Light speaks. And its voice is perhaps never as strong and clear as in the City of Light. La Maison Rouge, the exquisite art space and foundation in the Bastille quarter of Paris, is proving it with Neon, Who’s afraid of red, yellow and blue? Curated by David Rosenberg, this illuminated carnival of flashing and glowing colored light is the first and perhaps largest exhibition of illuminated tubular art works. And it’s noisy, too, with the low persistent electric buzz flowing through the show – think: Flashing tiki lounge martini sign after midnight on the Vegas strip.
More than 80 artists were brought together for Neon and their sometimes tautological, sometimes scatological and sometimes geometrical objects span the history of the genre and establish light works as a serious staple of conceptual art. The subtitle of the exhibition takes its name and sensibility from minimalist/abstract expressionist painter Barnett Newman’s famous work of the same name : a “zip” canvas from 1966 combining a bright, fat band of red edged with thin strips of blue and yellow. The painting blares out at you with its pure color, its title referring to itself. The exhibition is almost a thesis on that painting.
Neon is an extremely rare gas on Earth, but very popular throughout the universe. William Ramsey and M.W. Travers first discovered Neon, (Ne), a gas in England in 1898, naming it after neos – Greek for “new.” A quarter century later, the French chemist George Claude trapped it inside a glass tube, ran electricity through it, and patented the thing. Visitors to the 1923 Universal Exposition in Paris marveled at the bright, pure colors Claude’s invention was able to produce. America followed suit. Claude sold Packard (cars) two glowing signs, bent into the shape of their logo. Before you knew it, the expressive capabilities of neon were everywhere, selling us everything from cars to bars to beer.