Stephen Antonakos in 2008.
STEPHEN ANTONAKOS BEGAN to investigate the aesthetic possibilities of neon in the early 1960s and within a few years it had become his signature medium. He initially employed it in moderately-scaled geometric structures and subsequently produced site-specific installations of circles and squares on the walls and ceilings of galleries as well as the homes of such artist friends as Robert Ryman. However, in 1974 a commission to create temporary sculptures for the Fort Worth Art Museum’s exterior heightened his consciousness of neon’s capacity to redefine the scale and character of architecture. Increasingly in the following decades, Antonakos embraced outdoor and indoor public commissions of unprecedented scale and complexity—from college theaters to corporate headquarters, arenas, metro stations, even airports—crisscrossing the United States, Europe, and the Middle and Far East.
Born in the village of Agios Nikolaos, Greece in 1926, Antonakos was four when his family emigrated, settling in New York. Determined to become an artist from an early age, he studied at the New York State Institute of Applied Arts and Sciences and later began working as an illustrator. While familiarizing himself with the New York art scene of the 1950s, he was particularly attracted to the burlap assemblages of Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana’s lacerated canvases, and began to use discarded cloth remnants to create sewn fabric collages and vividly-colored mixed-media constructions. His fascination with the street led him to consider the signage of shops and restaurants and his subsequent discovery of the clarity and intensity of neon.
While Antonakos acknowledged affinities with Minimalism, he maintained that his preference for cubes and rectangles was actually rooted in vivid memories of the small village church of his birthplace. A profound desire to imbue his art with a spiritual dimension prompted the creation of installations he characterized as chapels and meditation rooms. Chosen to represent Greece at the 1997 Venice Biennale, he conceived the Chapel of the Heavenly Ladder, an eighteen-foot, six-inch by twenty-three foot by forty-foot structure comprising rusted iron and exquisitely modulated neon light. Situated in the gardens near the entrance, this remarkable little structure was one of the most visited and admired installations of the biennial.
Throughout his long career, drawing played a crucial role in the conception and evolution of Antonakos’s sculptures, but it was also an ongoing, independent practice and a constant source of discovery. I had the pleasure of curating a retrospective exhibition surveying five decades of his drawing at the art gallery of The Graduate Center in 2005. Ever responsive to the immediacy and freedom afforded by the medium, he described its challenge: “I start with the site, the page—I have a basic idea about one or two forms I want to make, but then the drawing tells me what I want to do next . . . it takes over.”
Although he suffered from health problems in recent years, Stephen Antonakos never stopped working and exhibiting, and in the seven months before his death on August 17, he had solo exhibitions in East Hampton, New York, and Berlin and participated in major group shows at the Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton and Grand Palais in Paris. If his works reflected the rigors of Minimalist aesthetics, they also conveyed the profound humanism that was part of his DNA.
Diane Kelder is professor emerita of art history at The Graduate Center, CUNY.
Sunday, May 17, 2009 6:24 PM
Dear Mr. Siegel,
Thank you for your interest in Mario Montez and your generous offer. As you may or may not know “Mario doesn’t fly! ”. The only way to get to Berlin would be by boat and train.... [Ronald] and Harvey [Tavel] were both great influences in my career and we all remained good friends even after my retirement.... I feel in this time of my life it would be helpful to keep the Underground Film Experience alive in the hearts and minds of future film students and hopefully my memories of that time will be helpful. Thank you again, Mario Montez
So reads the very first email I ever received from Mario Montez, who passed away at the age of seventy-eight on September 26, 2013. I remember clearly my quivering uncertainty about initially contacting him, despite the trust and encouragement I received from the dear, indispensable Agosto Machado, a wonderful performer and Montez’s longtime friend. Agosto, the entrusted Keeper of the Secret of Montez’s Florida whereabouts for almost thirty years, was somehow convinced by the kind words of mutual friends that I was to be the chosen one who should be granted access to the reclusive Superstar. Montez, of course, was the drag performer who debuted as “The Spanish Lady” in Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1962–63) and then went on to reign over the New York underground film and theater scene in the 1960s and early ’70s. He delivered striking performances in over twenty films, including Normal Love (1963–65), Ron Rice’s Chumlum (1963), José Rodriguez Soltero’s Lupe (1966) and—perhaps most famously—many of Andy Warhol’s early films, including Harlot (1964), Screen Test #2 (1965), and Hedy (1966), before becoming a central figure in the Theatre of the Ridiculous.
I wanted to contact Montez because I was working with actress Susanne Sachsse and Stefanie Schulte Strathaus, co-director of Berlin’s Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art, on the festival “LIVE FILM! JACK SMITH! Five Flaming Days in a Rented World.” Ronald Tavel had tragically died on his return trip to Bangkok from the festival’s initial planning session and we thought of no greater honor to Tavel and Smith than an appearance by Montez at our fall festival. But I had never truly dreamed such a thing would be possible. Although I saw Montez and Machado in Mary Jordan's 2006 documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, Montez hadn’t resurfaced for public appearances and seemed instead to slip back quietly into hiding. Even my friend Callie Angell, who had found (or found out about) practically everyone who had ever appeared in a scrap of film by Andy Warhol, didn’t have his contact information. Callie respected what she took to be Montez’s Garbo-esque wishes: to be left alone. So there I was, writing an email to Mario Montez as if writing a fan letter to some kind of Silver Screen Beyond.
You can imagine my speechless glee when, five days later, I received the above response. I was ecstatic, running around my apartment like—well, like a giddy queen who had just received an email from Mario Montez. I was determined to convince my collaborators that we had to find the almost €10,000 it would cost us to bring the Superstar by ship. Over the course of a number of emails, phone calls, and meetings, however, it became clear that sea travel from Florida to Germany was not only costly but also inconvenient. After conveying the news to Montez, I was naturally overjoyed when, three days later, I awoke to the following email:
Dear Mr. Siegel, I have had recent conversations with my partner, Agosto, Harvey Tavel, my doctor and some friends. They have assured me that jet travel today is a lot different than it was when I had my bad experience flying before... I slept on it and have decided to fly....
I had actually suspected that “Mario doesn’t fly” because I knew that he didn’t fly with Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company to Berlin back in the early 1970s, when they performed in Europe and—thanks to Stefan Brecht—visited the Berliner Ensemble. But it wasn’t until I finally got to meet and befriend Montez at our festival in October 2009 that we commenced on a series of public and private conversations that exposed so many hitherto unknown details about his life and work. The bad experience with “jet travel,” for instance, occurred in 1944 when he was nine years old and flew with his mother and family members from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Miami in order to begin the long trek north to New York City to join his father who had left a few months earlier to find employment and an apartment. In fact, because Montez had retreated from the public eye back in 1977 and had only given a few interviews during his roughly fifteen years of continuous work in film and theater, there was very little available—and reliable—information about him. The existing accounts in the film and theater literature tend more toward half-truths, projections, and whimsy, than accurate representations of Montez’s real life experiences and perspectives. Montez, his partner Dave, and I all had to laugh about Ron Tavel spinning the tale that the Superstar had moved to Florida, become heterosexual, gotten married, and raised children. And I think it was during one of our first conversations that Montez explained that—contrary to most written accounts—he had never worked for the post office, or “maybe just one year for Christmas when they needed extra help.”
There are many myths about the reserved Montez that emerged in the absence of his own account. For this reason, it is all the more significant that he graciously decided to take up once again his public persona and share with audiences in Berlin, New York, Wroclaw, and Frankfurt over the past four years his memories about the “Underground Film (and Theater) Experience.” That experience happened decades ago in a city far from Orlando, Florida where Montez had settled after leaving New York, and where he had begun another phase in his life—one not about heterosexuality, but not about queer underground performance either. He therefore generously solicited others to work with him on the collective reconstruction of a history that he, most understandably, only partially recalled. Being privileged enough to facilitate and accompany him on this journey back to a formative time in his life and a time of immense inspiration for me and many others—that is something I will never cease to cherish. It gave me the opportunity to experience firsthand the dignity and humanity, the grandeur and down-home glamour, the seductive charm and casual wit so poignantly conveyed by Mario Montez’s star image.
Marc Siegel is an assistant professor of film studies at the Goethe University in Frankurt am Main, Germany and is working on a book about Mario Montez.
IN THE SUMMER OF 1946, Ruth Asawa made the life-changing decision to attend Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Her family had been successful truck farmers in California, but during World War II they were relocated to internment camps for Japanese immigrants and their children. After graduating from high school at the camp, Asawa completed her course at Milwaukee State Teachers College but was refused a degree, as no local school would accept her for a residency. At Black Mountain, under the tutelage of Josef Albers, Asawa found the freedom to work with patterns, letting method and its incremental accretion of material become the main subject of her art. She also studied there with the Neo-Plasticist painter Ilya Bolotowsky and with poet Charles Olson, who expounded, as Asawa’s class notes reveal, the idea that art should be a catalyst for social change. “Black Mountain gave you the right to do anything you wanted to do,” said Asawa. “And then you put a label on it afterward.”
She followed her instincts, making sculptures and works on paper, using repetitive processes that took their inspiration from traditional women’s activities, such as weaving and sewing. Her signal hanging wire sculptures with curving biomorphic forms had their genesis one summer in Mexico. While she taught drawing to the locals, they taught her how to make baskets by twisting and interlocking small pieces of wire into mesh.
Moving to San Francisco, Asawa found her aesthetic as well as her emotional home. She and her husband, architect Albert Lanier (whom she had met at Black Mountain) lived in a garden studio Lanier designed, raising six children amid the art making. Presumably they kept in mind Albers’s warning that she should keep doing her work, no matter the obstacles that raising a family might present. Asawa took another lesson from Albers’s furthering of the Bauhaus tradition in the US. From 1968 until 1973, with Sally B. Woodbridge, Asawa ran the Alvarado School Art Workshop that eventually served fifty public schools, instilling confidence in children through programs taught by artists. Little by little, she became first a known, and then an essential, artist—in the Bay Area and, increasingly, beyond. Her work was exhibited in Whitney Museum of American Art Annuals (1955, 1958), in a Săo Paulo Bienal (1955), at the Art Institute of Chicago (1956, 1957), and at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1959). In 2007, Asawa was the subject of a long overdue retrospective at the de Young museum in San Francisco.
Geometry in nature is a theme that recurs in her work: Stars, pentagons, and other motifs provide generative force for proliferating biomorphs. Transparency and closed and open forms are also recurrent themes, as evidenced in Asawa’s exquisite tied-wire sculptures (sometimes electro-plated), cast bronze pieces, lithographs, and large-scale sculptures for public commissions. Ultimately, it is Asawa’s hanging sculptures—classically elegant, they appear simultaneously modern and ancient—that most capture viewers’ attention, opening their eyes and minds to unexpected sculptural possibilities. “Sculpture is like farming,” Asawa once said. “If you keep at it, you can get quite a lot done.” She certainly did.
Vincent Katz is a critic, curator and poet based in New York.