What is Neon Art, Really?

By Gemma Cirignano

The euphoric light of neon has dazzled the art world since the 1930s. Early time-based media artists appropriated these glowing tubes for their technological innovation, Minimalist artists for their ephemeral light, conceptual artists for their commercial origins, and contemporary artist-activists for their bold lettering. While many of these artworks have gone on to garner considerable critical attention, the material makeup of neon remains largely opaque in scholarship.

The ambiguity surrounding neon begins on a semantic level: most neon signs do not contain neon gas. Every noble gas produces a unique hue when trapped in glass and shocked with electricity: Neon is orange-red, helium is a peachy pink, argon is lavender, krypton is white-gray, and xenon is gray-blue. Neon, the classic color associated with “red-light districts,” was the first noble gas utilized in commercial signage in 1910. Its natural color glows five times brighter than an incandescent lamp in daylight and uses less wattage, making it an immediate success in the world of advertising. As neon technology advanced, argon’s popularity grew because of the gas’ adaptability. While argon’s delicate lilac hue alone cannot effectively illuminate a sign in daylight, the gas glows an intense electric light blue when combined with a drop of liquid mercury. The neutral tone of this icy blue allows argon gas to produce a wide range of colors in combination with various phosphor-coated or colored glass tubes.

Attempts to resolve neon’s misnomer remain minimally explored and inconclusive. Contemporary time-based media conservators categorize neon light technology as “gas-discharge tubes.” Neon conservator Taylor Healy explains: “Gas-discharge tube is a technical term that describes a class of light sources that produces light through the ionization of gas electrons…The relationship between neon and gas-discharge tubes is like that of squares and rectangles. All neons are gas-discharge tubes, but not all gas discharge tubes are neons.” While this term accurately situates neon within a material family, it also refers to cold-cathode fluorescents (CCFLs), sodium-vapor lamps, and metal-halide lamps. Similarly, in his talk “Interwar Neon: Commercial Illumination in Weimar-Era Germany,” design historian Thomas Rinaldi proposes the term “electric signs.” This definition would again include related light art technologies, such as fluorescents and LEDs. Although shifting our vocabulary could more efficiently elucidate an artworks’ material makeup, the seductive sway of neon remains irresistible to scholars, artists, and fabricators alike.

Neon’s colloquial linguistic limits require institutions to consider its materiality through careful documentation. Unfortunately, the fragility of glass tubing, transitory nature of gas-fills, and finite lifespans of electronic systems make neon artworks daunting to collecting institutions ill-equipped to conserve such specific technology. As a result, the number of neon works on view at museums does not reflect the growing popularity of neon in contemporary art or its nearly century-long history. Healy, a conservation fellow at the Hirshhorn Museum, addresses this issue in her research: “Anticipating failing components will require collections management professionals to establish preservation strategies that limit exhibition of the originals or involve the creation of visually-faithful exhibition copies…One of the goals of my research at the Smithsonian is to share resources with my colleagues to address these complex issues and facilitate relationships with local and artist-approved fabricators.”

Healy’s suggested solution to create exhibition copies for neon artworks positions these works as unique sculptural objects. Understanding neon as sculptural may seem counterintuitive to those who associate the material with banal signage; however, neon fabrication is a manual process. Neon cannot be machine-made or mass-produced like other gas discharge tube lights because it requires blowing into and hand-bending glass tubes heated over an open flame–even ubiquitous “open” signs are bent by hand. The physicality of neon’s fabrication process leads artists to frequently collaborate with professional fabricators; a synergetic experience similar to artists who work with master printers for printmaking.

The vast range of color possibilities also factors into the complexity of conserving and accurately reproducing exhibition copies of neon artworks. Healy emphasizes the importance of correctly identifying the glass composition, gas-fills, and phosphor coatings in an object’s conservation file to avoid futile attempts at visually analyzing such an enigmatic material. For non-conservation purposes; however, Healy suggests simply enriching descriptions of artworks with “common industry names such as ‘Ruby Red’ or ‘French Orange’... As long as the underlying gas-discharge tube technology is acknowledged, using common terms like ‘neon’ and ‘fluorescent’ is sufficient.”

Descriptive wall labels are a powerful tool for communicating neon’s materiality. Joseph Kosuth’s illuminated sculpture Neon, 1965, most conveniently illustrates the dangers of neglecting to materially consider a neon artwork. Kosuth spells out the word “NEON” in capital, sans serif glowing white letters. This sculpture has been read as a self-referential linguistic investigation since its creation; however, how does the work’s meaning change when one recognizes that neon gas could not produce its white hue? One begins to consider which gas-fill and phosphor glass combination could produce this artwork. The alternative conclusions are perhaps more tongue-in-cheek.

The resurgence of neon in the last decade proves that this technology is not a twentieth-century relic. While conservators like Healy work to find long-term preservation solutions for neon artworks, scholars and curators have yet to consider its material diversity. Next time you see a “neon,” consider all that this word encompasses.

Taylor Healy is a Smithsonian Postgraduate Fellow at the Hirshhorn Museum. To learn more about her work as a time-based media conservator, visit her website.

April 8th, 2022