Artistic proof that less is more

In the early 90s, artist Stephen Antonakos employed the minimal, geometric style of his work to make models of or actual «Chapels» and «Meditation Rooms,» a series of architectural structures that enclosed the viewer in a protective, calm environment and placed him in a meditative mood. Creating an engaging, soothing effect with spare, geometric visual language is typical of Antonakos’s work, not just with large, public sculptures but also in hundreds of small drawings, a medium that the artist works on almost every day. This effect is immediately felt in the artist’s retrospective exhibition which is currently being held at the Pireos Street annex of the Benaki Museum. Organized in collaboration with the J.F. Costopoulos Foundation and curated by its artistic director, Katerina Koskina, this first major retrospective is a rich, wonderfully structured exhibition that takes the viewer through the entire oeuvre of this renowned artist, one of the first to use neon lighting in art. His work developed in the international milieu of New York and carries the influence of some of the most major artistic movements: mainly minimalism and light art. It begins with the assemblages from the mid-1950s – a series of neo-dada objets-trouves sculptures – and gradually moves to the more abstract works: among them, monochromatic panels framed in a halo of differently colored light (neon light is placed behind the panels), neon-light compositions, colored-pencil drawings on vellum and monochromatic collages. There are also the «Pillows» series from the early 1960s and «Packages,» a body of work that developed over a period of five years and involved the receiving and sending of packages between Antonakos and his artist friends (Robert Ryman, Richard Artschwager, Daniel Buren and Sol LeWitt among them). The works look different, yet they are all about how line, structure, space and time, the material and the non-material (in this case material and light), natural light and artificial light relate to one another. In many works, neon light is a fundamental tool: In some cases the neon light tubes are like the lines of a drawing; in others, they become a diffuse lighting that creates an awareness of space. Antonakos stripped neon light of its associations with commercial signage and turned it into a sophisticated material. «Neon is physical glass tubing, it is electric current actually moving through the colored gas, and it is the colored auras that emanate into space. Neon is alive. Neon is not at all a ‘found object’ – its uses are much too various, and I am still finding new possibilities. It is flexible, fortunately, like the lines and spaces in drawing but the big idea was that I found new, formal, possibilities and new kinetic and sensible meanings. I saw its potential for clarity and the mental and emotional engagement of viewers. Gradually through the 1950s, in my assemblages, there was less and less modification of the found object and found material. I knew without analysis, just through working in the studio, that I wanted real things in real space. I wanted to use neon in my own new ways. Representation, symbolism, allegory, references to anything outside the experience itself have never been part of my intention,» the artist told Kathimerini English Edition on the occasion of his retrospective exhibition. Neon also involves time: «It looks different when natural light is available. In daylight, the form of the panel will dominate and, as evening falls, the colored auras of light will become stronger and the surrounding area less visible. Every aspect of these changes is important to me: No single moment or photograph is definitive,» he said. A large part of his work is site-specific and made to integrate with architecture and relate to particular buildings. «It is essential that all my work – not only the public works – relates to its immediate architectural setting and the space around it. But even within a work, each part must be in correct proportion and placement to every other part and to the work as a whole. I place my panels, no less than the larger outdoor public installations, in considered relationships to the walls, their edges, the corners, the amount of space in front of, to the sides etc. For the same reasons, I hang drawings in regular or irregular rhythms on a wall, in response to their internal relations and to the pattern they make in the architecture and the spaces defined by the architecture,» Antonakos said. The artist, who has made several works for Athens, says that this is a city that poses a challenge for an artist. «There are many terrific outdoor sites that I would like to work with in Athens. I like an open broad view which includes the sky, because this is an ultimate challenge, especially during the daylight hours; and because Athens is historically and culturally a place where people do meet outdoors in so many ways. In general, the city can benefit from more excellent examples of contemporary public art. I hope these will be in meaningful relation to their sites formally and in a civic sense so that people will experience a greater connectedness and relevance to the art and the site,» said the artist. For an artist who has received so many public commissions and works on large, open-air projects, it is perhaps surprising to learn that working on small-scale drawings is essential. «I have always wanted to work very large, to see things from a great distance that belong in their position, and then to see them up close also. I simply think that it is a basic human ‘reach’ that is probably primal. And neon carries its forms so cleanly, even on a huge scale and from great distance. The large-scale public works have been very satisfying projects for me. And yet, personally, I think the size of the hand is extremely important. I draw every day, as much as I can. The hatching of the pencil strokes are the scale that I naturally make, without thinking about it, though the forms of the drawings relate to the size and the edges of the paper or vellum. The panels, which are on a ‘human scale,’ may be the greatest challenge to get precisely right because this scale seems to involve the whole body,» Antonakos said. Both in the larger and smaller works, the objective is to achieve what the artist calls a «heightened consciousness.» «I want the art to enliven the space and I hope that people will find openness and energy… It is my hope that we can individually find correspondences with the work that allow many natural feelings to occur that our hyperactive, rational, modern life often ignores. Maybe it’s ironic, but for me, it is in using these ancient geometric figures and proportions – things we think of as being rational – that I find release and a different kind of consciousness, or knowledge,» said Antonakos. The works in the Benaki exhibition offer the viewer this sense of release. They bring a gratifying experience and highlight the oeuvre of an original and important artist. «Stephen Antonakos, Retrospective» at the Pireos Street annex of the Benaki Museum (138 Pireos & Andronikou, 210.345.3111) through March 9.