Traditional media of art include oil, charcoal, or even bronze, right? What about the noble gases? What makes art art? Art historians and artists have been asking this question since the beginning of time, but never before had they thought of using neon.
Neon signs were originally created as bold advertisements, largely popular in the 1920’s and 1950’s. Electrified glass tubes or bulbs filled with neon gases were used to create the illuminating colors. Each gas creates a different color, such as how hydrogen creates red, helium creates yellow, etc. Neon was originally discovered in 1898 by William Ramsay and Morris W. Travers, British scientists who explored using neon in “electrical gas-discharge” tubes. These tubes were created as science instruments, then industrially produced for commercial use in the 1900’s (6). Some neon tubes can be as long as thirty meters, or as small as nine millimeters. Georges Claude was one of the first producers of neon lighting in 1910. He believed neon could produce light fixtures, which he then decorated the Grand Palais in Paris with. Following his revolutionary exhibit, the Paris Opera and many other places were filled with neon light.Times Square in New York City was the most popular exhibition of neon signs by 1940. Neon, used for glow lamps, was made for numerical signs and small lamps for home decor. Over 2000 shops began using neon advertising displays by this time. In the 1980’s, a resurgence of neon lighting was created and formed many displays of art. Companies produced individual letters, called channel lettering. These letters helped to form works of art as well as fill spaces of architecture. Today, the creation of neon lighting has lead to the production of products such as plasma televisions. Several museums dedicated to neon art and its creation exist today, such as the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles (1981) and the Neon Museum of Philadelphia (1985).

Neon art became an icon for installation and minimalist art. Installation art uses three dimensional works which dominate the perception of space. Minimalism uses precise, hard-edged images to create works of art, originating post World War II. Neon artists such as Dan Flavin, Eric Franklin, Bruce Nauman, Craig Kraft, and Gyula Kosice have contributed to these movements.

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Dan Flavin became interested in abstract expressionism and incorporated assemblages and collages into his paintings. In 1961, Flavin began making sketches of sculptures while incorporating light fixtures in them, then creating those pieces on monochromatic canvases. He began creating light sculptures in 1963 (1). Influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, he created multicolored light displays in the Guggenheim, as well as the Dia Art Foundation in Beacon, New York.

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One of Dan Flavin’s works, greens crossing greens (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green), created in 1966, depicts his use of light as a barrier in space. It allowed the space in the museum, the Guggenheim, to alter by limiting the space the viewer can occupy (1). This method prohibited the movement of the viewer, creating a new experience with art. Ironically, the Guggenheim has a circular exterior structure, which contrasts with the linear form of greens crossing greens (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green).

Eric Franklin, born in 1974, began working with glassmaking at Arizona State University. He later went to the Pilchuck Glass School in 2000 to increase his knowledge and experience in glassblowing. In 2008, Franklin completed his first life-size glass skeleton, which was filled with ionized krypton. This technique created an illusion similar to the effects of noble gas (2).

The work, Embodiment, took over one thousand hours to complete. It is formed by ten separate sections of glass, all connected by glass tubing. Franklin focused on the perfection of each tube, for the perfection helps to conserve the luminosity of the krypton. He creates not only skeletons, but many individual skulls, neurons, prints, and abstract anatomy (2).

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Bruce Nauman studied art at the University of Wisconsin at Madison from 1960 to 1964. He gave up the art of painting and began experimenting with sculpture. His latest works have included neon wall reliefs, photographs, films, sculptures, and performance. His work reflects on irony and symbols of aesthetics, using alienation to promote viewer participation in the media. Beginning in the 1980’s, Nauman has created mainly works of disturbing mental and physical themes through body parts. He desired non-conformity, using ideas uncommon to everyday life (5). Experimenting with plastic and oil, he created abstract and three-dimensional landscapes. Nauman gave up painting in 1965 and began creating films and sculpture. He focused on the process of making art rather than the finished product.
Nauman created Double Poke in the Eye II in 1985, made of neon tubing filled with aluminum monolith. This work depicts two dismembered heads poking the other in the eye, a never ending cycle of violence. Using contradictory images, he plays on the neon colors with violent meanings. Sex, violence, desire, and humor are presented often in each piece of work. In this installation, Nauman uses humor to alleviate the corruption and cruelty. In the words of Nauman himself, “Better than a poke in the eye [with a sharp stick]” (5).


Craig Kraft has worked with media such as neon and aluminum. He has worked to create his own glass, which he personally bends to create desired shapes. Manipulation of the glass allows him to create his artistic vision. Kraft’s work varies tremendously, from photographs to sculpture to cave drawings. Ground Zero is a series of photographs with neon installations. Kraft placed neon over images of graffiti in the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Covered with lampshades and wood, the club encompasses years of strangers’ writing on the walls (4).

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Kraft says, “The years of overlapping graffiti tell stories of love, hate, exuberance and joy. Each mark is subject to an overlapping mark, until the messages become blurred and confused, only until someone makes an even bolder, broader mark, obscuring the history below" (4).
Creating his own image above other’s created a different piece altogether. By creating is image over top, he reinvented the image has his own installation. Images include an iguana, the word “liberty”, and many borders around the walls and windows. Kraft has also created Random Neons, which bend into any shape he chooses (4). These installations create an energy and orb of vibrancy in a three-dimensional space.

Gyula Kosice was an Argentine sculptor who created luminous pieces. Kosice studied drawing and modeling, later transitioning to luminous light sculpture using neon gas. As well as his art career, he has written fourteen books and many poems. He used water in his sculptures numerous times, called hydraulic sculpture. He created the Madi movement in 1946, which revolves around geometric abstract art (3).
His most famous work was the Hydrospatial City. This exhibit has the longest production period and consists of 19 three-dimensional spatial sculptures and sculptural maquettes. It is presented in a 200 square-foot room in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas. As well as sculpture, Kosice’s drawings that are relative to the subject matter of the exhibit. The text surrounding his exhibit states, “habitats full of unclassifiable worlds, places for intermittent vacations, and polydimensional places where one could be dead and alive, hunt from prehistoric auroras, or direct satellites by remote control aboard a Kosicean spacecraft” (3).
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Although neon art has been popular since the 1920’s, new technological advancements have created new forms of luminescent art. LED lighting has become a new phenomena, originating less than 20 years ago. LED (light- emitting diodes) are inexpensive and create a quick installation process for street art. An interesting concept of LED art is the device called a “throwie”. They are thrown at a metal object, which acts as a canvas. This technique randomizes the piece and creates a unique installation each time. An artist utilizing LED art in a tremendous way is Leo Villareal. Originating in New York, Leo Villareal has created a light show for London recently this year. He used LED lights to illuminate seventeen bridges in London, expanding over six nautical miles. It will be a permanent installation, controlled by computer codes that react to pedestrians and the river below.

Neon art, created in the early 1900’s, has changed dramatically in the past century. It has transformed from an installation for advertisement into a revolutionary movement in the art community. Neon art has been incorporated in painting, sculpture, and architecture. Each artist uses different artistic styles and movements, such as Madi and Minimalism, to create their works. Each artist used neon installation in different ways, allowing neon art to be included in numerous types of artistic styles. The use of noble gas allows each piece to illuminate its surroundings and create an ambiance unlike any other before it, similar to Dan Flavin’s work in the Guggenheim Museum. The combination of science and art transformed the world of advertisements. Museums and exhibits have also been created for the sole purpose of displaying this unique form of art.

Works Cited

1. “Dan Flavin”. The Guggenheim. 28 May 2017.
2.“Eric Franklin”. Taglialatella Galleries. 27 May 2017.
3. “Gyula Kosice”. Leon Tovar Gallery. 31 May 2017.
4. Kraft, Craig. “Studio Work- Ground Zero”. Craig Kraft Studio. 1 June 2017.
5.“Bruce Nauman”. The Guggenheim. 29 May 2017.
6. "Neon". Royal Society of Chemistry. 30 May 2017.