Stephen Antonakos, a renowned Greek-American artist best known for his public artworks using neon to redefine architectural space, died yesterday in New York. He was 87 years old. Born in southern Greece, he immigrated to the United States in 1930. A prolific artist with over 100 shows and public installations around the world, Antonakos began his career as a multimedia artist frequently employing typography. He began to work primarily in neon in the early 1960s, inspired by street signage he had seen in New York City. Antonakos has permanent installations in Japan, Greece, Germany, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston, as well as the city he has called home since he left Greece: New York.
His earlier work, such as Neon For La Jolla (1984), a wall fixture consisting of patterns that are reminiscent of a monochromatic Keith Haring mural, capture bold, neon shapes in a kinetic manner. This work stands in direct contrast to other works like White Cube (1982), a static white cube with pink, orange, and red neon light emanating from the bottom and Lift Up (2005), an incomplete circle again emitting multiple shades of neon, a makeshift spotlight.
Stephen Antonakos, Neon for the 59th Street Marine Transfer Station, 1990. For this public art project for the NYC Dept. of Sanitation, Antonakos said he was interested in how the play of light altered throughout the day, thinking as much about the workers coming and going as the passing traffic.
Antonakos is perhaps most well-known for his large-scale public art projects, many of which were publicly funded. His installation of red neon on the 59th Street Marine Transfer Station for the New York Department of Sanitation was praised by the New Yorker magazine as “subdued, stately, and somewhat spiritual, like the haloes above votive candles in a dimly lit church.” The artist also did work for the Department of State, installing multiple light fixtures in American embassies in Budapest and Athens on several occasions between 2004 and 2009.
Color and shape are the major elements of Antonakos art. His use of monochromes and, occasionally, shades of the red and blue, became the artist’s signature. When questioned about this color statement in a 1998 interview in Sculpture magazine, Antonakos called the two hues “the alpha and omega of [his] work.” Antonakos’s work with color is often complemented by his use of complete and incomplete forms and shapes. Much of his work relies on this statement on the aesthetic relationship between strong color and shape. In a 1975 interview, the artist said, “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.”
Antonakos pioneered work that explores the interaction with colored light and shape, a technique that is now widely pursued in contemporary art. His many exhibitions, public installations, and philosophies stand as testament to his outsize influence on subsequent generations of artists.