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The Light and Life of Greek American Neon Artist Stephen Antonakos (1926–2013)

19 Aug

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:

Clip: One Subject Many Ways: The Sunflower

6 Aug

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I’m currently enjoying art critic Martin Gayford‘s The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles. Published in 2009 by Hachette, the well-researched book tells the story of how the artists ended up living in a house together in the south of France and how their time together influenced their work. It’s a great read for anyone interested in artists’ collaborations.

Both Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin painted sunflowers, but today we remember van Gogh’s still lifes better. It got me thinking about how even though van Gogh’s name seems synonymous with sunflowers, so many other artists throughout history have also painted this captivating flower.

Read more and see painting selections at Burnside Writers Collective.

Clip: New Abstraction News

24 Jul

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Back in 2008, I had the fun experience of doing PR for Lesny JN Felix‘s art exhibit at Gallery Bar down on the Lower East Side. I got to see his paintings, wrote up his press release, and helped him with set up for the opening reception. We also attended other artists’ shows and had a lot of conversations about the art world. I was thrilled when he asked me to write the catalog copy for his upcoming new exhibition.

Painter Lesny JN Felix is starting his own one-person school of art: the New Abstraction News. The Haitian’s show Instant Identification will debut at the Lower East Side’s pop-up gallery 215 Bowery (215 Bowery St., Manhattan) on Tuesday, July 30, 2013, with a free opening reception from 7 to 10 p.m. There will be one hour of hands-on silkscreen making.

The exhibition includes a collaborative painting with artist Rick Wray that emphasizes JN Felix’s unique New Abstraction News style and, in contrast with Wray’s style, explores the diversity found within abstract art. Fans and collectors will have the opportunity to meet both artists.

Since JN Felix’s last major show in New York, his work has matured into more complex abstractions. Read more here.

In the catalog copy itself, I explore how JN Felix works in a similar method as Jack Kerouac and how he is different than the abstract expressionists of the 1940s and ’50s. You can pick up a copy of the catalog at the show. Hope to see you there! It’s going to be a lot of fun!

Clip: One Object Many Ways: The Rose

1 Jul

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Kalo mina! It’s no longer national rose month, but hey, you can still enjoy my post on how different artists have interpreted the rose.

The one about is by Piet Mondrian — the guy known for neo-plasticism, you know: white background with a grid occasionally colored in with primary colors.

You might also enjoy my other posts on roses:

Chloris and the Greek Myth of the Rose

Roses from My Father

Mighty Aphrodite: Korres Wild Rose + Vitamin C Advanced Brightening Sleeping Facial

 

Clip: A Time to Dance

22 May

The latest in my Ecclesiastical “A Time to…” series posted on Burnside.

Clip: A Time to Mourn

8 May

Burnside published my visual art take on the verse “a time to mourn.” You can see it here.

Brunch with Artists & Entertainers at the Lotos Club

7 May

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Last month Scripps College invited me to attend a lovely brunch amongst friends and fellow alumni at The Lotos Club:

Alumnae Panel: The Arts and Entertainment Scene in NYC

Mitra Abbaspour ’99, Associate Curator, The Museum of Modern Art

Barbara Barna Abel ’84, Casting Director and Coach, ABEL intermedia

Elizabeth Robbins Turk ’83, Artist, 2010 MacArthur “Genius” Award Winner

Moderator: Veronica Gledhill ’06, Senior Fashion Market Editor, New York Magazine, Online and 2012 Outstanding Recent Alumna

with an update on the College
from President Lori Bettison-Varga

Oh, how I wish they’d do more of these. It was truly inspiring to hear these women tell their stories. They were so impressive yet so humble and honest in talking about their individual journeys as artists.

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Elizabeth had secured The Lotos Club for the event, and I could’ve sat in that sumptuous library all day long. But I guess that was the point:

The selection of the name The Lotos Club was to convey “an idea of rest and harmony.” The spelling of Lotos comes from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, The Lotos Eaters, two lines of which were selected as the motto of the Club:

 In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon

The endless afternoon setting provided the ideal atmosphere to indulge in creative and stimulating thought and conversation.

Of course, as a good Greek, I should point out that Tennyson’s poem was inspired by The Odyssey.

The circular staircase was breathtaking. I had to stop and take a photograph.

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The Lotos Club has an impressive history and has counted amongst its members President Taft, Mark Twain, and Oscar Wilde’s brother Willie.

 

Clip: Trading Text for Visuals: Poets As Visual Artists

25 Apr

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I had a really fun time putting together an article for Burnside about poets who are also visual artists. From the time I was a little child, I have been drawn to both the literary and visual arts worlds. Even in undergrad these two loves of mine co-mingled, as I majored in English and minored in studio art. My undergrad thesis looked at the relationship between writers and artists in New York in the ’40s and ’50s. It didn’t end there. While obtaining my MFA in creative writing, I took a poetry class on the collaborations of the poets and artists of the New York School. My article touches on some of the poets I’ve studied over the years, with of course a focus on the people commonly associated with the Beat Generation, but I pushed myself to find other examples as well.

Our cannons are so steeped in “dead white males” that it was important to me in stretching my knowledge to seek out poet-artists who did not play into that categorization. I was delighted to discover that Elizabeth Bishop painted.  Two years ago it was the hundred-year anniversary of the former Poet Laureate of the United States’ birth, so there were many readings and events to honor her work. Somehow, though, I missed the fact that she was a painter. Maybe it’s because she herself did not take it all that seriously, as I point out in my article. I happen to think they’re delightful, though.

A contemporary poet-painter I am quite interested in researching more about is Babi Badalov. As my article touches on, he mixes languages in his works, a result of having moved a lot between cultures to avoid persecution for his controversial visual poetry. As a writer, language is something I hold dear. My vocabulary is a key to who I am: the words I’ve picked up come from my mother’s midwestern phrasing and my father’s Greek tongue as well as the vernacular of northern New Jersey and the jargon of the institutes of higher learning I attended. I’ve found the preservation of endangered languages so critical because language is about identity. The idea that a poet has no language and has many languages intrigues me. When does Badalov express himself in his native Azerbaijani language and when in Russian? Is his use of English a political act?

In my exploration of the Beats as visual artists, I could have easily waxed on and on. In fact, I did not go into any detail about Jack Kerouac’s artwork, even though he has been the subject of much of my studies. If this is something you’re interested in, leave a note in the comment section below, and I’ll write something up on this. What I did try to do for the Burnside article, though, was show that the Beats were following a rich tradition that came long before them. I point to William Blake and the Chinese and Japanese calligraphers as forerunners and influencers on the work of Allen Ginsberg and Phillip Whalen, for example.

My article was limited to just a few examples, a small taste of the artwork of poets. I’d love to hear who you think should be added to the list. Maybe I’ll make a part II!

Clip: A Time to Laugh

17 Apr

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The post “A Time to Weep” seems more appropriate this week, after the Boston Marathon explosions, but yesterday my pre-scheduled post “A Time to Laugh” went up on Burnside. It’s just two works of art and a verse, like most of the blog posts in this “A Time to…” series. Sometimes, though, short is effective. If you need a little levity, silly renditions of the Mona Lisa might be just what you need.

Clip: Paintings in Praise of Poets

10 Apr

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Back when I was in undergrad at Scripps, my thesis involved the relationship between poets and painters. Later, at grad school at The New School, I continued to study the way visual and literary artists influenced each other other and collaborated with one another. It’s endlessly fascinating and much more broad than the time periods of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s that I tend to focus on. Burnside Writers Collective just published a survey I did that shows painters honoring poets throughout the ages called “Painters in Praise of Poets.”