still feel now at my age [Laughs].

Rail: So what was the initial impulse behind those collages?

Antonakos: I can’t tell you exactly, except that when I saw Alberto Burri’s fabricated tactile collages with pumice, tar and burlap, probably at Eleanor Ward’s Stable gallery in the mid-1950s, I immediately identified with his sensibility. And since oil painting was too slow for me to keep up with all of the ideas that were racing through my mind, I felt the physical and spontaneous process of putting various objects together was more suitable to what I needed to get done in those years.

Rail: Your assemblages seem to embody an eclectic and explorative spirit in both their accumulation of the formal elements of post-cubist abstraction and your own personal emotional response to found objects, which led to the later, to use your invented term “sewlages.” In other words, there is a wide range of compositional devices that are, on the one hand, very elegiac, with carefully cut-out biomorphic shapes, painted often with high-keyed colors to subordinate the quasi-rectilinearities of, let’s say, a found chair, a turpentine container, or flanks of wood, etc. You had just mentioned Burri as an important influence, but how about Franz Kline or the collage paintings of Robert Motherwell of the late 1940s and Conrad Marca-Relli of the early 1950s?

Antonakos: Actually, the other artist who I was also very interested in was Lucio Fontana. I thought his singular-colored canvases slashed with razor blades were exciting ways of opening up new possibilities. Fontana was definitely not holding back at all. Although I was aware of and admired Kline, Motherwell, Marca-Relli, and other New York School artists, I didn’t really have strong affinities with their work.

Rail: So you identify more with the Italians than the older generation of Abstract Expressionism artists?

Antonakos: Well, perhaps with the exceptions of Joseph Cornell and Robert Rauschenberg to some extent, but otherwise I was looking to advance my work during that time; I felt that I would get more out of Burri and Fontana than I would with other artists in New York. And materially speaking, where my first studio was, in the middle of the garment and fur district, I could find whatever I needed on the streets. From different sorts of fabric, chairs, umbrellas, and dowels to endless other objects and things. I feverishly collected them all and tried to incorporate them into my assemblages.

Rail: And one of them was shown, along with Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, and Allan Kaprow, in what was regarded as the first major survey of assemblages, New Forms, New Media at Martha Jackson Gallery in 1960?

Antonakos: Right. In fact Irving [Sandler] wrote a favorable review of it in Art International.

Rail: Irving had also pointed out that there was a natural progression from the 3-dimensional constructions, your “sewlages,” to the Pillow series, which to me became quite viscerally aggressive and eerie in its images.

Antonakos: Yeah, they are. And they were done in a period of one year.

Rail: One in particular, “An Artist’s Life” (1963), appears to be very symbolic in the sense that, apart from the autobiographical elements such as a baby doll, a man’s shoe, old brushes, pencil sketches, I found that the gun and the rope were rather dark. But at the same time there is also a stem of rose and a key. Does the key represent anything specific?

Antonakos: Again I can’t really explain it. Maybe it unconsciously had to do with leaving my previous 29th Street studio for the new one on Greene Street.

Rail: Perhaps “An Artist’s Life” was the end of one life and the new beginning of another?

Antonakos: Yes you could say that. However, I never thought of it in that way.

Rail: That was when, after having made the “Untitled Pillow” (1963) which was considered the first work that included light elements, you realized the potential of neon becoming your primary medium?

Antonakos: Actually, I did several the year before, though only two, “White Light” and “Hanging Neon” survived from that period.(Both will be included in this show.) “White Light” was a combination of neon, incandescent bulb, bent-wood chair parts, paint and fur in a round configuration with a square tilted 45 degrees. It was with the neons of 1962 that I felt that neon was a medium that I could explore endlessly in terms of both its physical and immaterial nature, as well as other pictorial concerns such as color, scale and so on. I just identified with its flexibility so strongly that I could barely keep up with the varied possibilities it offered me.

Rail: Would you now consider the four successive shows you had at Fischbach Gallery from 1967 to 1970 to be the most important, in that they were thought to be the beginning of your mature work at that time?

Antonakos: Up to that time, absolutely. Not only was it good for people to see what I was doing, but it also opened up other ideas which I was able to carry on and materialize in later works. In fact, all of those installations at Fischbach’s 20-by-30-foot gallery which had all white walls and floor, which was unheard of at the time, were in some ways related to my recent chapels and meditation rooms. What I gained from having done the works that were shown at Fischbach was, first of all, I knew from the start that neon, as a new material, was very dangerous and seductive. It can also be very theatrical, which is something I was very careful of. Anyway, only about eight or nine of us artists at that time were working with it, and with more or less the same fabricators. Secondly, it was exciting for me to work with fabricators whose technical language I learned to communicate and I did it rather well. We really did have a good working relationship. I opened up lots of possibilities for them at the shop–they couldn’t believe that they could do certain things that I did. But at the same time I learned from them as well. So from that kind of exchange I was able to go further with my understanding of its potential. And the further I got the greater control I gained, in order to do whatever I wanted with it. That’s how I managed to do those complex structures like “White Hanging Neon,” “Red Neon from Wall to Floor,” and especially “Walk on Neon,” which was included in the exhibit, The Magic Theatre at the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art/Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Art in Kansas City. The making of that piece was exciting as hell for me.

Rail: That’s great. Were you aware of what Dan Flavin was doing at the same time? I mean, his “icon” series, which was made as memorial dedications to various political events, personalities and artists he admired?

Antonakos: Of course I was aware of what Flavin was doing, but we’re such different artists. Our materials are different, our thinking is different, and our personalities are different. What I was interested in and still am, but perhaps in a different way, is how I can handle the space between the wall to the floor or ceiling of an interior, from one exterior wall of one building to the next. The other difference is our use of materials, where Flavin has deliberately stayed with straight fluorescents and the severe application of minimalism. I prefer the freedom to manipulate the space whether with straight or curved form, small or large scale, indoor or outdoor, what have you. To me whatever one does as an artist has to naturally reflect one’s own temperament. Mine is simply one that wouldn’t want to be stuck with one thing.

Rail: Well, the other fundamental difference that lies between your work and Flavin’s is that it’s fairly easy to identify him, like Judd, and other minimalist artists for their strong attraction to the frontal flatness of Newman’s paintings. I mean Flavin’s later singular fluorescent tubes reveal a striking resemblance to Newman’s thin vertical canvas, whereas in your work, although there’s a strong kinship to Abstract Expressionist pathos, I find it difficult to recognize any specific connection to either Kline, Rothko, or anyone else. And then it’s even more elusive once I heard you describe that body of work as being your “Baroque” period…

Antonakos: I’d say that the sublime presence that exists in Rothko’s painting does attract me to some extent. I like the way he uses light as color on canvas. But as a whole, I like to think that I follow where my work takes me. I never felt like I have to sit down and contemplate on the matter too much. I don’t think my anxiety would allow me to do that.

Rail: Could you talk about the significant shift from that body of work (which I think of as being very gestural), to the more reductive approach? In other words, does “The Blue Box” (1965) have any reference to the Mediterranean light and the architectural landmarks such as the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike, and so on since you first returned to Greece in 1956?

Antonakos: Well, I’m not really that romantic [Laughs]. But in some ways being in Greece with my wife Naomi may have had an effect on my new perception of my birthplace. I’m not that sure. But what I’m certain about is that “The Blue Box” was important in that I learned to reduce the number of forms and colors I was using. I just felt a great need for clarity, and from that I began to explore various complete and incomplete forms in various site-specific spaces.

Rail: And that led directly to your public works?

Antonakos: Yes. I think what led to my public works was in 1967, when Irving asked me to participate, along with 23 other artists, including David Smith, Richard Stankiewiz, George Rickey, Tony Smith, and others in a show called Sculpture in the Environment. I installed “Orange Vertical Neon,” a piece that was programmed to turn on and off, in the window of NYU’s Loeb Student Center. That gradually inspired my thinking in that direction but my first actual big public commission didn’t really happen until 1974.

Rail: You mean the “Ten Neons,” which Richard Koshalek asked you to do for the Fort Worth Museum in Texas?

Antonakos: That was very important in relation to the other large works I’ve done in various places in the US, in Germany and elsewhere thereafter. It actually taught me about proportion. How can I relate to a building 50 feet high, and what will happen to the exterior walls if you put all different forms and lights on them, and bring them all to a harmonious whole? In other words, I became more aware of the amazing power of neon in terms of what it could do with reshaping or adding new ways of dealing with masses and spaces. That was a great experience for me. Now I know what would happen with a certain exterior of a building if I were to locate certain forms of the neon that would make sense. “Ten Neons,” in fact, opened a lot of doors for me mentally.

Rail: Let’s get back to your attraction to incomplete geometry, a way to create spatial discrepancy, which you have been working with since the mid-1970s. Is it fair to think that it was just as pronounced in the public works as in the studio works in which it still continues?

Antonakos: Yes, though I showed incomplete squares and cubes in the 1960s at Fischbach and other galleries, and I still am interested in that kind of geometry. I think it’s more subtle to have, let’s say, only a quarter of a square, so that a viewer can visually complete the whole square, depending also on how I put it at a particular angle, or where it would be installed on the wall.

Rail: It’s more generous and challenging for the viewer. And similarly you applied the concept to several of the wall panels from the 1980s and the 1990s, where you used ragged edges against straight edges in “Corner for the Kozaks", for instance, or “Mani,” along with the change from canvas to wood panel…

Antonakos: It’s an endless fascination, incomplete geometry. Several things compelled that change to Panels. Unlike the painterly surface of the canvas, the wood panel works better with the three-dimensionality of the neon. Placing neon behind the edges of the Panels has been a major liberation, even after twenty five years. Of course, I do use neon on metal raceway, too, as in my public works and the incomplete square in the lobby of my building.

Rail: In other words, you made the neon tubes no longer visible, like what you did in “White Cube with Blue and Red Neon,” where the light is glowing out from the bottom of the square structure?

Antonakos: Exactly. That was a big change for me…

Rail: How about the emergence of the cross?

Antonakos: That began partly because of my upbringing in the Greek Orthodox Church and that only became more apparent gradually, when we began our annual summer visits to Greece in 1980. Besides, I found it to be an interesting form that I could explore for a while. But you could say that it’s both a religious icon and a formal structure.

Rail: Like it was for Malevich, also with the square format…

Antonakos: In some ways, yes.

Rail: Did the cross and the use of silver or gold leaf on the surface emerge simultaneously?

Antonakos: Using gold and silver started a few years earlier in the mid 1980s. But soon after this, I got very interested in small chapels, like the one in my old village Agios Nikolaos, which was built by farmers and peasants, not by architects. It was simple and modest, nothing in it except for a few burning candles as light source, but you can feel the strong sense of spiritual intimacy much more than you could in a big church. At the same time, I got very involved with particular Panels that have religious titles, and the gold and silver are important in relation to how, as surfaces, they emit a subdued light, like halos in icon paintings.

Rail: Similar to the one you did in 1993, when you were invited to create an installation in the ruined Medieval Fortress of Saint George in Rhodes, Greece. I mean, would it be more challenging than work with neon, which is the newest material in perhaps a seventh or eighth century building?

Antonakos: The interior was this cavernous space with rather rough-hewn stones, and an arched ceiling, maybe about twenty five feet high. It was quite dark. What I did was not only to work with the physical space, but also its spiritual context: I installed a red neon incomplete circle in the upper left of the main wall, like the way the hand of God sometimes appears in the upper left corner of the page of icons or illuminated manuscripts. Right below in the center of the floor, I placed a cross made out of white marble with twelve votive candles around it. And on the other two walls I hung nine iron panels with neons behind each of them. It was quite intense since I chose to work alone in that space for three straight months, and I was certainly absorbed by the history of the place. It was called “Chapel of the Saints.”

Rail: Was that when your idea of creating your own chapel emerged?

Antonakos: Well, it actually began when I was invited to participate in ARTEC 1989, the first International Biennale in Nagoya, Japan. Initially, I had intended to show the four panels for my three brothers Bill, Tony, Peter, and my sister Kanella; but I didn’t think these subtle Panels would survive visually in that kind of hectic techno- environment. So instead I wrote to the committee and asked for a white room of 25 ft by 25 ft, like a small chapel. That way the work could be contained and peaceful- altogether they made a unit. And it was incredible to see how people, after having walked and seen other works in the Biennale, which were full of sound and visual assaults, became so relaxed once they got into the meditation room. You could see it in their facial expressions and bodies. This experience recalled my own when I was four years old, before our family moved to New York in 1930, and it was confirmed again when I went back to visit my old village for the first time in 1956. At any rate being rather taken by that experience I began to work on various chapel models, a few of which got built. Over all, it really opened up a new world for me.

Rail: The same year, 1997, you managed to build “Small Blue Chapel” for the Ileana Tounta Contemporary Art Center in Athens, and especially “The Chapel for Heavenly Ladder” just in time for the 47th Venice Biennale, which I thought was quite compelling in both its use of materials and formal elements. On one hand, the irregularities of the twelve crosses–the big one placed prominently in the middle top of the awning, the other eleven smaller and equal in size, distributed in a random manner like the way Mondrian employed his so-called “Plus and Minus” marks, especially in the two drawings from 1914, “Church of Domburg” and “Sea (Starry Sky above the Sea).” And the cubical construction of the near square and rust-iron does make you feel claustrophobic and uncomfortable once inside. Yet, it all effectively leads to the generous opening of one square in the back center axis on the ceiling with the tall ladder that extends to the sky above. Were you conscious of creating the tension between compression and release?

Antonakos: I wasn’t conscious of that tension at all, but it’s great when everyone has his or her own response to it. Though I will say that this chapel is not meant to be peaceful. It’s rather about repentance, toughness like the lives of the monks. After all, it was inspired by the sixteenth century monk John Klimax’s icon from the monastery of Saint Catherine in the Sinai Desert. Also, the opening and the ladder that leads up to the sky are points of ecstatic release.

Rail: Yeah, it’s a poignant accent, or ascension…Could you also describe the differences between your feeling of the chapel and the meditation room?

Antonakos: The chapel is for religious use with all sorts of ritual being performed, while the meditation room is the place that is intended for silence. But I can’t tell you how much both are constantly in the back of my mind, and that I usually work them out in my drawings.

Rail: And your drawings, as they move through different stages of your evolution, are inseparable from the rest of your work. However, I’m particularly interested in the material changes that have taken place since the early 1980s when the minute, transparent, agitated colored-pencil marks are drawn on French vellum. This makes the negative field very active against the more legible and opaque geometric forms. I wonder how that occurred, and whether that sort of laborious and repetitive process of mark-making appeals or has an equivalence to religious chanting?

Antonakos: The drawings I did in the 1960s through the mid 1970s were variations on a theme, such as a broken circle, square, or complete square, on the empty white background. The discovery of the French vellum in the late 1970s allowed the interplay between the strokes, which are regulated by the length of the colored pencil tip in proportion to the movement of the hand, and the way they reflect light which is partially due to the transparency of the vellum. At any rate, I’d say it’s both active and relaxed at the same time. It’s active because I allow my intuition to follow the directions of how one unit of strokes would lead to the next, which eventually fill up the whole negative field, as you said. And yet, it’s very reassuring and relaxing for me to submit myself to this active pace. It’s like my mind is focused and calmed but my hand is constantly moving.

Rail: I feel that regardless of their formal appearances, underneath the surface lies this emotional urgency. The collision of the two is what ultimately made such an intense pictorial synthesis.

"White Hanging Neon," 1966. Neon, aluminum support, 35"×30"×36". Courtesy of the artist.

Antonakos: That may be my own way of religious chanting [Laughs].

Rail: How do you feel about 50 years of work being brought together in one space?

Antonakos: It’s very nice. It’s a result of a lifetime of works that I felt were all done in a hurry and with great anxiety. To tell you the truth, I was always focused on the present work, what I wanted to do. Each phase just developed naturally with complete freedom. I hope that this show will convey all the fulfillments the work has given me. And I’m happy that I could add two of the latest Panels, “ I Have Seen” and “ Entry”, to the show in the last minute.

Rail: That’s terrific. Your newest work here in the studio with its differences in sizes, intervals between its divisions, and the use of strong diagonals on the left reminds me of your early pieces, “Red Neon from Wall to Floor” of 1967 or “Walk on Neon” of 1968. They are indeed very gestural. So in some ways, it all came around in full circle.

Antonakos: It’s not conclusive but rather a new beginning. Yeah, I would say that it’s a testament of the new beginning.


Phong Bui