This focused exhibition presents three distinct uses of gold in Antonakos’s late work: Neon Panels, drawings, and a model for a chapel. All confirm the artist’s essential engagement with both placement and time.
The gallery’s main wall holds two of his most intense late Neon Panels. They are related in scale and form but worlds apart in affect. We do not see neon tubes here, only their soft auras of color glowing around the rectangles’ edges. The geometry is planar; the light is spatial. The Panels were begun in the mid-1980s and, with many sensitive variations of surface and surround, continued to the very end of his career. One might expect the gold-leafed planes to dominate and the embracing clouds of color to serve as modifiers – like nouns and adjectives. But no: far from competition for dominance, the dialog between the elements results in a harmonious unity that activates the space they share with the viewer. As Irving Sandler put it,
“Essentially a classicist in the Constructivist tradition, he has revealed the poetry of neon.”
Matisse said the characteristic of modern art is to participate in our life. All of Antonakos’s work is centered on the viewer’s experience of real things in real spaces. He felt that a work exists only once it is felt, received by the viewer – visually, mentally, kinetically. Light is not static. In a site with natural light, when the day darkens, the gold-leafed surfaces will seem darker and the neon glows increasingly intense and expansive. But the flat planes, even when dim, exert their positions as the only areas the colored glows do not penetrate.
The Neon Panels are intense manifestations of Antonakos’s relationship to the world past and present. They do not depict specific figures but gently honor people, events, and places of sacrifice or consequence that were meaningful to the artist’s inner life. Beneath their formality we sense the Panel’s sources in a constant, ongoing impulse for unity and compassion. The theme of remembrance is woven throughout.
The second group of work in the exhibition is the gold leaf drawings begun in 2011: the flat, cut “continuations” and the crumpled “Terrains.” Through the decades Antonakos made drawings with cuts, cut-outs, tears, pleats, layers, and crumples. The element here is gold leaf’s range of specific tones and surfaces and of course their reflections – which may allow even the flat “continuations” to be considered 3-D. These drawings seem more like objects than images: sculptures in frames.
The model of the Chapel here is one of Antonakos’s most radical. Purely geometric, and one of the few with a prominent cross positioned outside the architecture, it allows us to look inside only through windows very high on the glass wall. Perhaps they are meant mainly for looking up and out from the interior. The single red glass window on the diagonal wall will project its moving image along the floor as the sun crosses the sky above – an especially clear engagement of the passage of time.
Antonakos began these models in the late 1980s and exhibited many in full scale in temporary exhibitions here, in Greece and Europe. They range from concepts for large Greek Orthodox churches that could be consecrated to small personal meditation spaces. Their evolution drew from both the geometric architecture of his long history with Neon Rooms and from his enduring belief.
Throughout the decades, Antonakos’s rigorous formalism is not contradicted but complemented, expanded, by his deep-rooted connection to the world around us, today and historically. His earliest impressions, from his tiny mountain village in Greece, identify light and defined spaces as central: the red sunrise each morning over the distant line of mountains and the interior of the small chapel there.
“Being inside it was like being plunged deep inside my own feelings… The rich colors, the gold, the heightened atmosphere, all moved me immensely. I felt more myself there than anywhere else.”
Please join us at the Morgan Library on Wednesday, November 20th at 7:00 PM for a presentation of Stephen Antonakos’s work and a concert of Nikos Skalkottas’s Études played by Idith Meshulam Korman, recognized pianist and founder of the modernist Pi Ensemble. Dr. Helen Evans and Robert Storr will be speaking.