American sculptor Stephen Antonakos (1926-2013) was a pioneer in the use of neon as an artistic medium from the early 1960s onward. Born in Agios Nikolaos in southern Greece, he immigrated to the US with his family at the age of four and lived in New York City thereafter.
After serving in WWII he established his first studio in the 1950s in New York City's fur district, a fertile neighborhood for the found objects and found materials of his early large Assemblages, Constructions, and "Sewlages" (sewn fabric collages) through that decade, when he worked also as a commercial artist. Seeing the neon signs in these Manhattan streets night after night released his intuition of the medium's untapped flexibility. He called neon "a paradise" he wished to "control" in his own new way, with abstract geometric forms in space.
Concentric neon circles and squares appeared first, notably in the transitional White Light (1962). Mostly black, it incorporated a cut-up Thonet chair and a box-form of found rabbit fur. In the same year, he moved on to his central engagement with neon in architectural space with his Hanging Neon, whose colored tubes jut diagonally into the viewers' space from a box suspended from the ceiling. He continued this key dynamic boldly in many large mid-1960s installations: Orange Vertical Neon, Red Neon from Wall to Floor, and Red Neon from Wall to Wall. There are small-scale models from the period for many more. All fulfill the artist's definition of his work as "real things in real spaces."
His 1962-63 Pillows and Pillow Drawings, exhibited first at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, are distinguished by the intense engagement of the hand: cutting, adding, sewing, stuffing, drawing, layering, and combining materials in ways that clearly predict his constant practice with drawings and collages through the following decades. The subsequent role of works on paper in forming Antonakos's development cannot be over-emphasized; he drew almost every day. The physicality of these compositions and of the cuts and tears and layering in his collages through the years, make them not images, but objects. The same holds for the many Travel Collages produced from the late 1970s through 2001.
Throughout the 1970s, medium-scale two- and three-dimensional variations of his geometric vocabulary were strategically positioned on white walls in formal dialogue with their sites' ceilings, floors, inside corners, and outside corners. Known as the Direct Neons, these works were exhibited extensively in galleries and museums across Europe and the US. As ever, new work was conceived for each venue's particular sites.
A very large group of Project Drawings from the late 1960s through the early 1970s charts Antonakos's thinking through the Direct Neons and on into installations of greater scale, his Walls and Rooms.
First shown in Athens, the Walls investigated both bold and subtle variations of almost "syntactical" relationships between the neon forms "drawn" on the colored surfaces. Two 1973 Rooms allowed simultaneous formal engagement with interior and exterior architectural spaces. In both, making the entire interior a single unit fulfilled Antonakos's hope of including the viewer within the space of the art. San Francisco Room was exhibited inside the Museum of Art. The Room, placed outdoors in downtown Grand Rapids, offered more viewing options from greater distances, rooftops and, very importantly, with exposure to the daily 24-hour cycle of natural light. 1974, Outdoor Neons for the Fort Worth Art Museum upped the ante further with enormously greater scale and geometric diversity. This was nourishment for Antonakos's central concerns uniting light, form, and time throughout his future Public Works.
The mid-1970s saw a definitive change in the drawings. They became completely abstract, without reference to anything outside the work itself. Often made in series, they explored complete and incomplete linear forms in relation to the proportions of the sheets.
All through the 1970s Antonakos produced his conceptual Packages. Filled, sealed, and sent to individuals or groups of friends, they were meant either never to be opened, to be opened on a specific date, or to be opened after the death of the artist. There were approximately thirty projects. An important set sent in 1974 and 1975 to Richard Artschwager, Daniel Buren, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Ryman to be filled by them was opened twenty-five years later as the central event during the major exhibition Time Boxes 2000 at the Brandeis's Rose Art Museum. Less concerned with their contents than with our consciousness through time of not knowing, they relate to such concepts as "incomplete circle" -- knowing what/that we do not know/see. The Greek art historian Savvas Michael has written: "The material of the Packages is time."
From the late 1970s, for over thirty years, there was an active practice of Public Works in neon. More than fifty were constructed and installed in indoor and outdoor sites in airports, rail stations, university campuses, banks, and downtown areas in cities across the US, Europe, and Japan. They range from the spare 15' incomplete square on the facade of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art to the almost 500' treatment of the chimney complex of the Reading Power Plant in Tel Aviv. Antonakos began each project by considering the formal qualities of the site day and night and its use by the public. He considered working for the public a special responsibility.
Moving into the 1980s, Antonakos placed neon forms on painted unstretched canvases and on the faces of large geometric forms on walls and floors. This period also saw the crucial introduction of neon placed behind the edges of wall Panels, so that only the colored glows are seen. These Panels developed into one of his major practices to the end -- their single or segmented geometric surfaces variously monochrome, painterly, or gold or silver-leafed. They have been extensively exhibited in Europe and the US. In 2009 the public-scaled neon Panel The Road to Mistra was commissioned for the Onassis Cultural Center in New York. In response to this work, the New York art historian Irving Sandler wrote, "Essentially a classicist in the Constructivist tradition, he has revealed the poetry of neon."
Antonakos started to design his Chapels and Meditation spaces with neon in the late 1980s and continued through the rest of his life. Their roots lie in his lifelong commitment to Greek Orthodoxy and in the evolution of his activation of geometric space. They include his 1993 Chapel of the Saints in a fortress in Rhodes, which he described in a letter to Elias Kollias as being, at that point, "the masterwork of my life." The full-scale iron Chapel of the Heavenly Ladder was exhibited in the XLVII Venice Biennale and is permanently installed now in Thessaloniki. In 2003, the Greek art critic Alexandra Koroxenides wrote of Antonakos's "capacity to create surroundings of meditation and spirituality." Many Chapels have been created for important temporary exhibitions here and in Greece, and small precise models exist for more of them.
Through the 1980s and to the end, the drawings on various papers and vellums developed in many directions, some full of white space, some filled to the hilt with intensely colored forms -- sometimes singly and often in series. In the mid-1990s Antonakos began using the multicolored pencil, in dense overall hatchings and later in open spatial "clouds." One drawing of 72 dense square units is like an installation as it plays out rhythmically across the four walls of the gallery. The various ideas of the drawings intersect with those of his collages, reflecting always the active hand. Colored or bare, cut, torn, layered, pleated, or crumpled, they maintain their objecthood within the frame.
All these themes and techniques climaxed in his major Artist's Book, Alphavitos, later in the 1980s. Its many material and printing innovations are structured around the cumulative appearance of hand-made papers with letters of the Greek Alphabet recurring intermittently until the last bears the complete alphabet. The composition of complete and incomplete circles and squares on the front and back covers are in silver on the unique volume and in leather relief on the edition. The book incorporates endless ideas of form, color, scale, proportion and, of course, time, as the pages are turned. Related white wood, silver, and marble Reliefs grew out of the making of the book, as did new graphic variations of some of the plates. In 2011 he began a new series of Gold works. Small sculptures shaped with "incomplete" areas sit on bases, and framed works in gold-leafed Mylar and Tyvek hang in frames. As with the drawings, some have cut edges or various forms cut out of them or are crumpled. They are made in varying sizes, singly and in powerful series, and all have many different "faces" as they intersect with the course of natural light over the day. In Greece, they are seen as echoes of Byzantium.
In 2011, Antonakos took on a climactic project in the ruins of an old oil factory in Elefsina, Greece -- a part of the 40 year history of their Festival of Aeschylus. In thirty-four locations throughout the continuous indoor and outdoor site of 17,000 square meters, he placed spare linear neon forms, accumulations, columns, and Panels, hoping, he said, that the visitors might sense "some of the things that I have found in my life and art." It can be seen in the photographs of Panos Kokkinias and on the artist's website.
Antonakos had over 100 solo exhibitions and over 250 group shows. His work has been the subject of numerous books and catalogues including the key 1999 monograph Antonakos by Irving Sandler. The major catalogue for the 2007-2008 Retrospective organized by the J. F. Costopoulos Foundation at the Benaki Museum in Athens includes essays by Martin Filler, Eleftherios Iconomou, Katerina Koskina, Daniel Marzona, and Brian O'Doherty. His work is in the collections of the major museums of New York, Athens, and Thessaloniki, and in many other museums in the US and Europe. In 2011 he received the Lifetime Achievement Awards from the National Academy of Art and the Greek America Foundation.
Since 1963 his studio has been located in Soho.