Keith Sonnier: A Retrospective in Three Parts

“His installations create the ineffable poetry of the transient and the ephemeral.”
Mr. Sonnier’s “Dis-Play II” at the Dan Flavin Art Institute is an environmental installation first exhibited at the Castelli Warehouse in New York City in 1970.

When Keith Sonnier was still in his mid-20s, he established himself as one of a small group of artists who were radically redefining the boundaries of sculpture by experimenting with unconventional materials and processes — video, latex, cloth, bamboo. 

“He belongs to a generation of artists that set the bar very high. He never compromised, and I have always admired his work tremendously,” said the sculptor Alice Aycock. “His installations create the ineffable poetry of the transient and the ephemeral.” Ms. Aycock has known Mr. Sonnier since she was a young art student at Rutgers University, where he earned his M.F.A. in 1966. 

Three shows, ranging from Mr. Sonnier’s earliest neon and cloth pieces to drawings and sculpture from 2017, will open on the East End this weekend. “Keith Sonnier: Until Today,” the artist’s first solo exhibition at an American museum in 35 years, will open at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill on Sunday.

At the Dan Flavin Art Institute in Bridgehampton, his “Dis-Play II,” an environmental installation from 1970, will open on Sunday along with a selection of his films and videos from 1968 to 1977.

“Tragedy and Comedy,” a show of 40 new drawings accompanied by related sculptures, will begin a four-week run tomorrow at the Tripoli Gallery in Southampton.

Organized by Jeffrey Grove, a guest curator, and Terrie Sultan, the Parrish’s director, “Until Today” includes 39 works and begins with two pieces that exemplify Mr. Sonnier’s early investigation of uncommon materials. An untitled object from 1967 made from satin, foam, rubber, wood, and felt sits on the floor. “Rat Tail Exercise” (1968) consists of string, latex, rubber, and flocking.

Several pieces from the same period reflect his exploration of the structural and gestural qualities of neon, among them “Ba-O-Ba” (1969), whose neon tubes traverse large geometric planes of glass and establish light as a tangible structural element. He also exposed the transformers, wires, and plugs as elements of the pieces.

While he has continued to work with neon and other sculptural materials throughout his career, during the 1970s Mr. Sonnier made pioneering single-channel videos and video installations that pushed at the limits of that medium, and he created “Quad Scan,” a surveillance piece that used a scanner, telephone speaker, and radios.

In 1977, working with Liza Bear, he created “Send/Receive Satellite Network,” a two-phase project that provided a live satellite connection between artists in New York City and San Francisco and, in its democratizing of the means of communication, foreshadowed the development of the internet.

While the use of natural and indigenous materials in his sculpture of the 1980s reflected his travels to China, Japan, Brazil, and India, during a recent conversation in his studio in Bridgehampton he said that his first trip abroad — to France — was particularly influential. Born and raised in Mamou, La., he went there for a year before college at his parents’ insistence.

Rutgers had a strong and influential M.F.A. program whose faculty included several conceptual artists, but it was the sculptor Robert Morris who had the biggest impact on Mr. Sonnier. “Bob said, ‘Make it out of whatever you want.’ ” 

Mr. Sonnier’s graduate show consisted of wooden minimalistic forms with inflated sections of clear plastic “that looked like part of a Wonder Woman air force, but very abstract. I learned a tremendous amount from those pieces,” which showed early on his predilection for unusual materials and configurations, he said.

After earning his M.F.A., Mr. Sonnier was included in such landmark exhibitions at “9 at Castelli” at the Castelli Warehouse and “Anti-Form” at the John Gibson Gallery, both in 1968, “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials” at the Whitney Museum in 1969, and “Information” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970. 

In 1971 he was one of eight artists, among them Richard Serra, Carl Andre, and Eva Hesse, selected for the Triennale in India, where he did a sound installation that was attached to the outside of the architecture. In India, he connected with the Sarabhai Institute, which invited Western artists to work with Indian craftsmen.

“I made my first bamboo pieces in India there with these bamboo cage makers. Working with them imbued this abstract work for me with this anthropomorphic identity.”

The Parrish exhibition concludes with large-scale neon constructions and “Passage Azur,” a site-specific installation of neon tubing and electrical wire that runs the length of the museum’s interior spine. He called the installation “a killer.” Seeing almost 50 years of work under one roof, he said, “It looks brand new.”

“Dis-Play II,” which will be on view in Bridgehampton through May 26, 2019, consists of foam rubber, fluorescent powder, strobe light, black light, neon, and glass. First shown at the Castelli Warehouse in New York City in 1970, it brings together his ongoing interest in film, light, and experiential environments. 

Of the show at Tripoli Gallery, Mr. Sonnier said, “I told Trip I had done these little drawings to keep my sanity when I was quite sick. I’m also showing these African masks, which I would buy on the street and then alter them with flocking and paint.” A selection of recent light sculptures will also be on view.

The Parrish exhibition, which will run through Jan. 27, 2019, is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog with essays by Mr. Grove, the architecture critic Martin Filler, and Katie Pfohl, curator of modern and contemporary art at the New Orleans Museum of Art, and an in-depth interview of Mr. Sonnier by Ms. Sultan.

“New Blatt Cinema,”
“Mastadon,”