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Hailing from the Deep South of the United States, Keith Sonnier (1941–2020) is known mainly for his light works. From the 1960s, he continually used light in the form of both neon and argon tubes and ordinary light bulbs to make sculptural works. This, and his notion of “floor-to-wall” works, constitute his innovative contribution to a radical expansion of the definition of sculpture. Even at this early point in time, Sonnier shunned all doctrine with astonishing ease – an attitude he would uphold throughout his life, creating a varied oeuvre. His work is often shown in Germany and internationally. Neues Museum Nürnberg has now given Sonnier a major retrospective that goes far beyond the pioneering light works to present his oeuvre in all its sensual, sensitive diversity.
In the 1960s, Sonnier showed works in pioneering exhibitions like Lucy Lippard’s Eccentric Abstraction (1966) and Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form, organized in 1969 at Kunsthalle Bern by Harald Szeemann, who went on to direct Documenta. His art, like that of his contemporaries Eva Hesse, Robert Morris, Richard Serra and Richard Tuttle, was interpreted as an attack on the aesthetic and definition of the work upheld by the then dominant school of Minimalism, becoming known under the label New Sculpture. With their non-art materials like latex, fibreglass, wire or aluminium and their alteration over time, Sonnier’s process-based, site-specific works exerted a shaping influence on post-minimalism.
When he turned his attention to video and television in the 1970s, Sonnier once more became a key driving force behind an artistic development. His video installation Channel Mix (1972), a highlight of the Neues Museum collection included in the exhibition, reflects Sonnier’s profound interest in media-influenced conventions of seeing and their subversion. With a double projection that draws on television live feeds, he invites his audience to walk right into the work. In addition to questions relating to transmission technologies, his interest in colour spaces is evident here. Sonnier never tired of stressing that the physical sensation of light was more important to him than the visual. And other works, like those made during the 1980s on his travels to Brazil, India and Japan, often made in cooperation with local craftspeople using traditional materials, also reflect the supreme importance of perceiving art with all the senses.
With some fifty works from six decades, the chronological exhibition at Neues Museum Nürnberg shows that a sensitive and playful openness when dealing with different aesthetic forms of expression was something Keith Sonnier maintained throughout his life. The exhibition’s title Lightsome thus refers on the one hand to his outstanding light art, but also, in the sense of “cheerful” and “carefree”, it denotes Sonnier’s attitude as an artist.