KEITH SONNIER with Michael Straus
PARRISH ART MUSEUM | JULY 1, 2018 – JANUARY 27, 2019
I first met Keith Sonnier several years ago on a party ship that was hired to follow a tugboat around Manhattan as it towed the first realization of Robert Smithson’s Floating Island. So it was a great privilege to spend some time with Keith at his home and studio in Bridgehampton recently and hear him reflect (as he does in this interview) on his friendships with Smithson, Nancy Holt, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and many others, all while interweaving memories and stories of his childhood on the Louisiana bayou together with multiple insights into his own pioneering, original and joyful work in neon and other materials. I was accompanied by the Rail’s Publisher, Phong Bui, and Keith’s long time associate, Lesley Raeside. The interview concides with an expansive retrospective of Keith’s work at the Parrish Museum as well as a brilliant installation at the Dan Flavin Institute.
Michael Straus (Rail): We’re surrounded by several of your sculptures on the walls, including neon works for which you’re so well known, bamboo works relating to imagery and materials you explored from your time in Bali, and in the nearby studio barn works using fabric, latex, and even Tesla electrical power. But there are also numerous drawings leaning against the wall, on the work tables, or framed and hanging and I’d like to talk a bit about the role of drawings in your work, since it may be less known to many people. It seems from many of the sketches that you’re always having your hand on paper, thinking through forms and variations.
Keith Sonnier: Usually the works go through phases—there will be different approaches to the drawing of a concept or a work and of course the piece changes.
Rail: As you draw?
Sonnier: Yes, more information gets piled on and it nears more of a completion towards construction—clarification of material, some understanding of size and weight, placement in or out of nature—all of these things begin to work into how the piece will be completed.
Rail: So often what you’re left with is lots of drawings and just one constructed piece?
Sonnier: Yes, exactly.
Rail: I think when people see your neon works they might think, “Well I guess he’s heated up some neon and twisted it around until it looks good and there it is,” but that’s not really how you get to there, is it?
Sonnier: In fact, I’m not even bending the neon myself.
Rail: Did you at one point?
Sonnier: You know what? I never did. I went to my first neon factory, run by an elderly gentleman in Harlem. He was such a great old guy. He said, “You just sit there and watch me.” It was a one-man shop and he made the first neon piece I ever did.
Rail: Was this in ’68? Was that the first year you worked in neon?
Sonnier: Yes, that was the first time.
Rail: If we look at your looping incandescent pieces from that moment they are so gestural, it’s as though you were using a brush in space. Neon Wrapping Incandescent IV, for example, has paired tubes of yellow and orange neon looping around two industrial-style incandescent bulbs.
Sonnier: Well actually, I created the form by bending copper tubes, so it was a gesture.
Rail: You looped copper tubes as a guide for the neon fabrication?
Sonnier: Yes. Copper bending to neon bending is very close. The two materials have a similar technique in gestural manipulation, they just do, and an easy way to get something fabricated quickly was that I would sometimes even go with a roll of copper to the neon shop. That’s how I’d do it in Europe for sure. In America it was more difficult because the fabricators didn’t always like to have artists in the shop because they considered it their domain. In Europe it was totally different.
Rail: Is it because there’s a European sense of craft as art?
Sonnier: I think craft is taught. You choose your profession at a younger age in Europe and if you’re going into the crafts, like in Asia, you’re instructed in that.
Rail: Because you’re in the guild.
Rail: You didn’t have that kind of instruction?
Sonnier: No, as a matter of fact, it was kind of frowned on in this country when I was starting out. But half my career was European so it became a very sweet thing to happen.
Rail: Were there other people in your family who also had their hands in dealing with materials?
Sonnier: My aunt was a “Rosie the Riveter.” She built naval ships in New Orleans, helped out for Normandy, D-Day, and then later became a registered nurse in my hometown of Grand Mamou, Louisiana.
Rail: And so much of what you make is bolted and constructed as well. I was also wondering, were any of the women in your family involved with fabric, draping, sewing? The reason I ask is because of the beautiful latex piece that I had never seen before that’s installed in your studio next door, a pre-neon work.
Sonnier: My mother created all sorts of things. She might say, “Oh, I want a new couch and I’ve seen an old couch I could use.” So she’d go get the couch, call one of her pals in upholstery, they’d remake the couch and then we’d have a new couch. She also started a florist business. She loved flowers so she had a florist shop, but her real sideline was singing. She and several of her sisters all had great voices. In those years the Catholic Church segregated the choir from the rest of the congregation and most of the members of the choir were black except my mom and her sisters, so my mother and her sisters sang in the black choir. The priest told her, “You should come down from the choir loft to the main sanctuary when the white farmers come in.” But she said, “No, we all come down together. We work together, we come down together.”
Rail: I think of your work generally as having upbeat, playful, and musical elements to it and so it sounds as though that’s deep in your bones.
Sonnier: When you left church, it was like you were holding the Holy Ghost in your hand.
Rail: So even as a child is it fair to say you had a tactile sense of things that others might think of as immaterial?
Sonnier: Yes, very much so.
Rail: Which seems so much the essence of how you handle light. It’s immaterial but you’ve made it volumetric.
Rail: You’ve spoken about being fortunate to have liberal parents who encouraged freedom of thought. But when did the thought arise that you might leave your hometown and be an artist?
Sonnier: Neither of my parents went to college. Yet my dad would say, “You have to have an education. But you must always remember, you have to give back.” So he said, “You have your education but you have to give back to the society and the culture, that’s how we make a nation.” It was amazing.
Rail: It’s expansive.
Sonnier: Exactly. And I also had great teachers. In fact I’m writing a book now of short stories about my childhood teachers. For example my second-grade teacher was also my aunt and they called her Miss Baby Smith. Everyone called her, “Miss Baby! Miss Baby!” She had a standing baby grand piano in the classroom and she would say things like, “Kids, it’s so depressing out today so we’re going to sing every subject—arithmetic, spelling, geometry—you name it.” And she’d get that old Steinway out and we’d sing our arithmetic and spelling lessons. I couldn’t wait to go to school. We also had a librarian who was a paraplegic. She had a slight crimp in her spine, but it didn’t affect her. Her name was Marlene Smith and I loved when she would say, “Now you kids, you haven’t listened to the three Chopin records I bought for the room. You have to listen to them. Each one has to listen to them. And you have to write me a little statement.” And so, we’d listen to the thing and do it. She was also in charge of the typing class and she had these big typewriters, the old army typewriters that were in full caps so when you typed it looked like a telegram. We just thought that that was what a typed page looked like. And so I always typed in full caps.
Rail: Do you still?
Sonnier: I still do, much to the annoyance of everybody.
Rail: How about when you write? Do you write in caps?
Sonnier: I write in caps.
Rail: Because so did Bob Rauschenberg. All caps. But he was dyslexic.
Sonnier: Or maybe he went to the same typing school [Laughs].
Rail: So when did you move East, as it were?
Sonnier: I crossed the Mason-Dixon for the first time in ’68, I think.
Rail: And you came to New York?
Sonnier: I came to New York to look and I wanted to go to Rutgers. But I didn’t go there right off. My parents were very devout and also very eccentric. My mother said, “Well, you’re going to go to Paris. But first you’re going to get rid of that patois before we send you to Paris.” [Laughter]
Rail: So did you speak with a deep Cajun accent?
Sonnier: My grandmother only spoke the dialect.
Rail: Can you still?
Sonnier: Oh, yes! It came from spending time with my grandmother. She was a spiritual healer and I would help her with the healing, which she didn’t charge for.
Rail: Jesus didn’t charge either. [Laughter].
Sonnier: But I did go to Paris and began my art studies there in two ways, first in an academy and then in an artisan shop.
Rail: Was the academy something of a classic French art school?
Sonnier: Oh, yeah. I went to the old Fernand Leger studio in Paris and learned to draw with nude models. We weren’t allowed to draw from the nude in Louisiana, so man, I get there and there are amazing nudes from all over the world, Haitian, Indonesian, and others. And all they had in the room for heat was a single electric heater with a red bar from the heat of the heater. My teacher, a Russian, had been Leger’s assistant. Leger had died after the war and this Mr. Poliakoff continued the Leger Foundation. So I met a whole range of different kinds of students who still studied a kind of Leger technique of looking at the model and drawing.
Rail: So that really is the bedrock for your own drawings?
Sonnier: Yes, and it wasn’t like how we are in America. There the teacher goes and draws on your drawing and then you erase and redraw it.
Rail: So taking that as a base in a sense, what was your point of transition to finding your own voice?
Sonnier: Well, that allowed me to sort of study my own roots, just see what they really were.
Bui: Were you painting at the same time?
Sonnier: I was painting and drawing and making sculpture.
Rail: So from there, you went back to the States?
Sonnier: I went to Rutgers.
Rail: Did they have anything like a senior thesis like the way art schools do now?
Sonnier: Oh, yes.
Rail: What was your senior thesis?
Sonnier: It was on antiquity. You have to realize, we grew up with antiquity in South Louisiana because, for instance, all the street names in New Orleans are named after gods and goddesses.
Rail: You’re talking about Greek antiquity?
Sonnier: And Spanish and Roman. So you’d walk down Alle de Tromphe.
Rail: And you continue to have an interest in ancient forms. . .
Sonnier: . . . and I’d studied anthropology.
Rail: As far as Rutgers, it’s in my home state of New Jersey, which of course was also Robert Smithson’s home state—a site and landscape that is very much at the heart of his work.
Sonnier: Bob was one of my first friends. Yes, we met at that time, both Bob and Nancy Holt, and another key figure was Gordon Matta Clark. Gordon and I became really close friends, and that really changed my attitude towards younger artists as well, being open to a dialogue with other artists from other places. And I think there were mutual influences too because there was an openness of the older generation to befriend us—Rauschenberg, Johns. And later I became good friends with [Donald] Judd and with [Dan] Flavin.
Rail: Did you ever go on any road trips with Smithson and Holt?
Sonnier: I did see Marfa with them, which was very important.
Rail: This was just when Donald Judd was first adapting the spaces there? What’s interesting is that you don’t adhere to the kind of pure geometric forms that some people think of in his work.
Sonnier: No, I don’t. But on the other hand I developed a strong knowledge and appreciation for architecture through Don. I had never really considered architecture as being important to an understanding of sculpture and with Judd, that became very clear—with Flavin as well. I also saw how color could be used in architecture, using color in light as volume.
Bui: It’s also worth noting that by 1963 there were two very prominent figures experimenting with light, one being Flavin in his very singular deployment of a white fluorescent tube; and the other being Stephen Antonakos, who was in many ways the opposite of Flavin by virtue of his employment of color.
Sonnier: Stephen and I never really got to be friends. His wife and I became friends after he died, but he and I somehow never crossed paths even though we lived pretty close to each other.
Rail: He doesn’t have the same sensuous line in his work that you do, but there is a sense of color.
Sonnier: There is a sense of color and material. I know he looked at my work and quite frankly I looked at his work.
Rail: There’s a found object aspect to your work, as well as carefully constructed, fabricated aspects, isn’t there? You’ve mentioned Bob Rauschenberg as an important influence on you in that regard and I wonder if you could elaborate?
Sonnier: Bob’s work was extremely important, and not only his work but his spirit, his being. He was a very generous man. And I met his mother and his sister as well because they moved to Lafayette, Louisiana. I remember when his mother painted bathing suits over Bob’s nudes. We’d come back from being out and they all now had on black bathing suits. And something else, Bob’s sister was Miss Jambolaya, she was the sweet potato queen. [Laughter] You have to have a sense of humor about that.
Rail: That’s true! Now you had learned and been trained classically, but rather than stay with that you began to use latex, even before turning to neon. And Eva Hesse also used latex at a certain point . . .
Sonnier: I knew Eva when I went to Rutgers—no, before. Eva was my neighbor two blocks away when I lived on Mulberry and Eva lived on the Bowery. And my use of latex came when I had left Rutgers and was working on my own.
Bui: Keith, would it be fair to say that Rutgers at the time was a hotbed as a program because Kaprow was there, Robert Watts was there?
Sonnier: Right, and my first wife was there, Jackie Windsor.
Bui: Of course!
Sonnier: And you also have to remember we had Robert Morris teaching at Rutgers and Bob was a known sculptor.
Rail: There’s something of Robert Morris in the solid forms of the Day-Glo painted Dis-Play II piece that’s now at the Dan Flavin Institute in Bridgehamton.
Sonnier: Oh, very much so.
Rail: But maybe psychedelized?
Sonnier: Yes. Of course. That’s what Bob Morris loved about it—he said, “you took it further, I told you, you gotta take the idea further.”
Rail: And you did an earlier piece as well that didn’t use Day-Glo, right?
Sonnier: Yes, we used invisible fluorescent powder from the Phillips company, but it was toxic.
Rail: What do you mean, invisible?
Sonnier: The fluorescent powder was white but when you put black light on it, it became color.
Raeside: The piece you’re talking about is Fluorescent Room, right?
Raeside: It was an installation of foam pieces that are quite similar to Dis-Play II but it was at the van Abbe Museum museum in Eindhoven [Netherlands].
Sonnier: Which was a beautiful museum . . . mind you with cloth walls.
Rail: Wow. So, that was an invisible powder but then the black light illuminated and brought out the color?
Sonnier: That’s right.
Rail: So you were thinking of color as volume then.
Rail: What was the scope of the environment you wanted to create in Dis-Play II, which seems like a darkened, almost a discoteque environment—with sound, with strobe? Much more intense than the peacefulness of many of your pieces.
Sonnier: When I went to a disco I wanted to experience the dysfunction of looking—like how you’d look and, “oh the strobe light’s making it move.” I wanted to reproduce that visualization.
Rail: Is that why you call it Dis-play?
Rail: Because you’ve deconstructed it but it’s still playful.
Sonnier: It is.
Rail: And it’s a display. So, it works on many levels. It’s a fun piece. I think it’s hard to stay within the space for very long, though—but that could be the difference between what it was like going to the Fillmore East when I was in college in the ’60s and now . . .
Sonnier: Well Dia has insisted that we now have to have the bench to sit down. When people go in, they want to sit down and see the film that is also part of the piece. So the strobe is pulling you one way but it’s also pulling you deep in space another way. It has several levels of perception. And it dissects the level of perception when you’re sitting down and watching it as opposed to trying to find a place to sit and not having that. The films in the installation were made during the construction of these pieces at the time. It was a live action environment and I was fascinated by it. My first television work was mixing, you know, when we had broadcast television.
Rail: What do you mean your first television work?
Sonnier: I did a television piece at Leo Castelli that involved remizing four broadcasts at a time. It was called Channel Mix. TV is not like that anymore, it’s different, it’s all cable. But then, it was live, so you’d get all of these different kinds of channels.
Rail: In other words, it was live feed?
Sonnier: Yes, it was live feed.
Rail: So that’s something like ship-to-shore piece you have at the Parrish Art Museum, Quad Scan (1969).
Sonnier: In fact, it is that, just using radios instead of TV’s because they’re still live, whether it’s a police car broadcast or ship-to-shore transmissions.
Rail: When I was a kid I built a small ham radio with transistors and capacitors on a piece of 2 × 4 and I’d send signals out on a telegraph key after I was supposed to be asleep. I only knew Morse code and I wanted to see if anyone was out there listening.
Sonnier: It all started with Morse code.
Rail: So, did you learn Morse code?
Sonnier: I learned Morse code. I was fascinated by how it was written and how it was dissected.
Rail: And the sound of the clicks.
Sonnier: And the sound of the clicks.
Rail: I loved that, too.
Sonnier: Yeah, and sound was part of what was incorporated in making the new work along with film.
Bui: Who were the filmmakers you were friendly with?
Sonnier: He’s from Louisiana, his name is Dickie Landry. Dickie is also a great saxophone player. I got him to play with Phil Glass for the first concerts that they were recording, because they were jazz trained and classically trained. So, they could do it.
Bui: Dickie recorded an early performance work in your loft on Mulberry Street, Object Situation Object in 1969, which was also the title of a show you had at Galerie Rolf Rieke in ’71. Is that right? Can you tell me about that work?
Sonnier: Object Situation Object was originally the name of Richard Landry's music for my exhibition at Galerie Rolf Ricke. It was Rolf's first exhibition in Cologne. Dickie took photographs of the performance and it became the book entitled Object Situation Object. It had no text—just black and white photos and many of the props used in the performance became sculptures which were shown at Catelli Warehouse in 1970. Dickie played there too. I had two major works in the outer room and early neon and incandescent work in the inner space.
Bui: I also wanted to bring up for a moment your participation in Lucy Lippard’s landmark show Eccentric Abstraction at Fischback 1966. What was your experience being in that show?
Sonnier: Well, it definitely helped that someone like Lucy was involved in this kind of perception. It changed everything, really. The Eccentric Abstraction show began to think of abstraction as not being this minimalist Judd/Flavin abstraction. It moved it from that, although they were in it, and I think in a funny way it was meant to isolate the two giants—Rauschenberg and Johns—who were still the great mentors of the whole generation.
Bui: What was your experience of Anti-Illusion at the Whitney a few years later in 1969?
Sonnier: It was getting to know [Richard] Armstrong and [Richard] Marshall better, to begin with. And both their involvement on their different levels of expertise were quite amazing. For example, Richard had worked with an old assistant of mine who curiously enough had worked with Terri in Texas, who curiously enough was married to an old assistant of mine. So, it starts to get very . . .
Rail: I thought you were going to say incestuous.
Sonnier: You got it. And it was not that it was every day, but you know people of similar likes and dislikes tend to relate together.
Rail: Well, let’s segue to your first involvement with neon because it comes about the same time.
Sonnier: Yes, right. Becoming engaged with neon was magical to me. I think in art making there is always a magical element. I think it’s innate in art making and in art perception and viewing. And that’s why I like to get people to go and see art.
Rail: But what do you want people to experience with your work, if you can think about that?
Sonnier: I want them to get how the work is traveling, like how it’s moving on into their perception in space.
Rail: Because it does move towards you.
Sonnier: Yes, right.
Rail: These are not objects in the sense of just looking at something that isn’t impinging on me; there is an interactive element to the work.
Rail: A perceptual interaction, at least that’s how I experience it.
Sonnier: I do set-ups in the studio that are projections of different slides. I had two mirrors facing each other in my studio on Mulberry street for ten years. I liked the fact that I created an infinity channel to work with in.
Rail: You used the mirrors for a piece called Mirror Act in the late sixties, right? Can you tell me about that work or other work that incorporated the mirrors?
Sonnier: The two mirrors created what I called an "infinity channel" which changed the way I looked at and made my work. It was important to me to be able to look at work from the front and the back. Infinity was the key concept. I placed myself within it, for example, in a cheesecloth suit for performances, videos—“studies,” which informed my work for at least a decade.
Rail: And so the reflectivity of your work is also something key that you want to have as far as both the transmission and reflection of light.
Sonnier: Of course, leading back to the objects, too.
Rail: Larry Bell was working with transmission and reflectivity within the apparent simplicity of his boxes. Larry was in New York then but also in Venice.
Sonnier: Definitely. I knew him in both places. We were pals.
Rail: Do you sense a similarity of sensitivity or interaction?
Sonnier: Oh, definitely with light.
Rail: Because he’s all about it.
Rail: And you clearly are all about it.
Sonnier: Yeah, right. He was a colleague, definitely.
Rail: Which is nice and refreshing that you were able to see other artists as colleagues and friends, not as competitors. Now this may be because I just came from visiting Lightning Field last weekend, but I wonder did you ever spend time with Walter De Maria?
Sonnier: I had a connection with Walter because of Richard Bellamy, because Dick and I were friends and I showed there. And I met Walter there and later on through Alana Heiss. But I’ve never been to Lightning Field myself.
Rail: It has a uniquely different sense of how one interacts with light, space and time, that’s why I ask.
Sonnier: The thing is, there are many different aspects of light—that’s the whole point of it!
Rail: Are you also familiar with Mary Corse’s light-work?
Sonnier: Yes, Mary Corse I met though Dick.
Rail: Because she worked with Tesla generators and you have a wonderful piece in the studio using Tesla fixtures.
Sonnier: It’s called Ceiling Ladder.
Rail: It’s a little scary.
Sonnier: Yeah, it is.
Rail: Almost atypically so for you. What was the attraction or the interest of Tesla generators?
Sonnier: Well, I was interested in Tesla as well as Morse Code. You know when I read about Morse Code I was fascinated at the look of how it was laid out, and that lead to drawings.
Rail: This does make me think of your “Ba-O-Ba” series, because I’ve seen numerous drawings of ways in which you might combine the glass circles and squares with the slashes of different colored neon tubes. There is an element of code to those as well. And some of the “Ba-O-Ba” drawings found their way into the sculptures, but most of which did not. You were refining the concept through numerous preliminary drawings, as we’ve discussed earlier. Take for example Ba-O-Ba VII, which is quite simple and pure and is now owned by the Guggenheim.
Sonnier: I love that one.
Rail: It’s a seven foot diameter glass circle and a seven foot glass square.
Sonnier: Right. that was the first time I did 7 feet—because before they were smaller, 6 feet.
Rail: You kept it to human size and now it’s, well, NBA height. In this particular piece there’s just a blue neon tube running diagonally from the upper left down to the right against the glass circle, and a horizontal red connecting neon between the circle and the glass square, and then a yellow diagonal running from the lower left to the upper right through the square. You’re sticking to essential forms, lines, and colors, the primaries.
Rail: There’s something so elemental about the square, the circle, the lines. And perhaps that’s what you’re referring to in your sense of “code” elements because we also just saw a new piece that you’ve done named Boogie Woogie, which also uses just the primary colors but with shorter and thicker neon elements. I assume it’s a reference to Broadway Boogie Woogie by [Piet] Mondrian?
Sonnier: Yeah. I’m making three-dimensional work with this work.
Rail: Walk-around work.
Sonnier: Yeah, walk-around work.
Rail: And so, you’re off the wall now, so to speak?
Sonnier: Yes, three dimensional.
Rail: And this is a new series?
Sonnier: Yes, and it’s sculptural. We’re doing several and Lesley [Raeside] has been helping me with those because there is a company where you can buy fat neon, like twenty millimeter diameter.
Rail: that’s not what you’re using in the “Ebo River” series, for example?
Sonnier: No. That’s fifteen.
Rail: So, you’re using thicker, and much shorter.
Sonnier: Thicker. And there’s a company that makes them in bars ten inches long and makes them fit through a big metal system. It’s going to go outdoors.
MICHAEL STRAUS is a Contributing Writer for The Brooklyn Rail as well as one of its Board members. He is also Chairman of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and a member of the Drawings Committee of the Whitney Museum of American Art.