Antonakos “discovered” neon in 1960 and quickly made it his primary medium, finding within its potent color and sensuous intensity unforeseen and subtle formal, spatial, and affective qualities which he continues to explore today. His restrained abstract, geometric configurations, always purposefully placed in architectural space, have definitively regenerated neon, imbuing it with a broad range of perceptual, intellectual, and kinetic powers. By 1962, with such works as “Hanging Neon,” his mastery of pure formal geometry in specific architectural and spatial relationships is clear. His early sense of neon as a “controlled paradise” predicted the focus he subsequently exercised -- not to tame neon, but to release the secret poetry in its severest forms. In the dynamism of their boldest manifestations as well as in the haunting delicacy of the Panels he has made since the early 1980s, the works' inventiveness points to the future even as it continues to echo Byzantium. In all his forms bridging sculpture and painting, it is the artist's hope to reach the inner person.
Stephen Antonakos was born in Agios Nikolaos, Laconia in 1926, the fifth child of Thomas and Evangelia. In 1930 the family immigrated to Manhattan and settled near the Greek Orthodox Cathedral. The two memories he has of his village are clear and relevant: the corner icons with their small flaming kandelia at home and in the little church and the brilliant sunsets behind the great hills of the southern Peleponese.
From these indelible sources, from his habit of drawing since childhood, and through his immersion in the New York art scene of the 1950s, Antonakos developed his lively innate sensitivities were ready for the experimental, multi-directional ethos of that period. His selective interest in American and European artists seen in the city's museums and galleries leaned especially toward sculpture and works on paper; and his drawings quickly branched into the linear forms of his early collages, fabric Sewlages,” and free-standing assemblages. The neighborhood of his first studio, midtown's fur and flower district, provided abundant opportunities for collecting cast-off furniture parts and other found-objects. “Liberated,” as he said, from painting, particularly by the examples of Burri and Fontana; his accumulations from mid-1950s forward were distinctively abstract, colorful, and concerned with formal relationships. Meant to be seen from both front and back or from both inside and outside, these works already predicted an engagment with physical space.
By the mid-1960s, such “rooms of the mind” were stripped to their most essential geometries and greatly expanded in scale. His concern for precise placement of internal elements in relation to each other, and for the relation of the whole work to its architectural and spatial surroundings, are still central today. The bold and increasingly spare linear neon installations and Rooms through this decade and the1970s exemplified the artistĒs committment to, as he put it, “real things in real space.” Whether realized in neon or presented in drawings and models, these carefully located architectural interventions remained non-referential and non-ironic -- works meant to engage the individual viewer visually, spatially, and mentally in the here and now.
Through the 1970s the artist's dynamic use of “incomplete” circles and squares in individual contribution to the art of our times. By the end of the decade his indoor and outdoor neon installations of architectural scale manifested itself also in drawings and Cuts on paper. In mid-decade this theme -- the invitation to the viewer to “complete” the geometric forms in his or her mind -- found a new, conceptual form in several series of Packages. Meant to be opened on specific dates or else never to be opened, these projects provoked, and only sometimes satisfied, their imaginative “completion” -- the discovery of the PackagesĒ contents. More overtly than the neon works, these projects make clear the artist's interest in issues of time and the intersections of knowing and seeing.
Later in the decade Antonakos began his practice of Public Art, eventually placing architecturally scaled works in cities across America, and in Europe and Japan. These include “Neons for Pershing Square” in Los Angeles; “Orrizonte” for the new airport of Puglia, Bari, Italy; “Procession” in the Athens Ambelokipi Metro Station, and “Neons for Tachikawa” in Tokyo. The “Travel Collages” that he assembled from ephemera found during trips to install the Public Works engage issues of location in a different way. These collages came to an end with “Last Collage” (2001-2002). The Public Works continue to be placed in indoor and outdoor architectural sites.
During a stay in Berlin in 1980 he focused on works on paper: large bold collages and Cuts, and the Artist's Books: “BOOK,” “Cuts,” and “Alphavitos.” Back in New York, perhaps extending this concentration on the flat rectangle, Antonakos made a series of unstretched painted canvases with linear neon on their faces and behind their edges. At the same time, he began to make three-dimensional forms such as the “White Cube” and wall Panels with neon behind their edges, so that only the colored glows were visible. The evolution of these Panels, along with his almost daily practice of drawing, has dominated Antonakos's studio work for the last twenty-five years. Their painted or metal-leaf surfaces are in sensitive relation to the soft colors glowing around their perimeters. The dialogue and the balance between the two aspects vary subtlely in response to changes in the amount and kind of natural light in their surroundings. The Panels, in subsequent permutations such as sectioned surfaces, open “windows” of light near their centers, and most recently the introduction of diagonal sections, have become the work for which the artist is best known.
The models for Chapels and meditation spaces of the last 20 years combine and exemplify Antonakos's concerns with light and architectural space. Along with the Panels and the many series of drawings through the decades, they continue to show a remarkable, recognizable integrity -- a consistency that reveals the artist's respect for neon's, and also the pencil's, capacities for monumentality and intimacy at any scale, and for formal rigor tempered by a trust in the hand.