Keith Sonnier was part of a group of artists who challenged preconceived notions of sculpture in the late 1960s by experimenting with industrial and ephemeral materials.. In Sonnier’s case, materials ranged from latex and satin, to found objects, transmitters and video. In 1968, the artist began creating wall sculptures using incandescent light and sheer fabric. Frustrated by the standardized forms of incandescent light, he started experimenting with neon. Using copper tubing as a template, Sonnier began sketching lines, arches and curves ultimately realized in glass tubing enclosed neon. The linear quality of neon allowed Sonnier to draw in space with light and color while colored light interacted with the surrounding architecture.
Sonnier often works in series, some of which have spanned the length of the artist’s career. Elements of these early experimental sculptural works are often recognizable in the later architectural installations on a monumental scale. Deriving from a colloquial term from the artist’s Cajun upbringing, Sonnier’s seminal Ba-O-Ba series has developed over the past 40 years. In 2003, the artist transformed Gordon Bunshaft’s iconic Lever House with a site-specific installation as his first major architectural presentation in New York City. Prior to BA-O-BA Lever House, Sonnier explored the possibilities of neon with a temporary installation for the exterior of Mies van der Rohe’s Neue National galerie in Berlin in 2002, entitled BA-O- BA Berlin.
Over the past two decades, Keith Sonnier has received international recognition for his large-scale works specific to renowned landmarks. In 2000, the artist created a temporary neon installation on four façades of Peter Zumthor’s Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria, entitled Millennium 2000. The large-scale installation coincided with the exhibition Keith Sonnier: Environmental Works 1968-99. In 2004, the artist created one of Los Angeles’s largest public installations. Motordom (2004) illuminates the courtyard of Thom Mayne’s Caltrans District 7 Building as a permanent installation of red neon and blue argon.
In the past year, a survey of 5 decades of light works was presented in France at le Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain (MAMAC) in Nice. In 2013, the artist’s work was exhibited by the Fondazione Prada as part of, "When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013." The Venice presentation was a remaking of the radical Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form: Works, Concepts, Processes, Situations, Information,curated by Harald Szeemann and included work by Keith Sonnier originally presented at the Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland in 1969. In the same year, Sonnier’s work was included in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s groundbreaking Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials curated by Marcia Tucker and James Monte in 1969. The exhibition was the first large presentation of Post-Minimalism in an American museum.
Sonnier has shown throughout his career in Europe and the United States. His relationships with dealers such as Rolf Ricke (in the Rhineland) and with Leo Castelli Gallery in New York have lasted for the duration of his career. Sonnier began exhibiting with Castelli at Castelli Warehouse on West 108th Street in 1968 in an exhibition organized by Robert Morris (9 at Leo Castelli) which also included the work of Joseph Beuys, Bill Bollinger, Eva Hesse and Bruce Nauman.
Sonnier also began his career with Rolf Ricke in Cologne in 1968, a relationship which culminated in the exhibition Sammlung Rolf Ricke in 2007 and the subsequent placement of his work in Ricke’s historically important collection to several museums including Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, Vaduz; Museum für moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main and Kunstmuseum St. Gallen.
Upcoming 2016 exhibitions include: New York, PS1: Fourty Years; London, Whitechapel Gallery: Keith Sonnier - Light Works; NYC, The National Exemplar: Khadi (Material - Alteration - Craft) with artist, Aaron Aujla.
Sonnier currently exhibits and has had recent exhibitions at Maccarone (New York and Los Angeles), Pace Gallery, Mary Boone Gallery, Castelli Gallery and The National Exemplar in New York. In Europe recent exhibitions include, Häusler Contemporary in Munich and Zurich; Jürgen Becker in Hamburg; Galerie MItterend in Paris, Bernier-Eliades in Athens and Guy Pieters Gallery in Knokke Zoute and St. Paul de Vence and le Grand Palais, Paris, France.
Keith Sonnier (b. 1941, Louisiana) radically reinvented sculpture in the late 1960s. After graduating with a B.A. from the University of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette in 1963, he went on to receive an M.F.A. from Rutgers University in 1966. Employing previously unusual materials, Sonnier, along with his contemporaries, Eva Hesse, Barry Le Va, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, Joel Shapiro, Richard Tuttle, and Jackie Winsor, called all previous conceptions of sculpture into question. Sonnier experimented with a wide range of materials and in 1968 began working with neon which quickly became a defining element of his work.
Sonnier has been the subject of more than 130 solo exhibitions and has participated in more than 360 group exhibitions throughout his career, including: Documenta 5, Kassel (1972); Keith Sonnier: Neon (1989) at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Keith Sonnier: Porte Vue (1979) at Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Projects: Keith Sonnier (1971) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Venice Biennale (1972, 1982); the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1970 Annual Exhibition: Contemporary American Sculpture, Biennial Exhibitions (1973, 1977), and The New Sculpture 1965 – 1975: Between Geometry and Gesture (1990) which later traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
Sonnier’s architectural neon installations in public spaces have earned him wide acclaim in an international context. More than 20 important public commissions by the artist have been realized since 1981. Included among these commissions is Lichtweg (or Lightway) at the New International Airport, Munich (1989-1992), a permanent installation that spans the 1,000 meter walkway of moving sidewalks, linking terminals and orienting passengers in a pathway of light. Additional installations include: Kansas City International Airport (2006); Munich Re Headquarters in Munich (2002); Pfarrexpositur St. Franziskus, Roman Catholic Church, Steyr, Austria (2002); Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, Washington D.C. (1998); Bureau of the Census, Bowie, Maryland (1997); and the Miami International Airport (1996).
Sonnier’s work can be found in dozens of public and private collections worldwide, including the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, Krefeld, Germany; Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, Vaduz; Kunstverein St. Gallen, Switzerland; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona; Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld, Germany; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; New Orleans Museum of Art, Louisiana; Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; Sprengel Museum, Hannover, Germany; Städtisches Museum Abteiberg Monchengladbach, Germany; Stedelijik Museum, Amsterdam, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
In 1974, Sonnier was awarded first prize at the 9th International Biennial Exhibition of Prints at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. He was also two-time recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Grant (1975, 1981), and was awarded the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 1974. His many accolades include the 2013 Arts and Letters Award in Art presented by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Keith Sonnier currently lives and works in New York City and Bridgehampton, New York.