Stephen Antonakos: Here and Beyondby Phong Bui
David Krut Projects and Jim Kempner Fine Art
It’s often said that an artist who has surpassed his creative maturity tends to gradually soften his vision. Whatever ideal of purity or perfection of form he may have envisioned—partially informed by the culture of his own time and the art produced by his peers, but also through his ability to sustain the uncertainty of his ambition—it is said that at the season of fruitage, he will harvest the essence of the object he most desires. In most cases, this implies a simplicity of form and an economy of means, each reduced over a lifetime of work.
Although this natural evolution occurs with some artists and not others, one thing one is certain: it wasn’t until we were exposed to the art of the last 100 years that we have learned to appreciate what is regarded as the “Old Age” style. Today, one readily understands, for example, the paradox of Michelangelo’s late life and last sculptures, especially his “Rondanini Pieta,” in which he seemed to reject what had taken a lifetime to gain. We’re now conditioned to be more receptive to Michelangelo’s longing for new forms of expression that would reveal the spiritual aura on the surface, rather than the articulations of muscles and bones that lie beneath the skin. Similarly, in Matisse’s Murals of the Rosary Chapel in Vence, one detects the old painter: while having no desire to repeat the conventional interpretations of the “Crucifix,” he must have acknowledged that every worshipper knew this familiar theme. Thus he deferred to his personal preference for symbolic and synoptic renderings.
Stephen Antonokos’s work since mid-December of 2007 began with a retrospective at the Benaki Museum in Athens, now on view at the Allentown Art Museum until January 11, 2009. It was followed by three others: one at Pei Ling Chan Gallery of Savannah College of Art and Design, curated Marshall N. Price, which recently ended; another entitled Stephen Antonakos: New York, at Kalfayen Galleries in Athens till December 6; and a third, Stephen Anotakos and Ronald Bladen: Drawings of the 60s and 70s, organized by Daniel Marzona for the Konrad Fisher Galerie in Düsseldorf and on view until November 22. The breadth and scope of artistic imagination evident in these exhibits is simply overwhelming.
The work exhibited at both David Krut Project and Jim Kempner Fine Art, however, was a modest, if choice, gathering of some key sculptures. Included were “In the Beginning” (1989), as well as “Oat” and “Arrival,” two recent neon panels, and a selection of his work on paper, notable for the classic “Untitled Cut JA66 Berlin” (1980), and the more recent colored-pencil-on-vellum drawings from the Winter Series. Most prominently displayed was “13’ Red Incomplete Square” (2008), installed right above the two open squares of the gallery’s walls at the corner of the 9th Ave and 23rd street.
Again, however complex his whole enterprise may be, there remains a continuity and variation in the meaning of images that Antonakos has employed in his visual language. Having begun his career in the early 1950s, Antonakos’s urge to make assemblages from found objects had turned, by 1960, toward a greater emphasis on formal concerns among geometric shapes. This resulted in his landmark works in neon, out of which emerged his longtime interest in the maximal application of “lightness” with the most attainable means of minimal explorations. Yet unlike some of his peers, who sought to achieve pictorial singularity through repetitive action upon material and format, Antonakos directed his sense of “lightness” down a different path—one that is fortified by his profound connection to his native land of Greece. It is here that one feels as though the artist perceives the whole development of modern and post-modern architecture as a natural progression from the Acropolis. In other words, wherever his neon sculptures are installed, whether in outdoor or indoor spaces, they’re uncannily integrated with their spatial surroundings. This rare accomplishment, I think, can be attributed to Antonkonos’s spirit of benevolence. It appears to have given rise to a visceral feeling for a multitude of forms, from the exterior of the Fort Worth Art Museum to the interior of the Fortress of Saint George, Rhodes, in Greece.
In the last two decades, Antonakos has executed some of his most playful works, like those that combine painted canvas with neon or aluminum and gold gilded surfaces, as well as those with irregular interruption in borders and edges. But he has also invested a great deal of time in materializing the similar spatial tensions that exist between geometric forms and their surrounding space on a series of works on paper. In fact, with colored pencil and plastivellum as his preferred medium, he invented his own divisionist mark-making. This consists of physical yet repetitive gestures that evoke the on-going and simultaneous interplay between intellectual and emotional elements. Such techniques, I feel, allow the artist to mediate the visual world as a structure of dialectical relations, or multi-dimensional and multiple appearances that keep defining and redefining his subtle and exquisite sense of spatial discrepancies. However, as Antonakos has reduced his public commissioned works in recent years, the neon sculptures from the mid 1990s to the present have increased their sculptural and architectural presence. From single panels with single neons, lit from behind in correspondence with a specific configuration of shapes and edges, to multi panels with deliberate openings between unequal rectangular forms, a new pictorial invention came about—namely, the contrast between solid, uniformed colors. These can be located within the picture planes against the more diffused and atmospheric light, typically composed of four or five colors around the edges, generating seven or eight in combination. A blue and yellow near one another, for instance, create green in between. This visual effect is likewise applied to other colors, in order to establish a harmony between the lightness and the objectness of his chosen forms.
Perhaps Antonakos’s lightness suggests a spiritual realm that has materialized into a practical matter. On one hand, it aspires to be as ephemeral as the spirit in transition. On the other, it persists on a sublime beauty that has no other option but to be made by sensuality. Without taking refuge in either one as his personal salvation, Antonakos seems to embrace both, and more. Clearly one is hesitant to think of the artist’s late work as being in the category of “Old Age” style. What we have seen here in New York promises to be a new beginning. Perhaps Paul Tillich was right when he said, “Man’s ultimate aim in life is his religion.”