By Katie Tumang

Historically, drawing has been used as a preliminary medium for works such as paintings and sculptures and was rarely acknowledged as art in its own right. Drawing is therefore intrinsically connected to sculpture as a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional concept. Greek-born American artist Stephen Antonakos is best known for his neon sculptures, in which he places neon tubes fashioned in geometric forms in interiors and on exteriors of buildings. His neon sculptures integrate and elevate the architecture on which they are placed, exuding light into the surrounding area. In this way, Antonakos’ sculptures interact in three dimensions, bringing his art into the viewer’s own space. However, his sculptures are often born in drawings, which he may later complete as a finished work. How can a drawing, innately a medium on a flat surface, translate into a physical, three-dimensional form? As Antonakos’ sculptures extrude from their surface, how does the dimensionality of a physical line relate to the line on paper? Ultimately, drawing can be considered sculpture on a page. Antonakos’ Drawing/Neon for the University of Massachusetts can be evaluated in tandem with its sculptural cognate, Two White Individual Neon Squares on a Blue Wall, to demonstrate that drawings are less intrusive and more autonomous than sculpture but that the two media can be connected through their use of line.

Stephen Antonakos, (American, b. Greece, 1926-2013), Drawing/Neon for the University of Massachusetts, 1978. Colored pencil on paper, 33 3/8 in x 61 3/8 in. University Museum of Contemporary Art, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, UM 1978.8

Drawing/Neon for the University of Massachusetts (33 ⅜” x 61 ⅜”) was created in anticipation of Stephen Antonakos’ Two White Incomplete Neon Squares on a Blue Wall, a neon sculpture displayed in his 1978 exhibition, Neons for the University of Massachusetts, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The former features two carefully drawn geometric forms placed centrally within a vibrant cobalt field. An incomplete, three-sided square tilts against a right angle, which in turn nearly connects with the backbone of the square. However, the two exist independently of one another and their forms do not touch. They are sharply delineated, creating regions of white paper visible through the blue background. The background itself is composed of individual colored pencil strokes, filling the page to become a full, blue field. Due to the nature of the individual marks made with varying pressure, the background is uneven in shade (but primarily opaque), resembling a painting. The white forms seem to extrude from the page, garnering immediate focus due to the sharp contrast between the exposed page and the darker background. In this way, the energy produced by these geometric marks foreshadows the intended effect of the neon sculpture for which Drawing/Neon for the University of Massachusetts was created.

Stephen Antonakos, (American, b. Greece, 1926-2013) Two White Incomplete Neon Squares on a Blue Wall, 1978. Neon, paint Wall: 11’4” x 25’ x ½” In the exhibition “Neons for the University of Massachusetts,” University Gallery, Fine Arts Center, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1978

One of the most important relationships in Antonakos’ sculpture occurs between the piece and its environment. Stephen Antonakos’ sculptures are not meant for autonomous viewing. They are created and placed with careful consideration of the architecture around them. Antonakos’ wall pieces do not sit quietly on their chosen surfaces, instead interacting with the walls, ceilings, and floors on and around which they exist. The brightly-lit, energetic nature of sculptures such as Two White Incomplete Neon Squares on a Blue Wall activates and charges their environments by casting light and color onto the existing architecture and by lending energy to the space. The broken geometric forms allow this energy to escape into the surrounding area, permitting the space within each shape to bleed into the environment. In an interview for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Paul Cummings notes that Antonakos’ sculptures create an ambience within the room, describing the effect as ‘[filling] the air’. [1] Through the transformation of the space, in part due to the atmosphere determined by the neon lights, Two White Incomplete Neon Squares on a Blue Wall simultaneously creates and commands its surroundings.

In their interaction with their environment, neon lights can transform buildings into sculptures by both presenting and elevating the building’s architectural features.[2] Antonakos notes that he approaches his sculptures as challenges, and their architectural environments as problems to be solved. He looks to use sculpture as a solution to a situation such as a corner, or a flat field of empty wall space.[3] In this way, the sculpture integrates itself into the environment, resembling a painting in three dimensions.[4] Because drawings are mobile (that is, Drawing/Neon for the University of Massachusetts can be removed and placed at different points around the gallery) they lack the fundamental relationship to the surrounding architecture that is vital to Antonakos’ sculptures. Unless kept in a single location chosen by Antonakos to rectify a situation, Drawing/Neon for the University of Massachusetts cannot solve a problem, as it lacks a permanent environment. Antonakos writes that ‘the work is not one thing but many things,’ referring to the relationship between the environment, time, weather, and sculpture and stating that the finished work is a combination of all of these elements that cannot exist independently.[5] Since a finished work implicitly or explicitly includes its environment, drawings such as Drawing/Neon for the University of Massachusetts cannot achieve the same integration into the environment when contained on a page, and thus may be incomplete. Therefore, considering the importance of the surroundings to a sculpture, drawings such as Drawing/Neon for the University of Massachusetts cannot achieve the same interaction as their counterparts, despite having similar compositions.

Antonakos’ geometric forms are left incomplete, revealing the spatial properties of a contained space and interior architecture.[6] Kernan suggests that the architectural lines of the room (seen in the walls, ceiling, and floor) support and complete the geometrical forms of Antonakos’ sculptures.[7] However, the non-site specific nature of the drawing does not support this relationship with its surroundings; by moving the drawing, one removes any possible relation to the architecture. Therefore, the geometric forms of Antonakos’ drawings may be constantly incomplete, as they lack a permanent supporting environment. In this way, his drawn compositions are unfinished: completion lies in the installation of the final sculpture. This consideration is especially apt for drawings created in anticipation of installations that extend into space, such as hinging and protruding pieces as seen in Incomplete Red Neon Square on Exterior Corner, or in The Room.[8] However, Drawing/Neon for the University of Massachusetts and its pair are uniquely removed from this dilemma. Drawing/Neon for the University of Massachusetts is contained within a bold rectangular field. Its conjugate, Two White Incomplete Neon Squares on a Blue Wall, was displayed on a rectangular wall. Therefore, Drawing/Neon for the University of Massachusetts may represent a more complete composition, as the rectangular field provides the compositional elements offered by the wall in its installation form.

Antonakos states that his drawings are created in large volumes and represent ideas for future sculptures that he could later return to and select to pursue.[9] His drawings are created independently of any location. In consideration of the importance of the surrounding architecture to his sculptures, can these drawings (that represent two-dimensional versions of his sculpture) be complete? Antonakos often finishes his drawings to display as independent artworks, but if they are conceived without interaction with an architectural environment, then they remain unfinished compositions, and the idea on which they are based is similarly incomplete. This relates to the very definition of drawing as a provisional medium that resists completion.

On the other hand, it is possible that drawing may independently represent a complete sculpture, thereby indicating that the physical sculpture is incomplete. Antonakos writes that ‘[he starts] with the site, the page… [he] never [plans] it out beforehand [because] there would be no discovery.’[10] In this way, a drawing becomes a sculpture on the page as a form to resolve the situation of the page as a blank rectangle. A drawing explores its environment (or, as Antonakos refers to it, its site) the page, and is therefore site-specific to the page on which it sits. Thus, a drawing is complete in the context of the page, and the resulting sculpture is removed from the original site. Therefore, the physical sculpture may have a less complete composition than the drawing. In this way, Antonakos indicates that drawings do not need to be present in three-dimensional space to become sculptures that interact with the page.

Irving Sandler notes that Antonakos’ sculptures are meant to extrude past the rectangular frame expected of the composition, in this way engaging the viewer by subverting their expectations and expanding into unexpected space.[11] The incomplete geometry of Antonakos’ forms implies larger forms created in tandem with the walls and surrounding architecture. Through the incorporation of sculpture into architecture when mounted on buildings, walls, or the like, the lines implied by neon tubes can expand past their physical space and suggest to the viewer a larger composition.[12] In contrast, drawings are much less able to achieve this effect as they are constrained by the page on which they are drawn. It is impossible for a drawing to achieve this relationship with both the viewer and space — the very act of viewing a page creates a space in which the drawing can exist for the viewer, and the page unyieldingly determines physical boundaries. Thus, drawings can only suggest as much space as the page contains. The blue background of Drawing/Neon for the University of Massachusetts creates a boundary that prohibits line from interacting with or extending into the viewer’s space as three-dimensional sculpture can.

However, the same sense of containment found in drawing is mimicked in Antonakos’ later works. In his 1978 installation for the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Antonakos paints the supporting walls in colors that complement his sculptures, thereby containing the sculpture and establishing boundaries.[13] Reflecting the cobalt wall supporting Two White Incomplete Neon Squares on a Blue Wall, the blue background of Drawing/Neon for the University of Massachusetts establishes rectilinear boundaries for its composition. In their essay Color in Containment, Alison Ritacco and Margaret Wilson suggest that the limitations determined by a work’s boundaries are what elevate its ability to convey color: when color is strongly contrasts its boundaries, it attempts to rebel from its containment, creating a ‘vibrant encounter’ with the viewer.[14] In this way, drawings on paper can expand into the viewer’s space through dynamic color, suggesting spatial dimension and exuding color, in a way similar to the presence of light from a neon tube.

In many of his sculptures, Antonakos bends and reshapes linear neon tubes to create hinges for concrete corners, or bridges for larger fields of architecture. In a way, he draws directly on the environment using both the physical bulb and the light that it produces. In its mount in the University Gallery of the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Two White Incomplete Neon Squares on a Blue Wall fills an empty rectangular gallery wall. It is centered to the surface, and the light that the sculpture produces aids in filling the space and balancing the composition. The addition of light changes the nature of paint on which it is cast, lightening the area directly surrounding the sculpture. The light element of the piece also balances the composition and adds mass to the lines of the bulbs themselves. Drawing/Neon for the University of Massachusetts lacks both effects, as it cannot produce light. As a drawing, Drawing/Neon for the University of Massachusetts does not alter the space around it, and it is static in composition, as it has no changing elements.

Nathan Kernan suggests that Antonakos’ drawings are influenced by the luminescent color of his neon sculptures.[15] Two White Incomplete Neon Squares on a Blue Wall physically protrudes from its blue rectilinear environment, but also imposes due to the light that emanates from the neon tubes. The clearly delineated borders of the white fields in Drawing/Neon for the University of Massachusetts create spaces of bright white (similar to light) when contrasted against the darker background. However, the border between the blue fields and the white forms also constrains burgeoning light within architectural lines. This contrasts with the role of neon light as an invading force that bleeds beyond the constraints of its fixtures. In this way, the drawing can simultaneously mimic and refute the electric effect of neon light in a flat medium. On a wall, the lights delineate space and mark composition, in a similar way to the way the white lines delineate space within the background. Hugh M. Davies, the curator of the University Museum of Contemporary Art in 1978 at the time of Neons for the University of Massachusetts’ opening, notes that the bold lines marked by the neon tubes in Two White Incomplete Neon Squares on a Blue Wall create ‘planes of color’.[16] These planes are again defined by the geometric forms of Drawing/Neon for the University of Massachusetts, which cut through the background to create vibrant swathes of cobalt. Thus, the linear forms of a drawing mimic the effects created by the linear forms of a sculpture, as sculpture uses line to delineate two-dimensional planes in a way innate to drawing.

The constraints of a drawing as a flat medium on a page can prevent it from physically interacting with the environment and viewer in an imposing way. Kernan notes that size can be used to intimidate; he writes that Antonakos uses scale as a medium, forcing the viewer to engage with his art simply due to its sheer enormity.[17] In this way, Antonakos confronts the difference between drawing and sculpture, bridging the gap between the two media by creating drawings in large scales comparable to those of his sculptures. Drawing/Neon for the University of Massachusetts is 33 ⅜ by 61 ⅜ in., commanding a formidable presence on the wall. Thought it is not equal in size to Two White Incomplete Neon Squares on a Blue Wall (11’4 x 25’1.2 in.), Drawing/Neon for the University of Massachusetts mimics the presence of a sculpture in its presence on the wall. The strong blue field of its background manifests intrusively in the peripheral vision of the viewer, similar to how light would spill into the gallery space, expanding the reach of the sculpture. In this way, the color of the drawing demands attention and emphasizes the size of the piece, reflecting the ability of neon light to expect attention and add more dimension to the work.

Neon sculpture creates temporal relationships that drawings physically cannot. Light bleeds from its glass containment, exposing the artist’s marks in the dark and making the bulbs less significant as objects. In the daylight, the ‘objectness’ of the sculptural piece is visible in the form of hard metal fixtures, revealing the physicality of what could be considered a drawing crafted from light.[18] In this way, the visual effect of neon sculptures changes temporally, in a way that drawing, invisible in the dark, cannot. Light acts upon the viewer, intruding into their space, thereby engaging the viewer within the composition. Drawing lacks the light necessary for this interaction, instead requiring the viewer to respond to the drawing as a contemplative art work. Thus, drawing may require more interaction from the viewer than neon sculptures.

Gestural movements can be seen in Drawing/Neon for the University of Massachusetts in the individually-drawn colored pencil marks that create the deep blue background. The gestural marks represent the individual movements of Antonakos, creating a connection between the hand and mind of the artist and the form created on paper. The artist commented on this connection in drawing, noting that he ‘[likes the] fact that it is [his] own hand all the way, with no other hand touching [them].’[19] Antonakos never personally created his neon sculptures, instead sending plans to be built by neon sign fabricators.[20] Thus, Antonakos’ drawings achieve through their traditional, two-dimensional form a sense of personal connection that is not present in his sculptural work. In this way, drawing uniquely interacts with the audience by becoming a direct line between the artist and the viewer.

When conveying his plans, Antonakos would often take suggestions from the fabricators themselves, stating that the fabricators’ own styles (for example, their sense of scale) are reflected in the sculptures.[21] This can be seen when comparing Drawing/Neon for the University of Massachusetts and Two White Incomplete Neon Squares on a Blue Wall: the upper leg of the unfinished square in the neon piece is slightly longer than it is in the drawing, perhaps reflecting a change made by a fabricator. Through this process, the fabricator becomes an author of the resulting sculpture, in tandem with Antonakos himself.

Stephen Antonakos is not widely recognized by contemporary critics, or by his contemporaries. In the Cummings interview, Antonakos notes that his neon tubes had become relatively known in the mid-60s, but only in the circles of artists that he interacted with. His work was marketed and collected in the early 60s, but his primary consumers were local critics and his pieces were sold for low prices.[22] During this period, Antonakos lived on Greene Street in lower Manhattan, in a small community of artists who shared similar progressive and experimental goals as he. Thus, his recognition and award came from those who were inherently disposed to appreciate his art, due to their own interests.

Progressing through the 70s, Antonakos’ later works were commissioned for large public spaces, such as the Tacoma Dome and the Providence Convention Center, indicating that he had achieved public recognition. However, he is not often represented in articles or texts on Minimalist art — though his peers and associates, such as Sol LeWitt, are famous for their contributions to the Minimalist art movement, Antonakos remains largely uncredited. In one text, American painter and curator Robert Storr refers to Stephen Antonakos as ‘a major [contributor] to Minimalist painting and sculpture’, calling Antonakos a pioneer of neon light as a medium.[23] However, Antonakos is not often seen in texts that consider Minimalism or his contemporaries. This may be due to his chosen field: the use of neon light in art is not widely popularized today as other media such as oil paint and photography are; when considering artists who worked with neon light, Dan Flavin is often the sole subject of discussion (though he used fluorescent, not neon, lights.) Though he lacks widespread recognition, the minimalist and site-specific nature of the medium give Antonakos’ works a timeless quality — their interactions with their surroundings will stay relevant as long as the associated environment or building persists.

The relationship between drawings, sculpture, spatial dimension, and line is constantly changing and redefining itself. Line connects sculpture to drawings as an element of drawing, and Antonakos exploits the linear possibilities of sculpture to draw on buildings as he would on paper. His neon pieces integrate into and build upon their surroundings, adapting to the physical space in a way that two-dimensional, mobile drawings cannot. Sculptures physically extend into the viewer’s space and demand attention, but the viewer must put forth more effort to connect with a drawing, which cannot project to the same effect. Many of Antonakos’ drawings such as Drawing/Neon for the University of Massachusetts were created in anticipation of a neon sculpture. Drawings convey possibilities for a variety of future installations, a quality that finished sculptures lack. At the same time, drawings have the potential to be incomplete representations of a final product — it is impossible for these drawings to fully produce the form in the same way as the sculpture, as they lack the physicality and light provided by neon lights. When defining structure as a representation of a form, drawings are sculptural precedents for Antonakos’ neon works. They represent sculptures on the page that do not yet exist.


[1] Stephen Antonakos, interview by Paul Cummings, Archives of American Art, May 9, 1975, 41.

[2] Irving Sandler, Antonakos (New York, NY: Hudson Hills Press, Inc., 1999), 76

[3] Antonakos, interview by Paul Cummings, 60

[4] Antonakos, interview by Paul Cummings, 41

[5] Sandler, Antonakos, 75.

[6] Sandler, Antonakos, 35.

[7] Nathan Kernan, antonakos: 151 images and an essay (Johannesburg, NY: David Krut Publishing, 2008), 1

[8] Sandler, Antonakos, 65, 94-95.

[9] Antonakos, interview by Paul Cummings, 26

[10] Sandler, Antonakos, 131.

[11] Sandler, Antonakos, 164.

[12] Sandler, Antonakos, 164.

[13] Hugh M. Davies, Antonakos: Neons for the University of Massachusetts (1978), 1.

Antonakos: Neons for the University of Massachusetts, Edited by Hugh M. Davies (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Amherst, 1978), Exhibition catalogue.

[14] Alison Ritacco and Margaret Wilson, “Color in Containment,” (2018), 3.

[15] Kernan, Antonakos, 2.

[16] Davies, Antonakos, 1.

[17] Kernan, Antonakos, 1.

[18] Sandler, Antonakos, 50.

[19] Sandler, Antonakos, 126

[20] Antonakos, interview by Paul Cummings, 26

[21] Antonakos, interview by Paul Cummings, 27

[22] Antonakos, interview by Paul Cummings, 2

[23] Robert Storr, A Memorial for Stephen Antonakos (New York, NY: Robert Storr, 2013), 25.