Keith Sonnier (b. 1941 Mamou, La - d. 2020 Southampton) 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, a hot bed of experimental art education at the time. Employing unconventional materials, Sonnier, along with other contemporaries, Eva Hesse, Barry Le Va, Bruce Nauman, 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 150 solo exhibitions and has participated in hundreds of group exhibitions. Recent solo exhibitions include Keith Sonnier: Three Neons / Three Decades at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut (2017), Keith Sonnier: Ebo River and Early Works at Pace Gallery in New York City (2016), Whitechapel Gallery, London (2016), Light Works at MAMAC (Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art) in Nice, France (2015), and the Hall Art Foundation in Reading, Vermont (2015).
Keith Sonnier: Until Today, was on view at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill from July 1st, 2018 to January 27th, 2019 and traveled to the New Orleans Museum of Art. In conjunction, an installation first shown in 1970, Dis Play II, was exhibited at The Dan Flavin Art Institute in Bridgehampton, July 1st, 2018 through May 26th, 2019.
Notable historical exhibitions include Projects: Keith Sonnier (1971) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Documenta 5, Kassel (1972); the Venice Biennale (1972, 1982); Keith Sonnier: Porte Vue (1979) at Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Keith Sonnier: Neon (1989) at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; and 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. In 2003, Sonnier was commissioned to do a cite specific work for Manhattan’s iconic Lever House; this work was reinstalled in 2008.
Sonnier’s New York debut was the generation-defining exhibition 9 at Castelli, organized by Robert Morris, at the Leo Castelli Warehouse in 1968. The following year, Sonnier’s work was included in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials and in When Attitudes Become Form at the Kunsthalle Bern, which brought together Conceptual Art, Postminimalism and Arte Povera, and was recreated by Germano Celant at Fondazione Prada in 2013. Sonnier was a pioneering figure in his use of video and live-broadcast technologies, including a CB radio piece for the lobby of Andy Warhol’s Factory. He had a long-standing practice of working internationally, blending indigenous cultures with technology in Bali, Brazil, India, and Japan.
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); the Caltrans Building in California (2004); 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); Miami International Airport (1996).
In 2013, Sonnier received the Arts and Letters Award in Art presented by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Sonnier is a two-time recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Grant (1975, 1981), and was awarded the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 1974. Also in 1974, he was awarded first prize at the 9th International Biennial Exhibition of Prints at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.
Sonnier’s work can be found in numerous public and private collections worldwide, including the Frankel Foundation, Bloomfield, Michigan; The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, Krefeld, Germany; Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, Vaduz; Kunstverein St. Gallen, Switzerland; 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 of Fine Arts, Houston; Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld, Germany; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; New Orleans Museum of Art; Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; Sprengel Museum, Hannover; Städtisches Museum Abteiberg Mönchengladbach, Germany; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
An internationally esteemed artist, Sonnier is also an essential figure in the arts on the East End, having maintained a home and studio in Bridgehampton. Sonnier has shown with Tripoli Gallery since 2012, beginning with the Thanksgiving Collective 2012: Modern Salon, and followed by the group exhibitions, Water (2013), A Walk... (2015), the 12th Annual Thanksgiving Collective: Year-Round in 2016, an exhibition dedicated to artists living and working on the East End and Six Hot and Glassy (2020). Tragedy and Comedy (2018) was Sonnier’s second solo exhibition with Tripoli Gallery following Elliptical Transmissions in 2014. Neon + Object is Sonnier’s third solo exhibition with Tripoli Gallery.