I learned via Gregory Pappas, founder of the Greek America Foundation, that artist Stephen Antonakos passed away this weekend. I had the great privilege of attending an exhibition of Antonakos’ neon sculptures at the Lori Bookstein Fine Art gallery here in New York City when the abstract artist was honored for the Gabby Awards Lifetime Achievement Award. You can read about that here. Antonakos attended the event, and I remember him being a quiet, humble artist. Yet his work speaks volumes.
Captivated by the neon lights of New York City, the Greek immigrant—Antonakos moved to the US when he was four years old—the artist began incorporating neon into his art in 1960. In an interview with Zoe Kosmidou, he explained the symbolism—or lack thereof—in his neon work:
My forms do not represent, symbolize, or refer to anything outside of themselves. Such specific correspondences would limit the work’s meaning, whereas pure abstraction, liberated from any external references, is capable of saying so much more. My neons relate formally to architecture and space, but they do not represent anything outside themselves.
Even so, raised in the Greek Orthodox Church, the artist’s work did have spiritual subtext. He created crosses and “chapels.”
Earlier, in the mid 1950s, Antonakos was creating collages. In a 2007 interview with Phong Bui for The Brooklyn Rail, Antonakos said:
And since oil painting was too slow for me to keep up with all of the ideas that were racing through my mind, I felt the physical and spontaneous process of putting various objects together was more suitable to what I needed to get done in those years.
His desire to work fast, engage in a spontaneous process, and collage disparate found objects together resonates with the postmodern aesthetic. We hear the same vision in the works of the abstract expressionist painters and the Beat Generation writers. Antonakos revealed that although he admired the work of the abstract expressionists, he felt he could “get more out of” the Italian artists Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana.
Antonakos went on to have more than 100 solo shows around the work.
For artists of any discipline, one of the great takeaways from Antonakos’ life is that one can have a day job and still be an artist as long as one perseveres. Antonakos worked as a pharmaceutical illustrator during the day and then would work in his studio until 2 in the morning.
Here are a couple of links to celebrate the life and work of this inspired artist:
- Proscenium by Stephen Antonakos by Marjorie Welish in BOMB
- Oral history interview from 1975 with Paul Cummings on the Archives of American Art
- In conversation with Phong Bui in the Brooklyn Rail
- ART TOPOS
- The architecture of light and space, an interview with Zoe Kosmidou