Monday, July 15, 2013

The Forgotten Artist File: Chryssa

Discovering Chryssa

 Art museums can be big places, and their permanent collections can be even bigger.  Few museums can exhibit all the work they own at the same time, so this invariably leads to some or most of the permanent collection relegated to storerooms.  In addition to space limitations, most museums have “stars” among the collection that are always on display, leaving less display space for lesser-known works in the collection.  For example, it’s hard to imagine the Museum of Modern Art without Picasso’s Desmoiselles d’Avignon or Dali’s Persistence of Memory.  Those works are always on display (in many cases hung on the same wall in the same space for decades), and certainly there’s merit in this practice.  They are important works by important artists and they also bring people through the doors, so it functions both culturally and economically.
But, searching through a museums “back catalog” can be a fascinating exploration of old art movements and collecting trends.  Artists who were intensely popular for a short time may be represented in the collections of many museums, but the work may later be forgotten or become a footnote to art history, and can go unseen for years.  Sometimes, there just isn’t enough room to show it all.  The Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo is a perfect example of this.  It’s also my home-town museum, and I know the collection well.  By searching through the permanent collection, one can see trends in collecting as well as clues to the financial situation of the institution.  The Albright-Knox benefited from the philanthropy of Seymour Knox, who donated hundreds of works of art to the museum in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  Knox liked Absrtract-Expressionism, so he bought and donated major masterpieces from this era to the Knox, helping the museum amass one of the finest Abstract-Expressionist collections in the U.S.  After Knox died, however, collecting slowed somewhat and the Knox had a smaller budget to collect work.  Superstar artists of the 80s like David Salle and Eric Fischl, who saw their prices skyrocket when they were very young, are absent from the Knox’s collection to this day.  One artist who is well represented in the collection of the Knox, but who isn’t shown much these days, is the subject of this week’s post: the Greek artist known as Chryssa.
Study for the Gates, No.2, 1966

I first discovered the work of Chryssa (full name: Chryssa Vardea-Mavromichali) when I was in college.  My university had an excellent library devoted to art books, and I discovered a number of books that listed works that were in the collection of the Albright-Knox.  Most museums allow you to search their collections on-line today, but back in the day old books were all I had.  These books let me precariously explore the storerooms of the Albright-Knox.  Through listings of artists names and photos (some black and white, some color) I was able to experience and appreciate the rich and varied collection that can only be shown in pieces at the actual brick and mortar museum.  I discovered the artist Chryssa there in those pages, and was surprised to see that the Knox owned quite a few works by her (their website currently lists 57 works total, but many of those are taken from a portfolio of prints). 
Automat, 1971

Chryssa is a painter and sculptor, but is most known as an innovator in the field of neon art.  Although neon signs were commonplace by the 50s and 60s, the art world at the time was a pretty staid place mostly composed of oil paintings and sculptures made from traditional materials (marble, bronze, etc.)  In the 1960s, experimentation with industrial materials started to creep into the art world, and must have seemed quite subversive at the time.  Something like neon certainly isn’t precious (like marble) and isn’t particularly expensive.  The use of imagery and materials taken from people's everyday lives grew into a larger movement (pop art is probably the most well-known example of this).  Chryssa was on the vanguard of this new trend, using a material traditionally relegated to signs (something utilitarian) to create art (something purely visual).  Her work definitely played off of the idea of neon as signage.  Her pieces often used letters or fragments of letters, sometimes exaggerated of distorted so as to become unrecognizable.  Letter fragments were also sometimes layered over each other, becoming purely aesthetic as they lost their functions as letters.  They also sometimes appear taken from foreign languages, visible somehow as letters but unreadable nonetheless.

The Gates to Times Square

One of the many studies created for the piece

While researching Chryssa, I learned that the work she is most identified with, and the work that is considered her most important, is a monumental sculpture called The Gates to Times Square (1964-66). The Gates piece was made during one of Chryssa’s most productive periods, a time that saw her exhibit in prominent museums such as the Whitney in New York.  She also contributed to several well-known group exhibitions, including the Sao Paolo Biennial and Documenta in Kassel, Switzerland.  It was made during a period where she was working more with neon as a material (she had previously created paintings and wood sculptures).  Neon would become her defining medium, and while working on the Gates she perfected her craft by creating numerous stand-alone sculptures along with multiple studies of the Gates elements.  When completed after two years of work, The Gates to Times Square stood 10 feet tall and was just as wide, and contained neon elements along with steel and plexiglass parts.  

Chryssa searching through sign parts in Brooklyn

The Gates to Times Square is Chryssa’s homage to America.  She is quoted as saying “America is very stimulating, intoxicating for me.  Believe me when I say there is wisdom, indeed, in the flashing lights of Times Square.  The vulgarity of America as seen in the lights of Times Square is poetic, extremely poetic.  A foreigner can observe this, describe this.  Americans feel it.”

The artist working on the piece in her Brooklyn Studio

The Gates, with some of it's neon lit
While researching this piece, I was quite surprised to find that it is currently a part of the permanent collection of the Albright-Knox.  I’m a little sad to say that in my many years of visiting the Knox I have never seen it on display.  It’s big (10 X 10 X 10’) and I think that is one of the main reasons they don’t display it very often, but it also contains technological elements that pose other problems.  Artworks that contain electrical elements and lighting, as the Gates does, are subject to breakdown, blown lights, etc.  What happens if one of the specially made neon pieces in the Gates stops working?  Replacement can be costly.  In the future, as technology changes and becomes obsolete, replacement may not be possible.  Curating mid to late 20th century art that contains non-traditional materials creates a whole museum-full of issues.  It’s unfortunate that in order to preserve these works, it means they aren’t seen as often.  I hope to see The Gates to Times Square in person someday, and hope that the Albright-Knox dusts it off and displays it once more (even temporarily) for a new generation to see.  Until then, there are some photos of the piece, although I admit it was hard to find color pictures of the sculpture.  Some are included here.  I know I have a book somewhere that has a good color photo of the work in it.  If I can track it down, I’ll post it here.

When completed, the work was temporarily exhibited in Grand Central Terminal
 Next time, I'll highlight a new artist.  It might be someone you've never heard of.