It’s Time for Chryssa’s Neon Art to Shine

CHICAGO — Anyone who studies art history knows that more people get left out than not. But tidy timelines are overrated: Some of the most illuminating shows in Chicago over the past year rescued artists nearly lost to the archives. Unsurprisingly, the subjects of these shows have all been women. Researching and hosting exhibitions like these is one way museums can act equitably.

The Art Institute has been exemplary in this regard, mounting an illuminating display last fall by the Catalonian Surrealist Remedios Varo and a current retrospective of the fetishistic, meticulous paintings of Imagist Christina Ramberg. Mina Loy: Strangeness Is Inevitable was a sublime whirlwind held in the spring at the Arts Club in honor of the inscrutable poet, fashion designer, inventor, and artist. Also not to be missed was the Smart Museum’s elegant overview of Ruth Duckworth’s decades of clay sculptures. 

Now there is Chryssa & New York. On view through the end of July at Wrightwood 659, the show will likely come as a great big shock to anyone who thinks they know American modern art. It certainly unsettled my understanding of the development of Pop Art and Minimalism; of the unquestionable primacy of Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol in dethroning Abstract Expressionism in mid-century New York through found imagery and language; and of Dan Flavin as the god of electric light. Chryssa, it turns out, did all of that, too, simultaneously or, in some instances, first.

The story begins in Athens on December 30, 1933, with the birth of Chryssa Vardea. The artist, who used only her first name professionally, grew up amid the Nazi occupation of Greece and was imprisoned multiple times as a child by German and Italian forces. Disillusioned with her early job as a government social worker, she turned to painting, moving first to Paris then the United States to study art, courtesy of her marriage to the Beat collagist Jean Varda. By the end of 1958, she and Varda had separated and she was living in New York, where she befriended Agnes Martin (with whom she had an on-and-off romance for the next decade), and fell in with her crowd in the Coenties Slip neighborhood in Lower Manhattan.

The earliest works on view at Wrightwood are Chryssa’s Cycladic Books. The first of these was cast in 1954 by lining a cardboard box with clay, but most of the series was completed between 1955 and 1957 in poured plaster, plus a few late entries carved from luminous marble. Twenty-six are on display, each a tome readable only in the subtle textures left by the seams, flaps, and corrugations of its cardboard mold. Would that these reliefs had been installed in a gallery with natural lighting to modulate their shadows, as the artist intended.

Experiments with language followed suit, no more or less legible than the books. A bronze plaque presents itself like an ancient tablet, its rows of letters as incomprehensible as a dead language. Plaster N’s affixed sideways to a flat ground can be deciphered only as shapes; ditto an alphabet jumbled chaotically on a board of white. The Cycladic Books, with their blank pages, are useful to reflect on, in case one makes the mistake of thinking textual messaging is a goal. It is anything but. 

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Installation view of Chryssa & New York at Wrightwood 659, Chicago (courtesy Wrightwood 659)

For those still skeptical that language can be used entirely as an aesthetic element, Chryssa’s Newspaper paintings prove the point beyond a doubt. Made using discarded printing plates wielded like stamps to fill up huge canvases with grids of data, they are enormous, minimally colored, and utterly uncommunicative. Some are filled with classified ads, others with real estate listings, stock exchange numbers, or crossword puzzles. None of it means anything. Removed from the context of the daily newspaper, repeated ad infinitum, and blurred unrecognizably, information becomes form and feeling.

Times Square was one of the primary neighborhoods in which Chryssa found those scrap print tools, and it was also a source of her core inspiration: electric signs. Her masterwork, “The Gates to Times Square,” newly restored for this exhibition, attempts to pack the intersection’s monumentally overwhelming lights and signage into one tightly arranged 10-by-10-foot cube of neon and metal. I found it underwhelming as an art experience, partly because of its location in a too-small gallery, but also because in our contemporary era art has become so effortlessly enormous, from 30-foot-tall textiles to atrium-sized installations.

“The Gates” is fascinating, however, in terms of both art history and conservation, as are Chryssa’s smaller neon works. Light Art was a big deal in the 1960s and ’70s, resulting in major exhibitions, sales, articles, and books internationally, and Chryssa was at the center of it all. In 1962, Life magazine even chose her as one of 100 leaders of the next generation. But technologically dependent art, especially the experimental stuff, presents special challenges long term, from sourcing outmoded parts to relearning lost techniques to deciding what is essential to an artwork’s integrity, and thus what can be replaced or simulated and what can’t. Look carefully at the neon box sculptures on view: one work’s dark plexiglass looks dirty, while another’s is crystal clear. The former retains all its original parts; the latter has been updated with new bits. At least they both still exist, and enough care has been taken to keep them presentable. The same cannot be said for all of Chryssa’s works, including her towering rainbow neon “Clytemnestra,” shown in Documenta 4 and destroyed in the early 1990s when Berlin’s Nationalgalerie determined that it was damaged beyond repair. A similar fate befell her largest piece ever, a 70-foot-tall, 3,000-pound creation of glowing white W’s that soared through the atrium of 33 West Monroe Street, in the Chicago Loop. Commissioned by the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill for their new headquarters, the installation debuted in 1980 and was deemed unrestorable during renovations of the early 2000s. In 2004 it, too, was demolished. 

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Installation view of Chryssa & New York at Wrightwood 659, Chicago (courtesy Wrightwood 659)

What happened? The disappearance of Chryssa from art history can only partly be attributed to the challenges of conserving new media art. Dan Flavin’s legacy is doing just fine, as is Nam June Paik’s. Based on her own letters and lecture notes, it’s clear that Chryssa suffered from mental illness. And history has never been very kind to women, immigrants, or queer people, and especially not to people whose biographies cover all those bases and then some.

The exhibition was organized by the Dia Art Foundation and the Menil Collection, institutions that have had a strong hand in shaping the art history to which Chryssa rightly belongs, so it seems only fair that they begin the work of renewing her reputation. Dia did likewise with its acclaimed Senga Nengudi show, which went on long-term display in 2023. Meanwhile, it bears remembering, whenever walking through a museum’s permanent collection or reading some giant survey on the history of art, that far more happened than what is accounted for. And some of it still glows bright, if only the people holding the switches would turn on the lights. 

Chryssa & New York continues through July 27 at Wrightwood 659 (659 Wrightwood Avenue, Chicago, Illinois). The exhibition was co-curated by Megan Holly Witko, external curator, Dia Art Foundation, and Michelle White, senior curator, the Menil Collection.  

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