May 22, 2023

Chryssa: Chryssa & New York

Some sixty years after her breakout solo shows in 1961 at the Betty Parsons Gallery and the Guggenheim Museum, the pioneering artist Chryssa is finally back in the public eye. Showcasing an impressive range of work centered upon light and form, Chryssa & New York at Dia Chelsea is the first museum show in North America in over four decades to focus on the Greek-born artist Chryssa Vardea-Mavromichali (1933–2013). Once considered a pivotal figure in the burgeoning dialogue amongst Pop, Minimalist, and Conceptual factions, Chryssa's stature has suffered in recent decades, her profile fading as others in her milieu have had their reputations burnished to the level of cottage industries. Even during her lifetime, she bristled at what she considered a lack of proper acclaim. Co-organized by Dia Art Foundation and the Menil Collection, this compelling survey stakes her claim as a broad-ranging formal innovator in neon, printmaking, and sculptural work.

The show is roughly bifurcated, with the front gallery presenting her colorful electric/neon oriented pieces while the adjoining one highlights a muted palette of "low tech" work, including materials like wood, bronze, marble, and plaster. No matter the chromatic or technological content, Chryssa was intimately bound up with New York City as the catalyst for her art, even a basis for materials. She attested to a kind of epiphanic experience when gazing at the neon light show of 42nd Street and was known to scavenge old signs and printing plates discarded by local Times Square businesses.

Americanoom (1963) claims attention in the first gallery with its prismatic array of red-orange, lime green, straw yellow, and sky blue tubing. The dull hum of electrically illuminated noble gasses and the mechanical click of intermittent automated switches provide more subtle perceptual input. The weighty gray metal of its support structure pulls down the neon's airy glow, its five sections of corrugated and fragmented letters offsetting the single luminous segment. While taking cues from advertising and signs, Chryssa most often chopped and folded the steel letters upon themselves, negating clear linguistic communication. Mounted in contiguous vitrines, Five Variations on the Ampersand (1966) distends and warps this typographical symbol of connection. Some versions resemble brain lobes, others staggered or stacked medieval labyrinths—glowing forms recast as keys to an urban, technological maze.

Chryssa's most renowned work, The Gates to Times Square (1964-66) is a monumental ten-foot cube of aluminum, steel, plexiglass, and neon, perhaps referring to the gates of classical era Greece. Again Chryssa has stripped the metal signage of its communicative content, with only its industrial base of riveted and welded undulations and squiggling icy blue neon remaining. The dynamic visual balance between machined alloys and hand blown glass tubes underscores the sculpture's seamless blending of craft and fabrication. This work perhaps enshrines what she once called in a 1971 WNYC radio interview "the ambiguous moment of taking apart a sign." Still, Gates elicits Greco-alphabetical suggestions: Times Square as her alpha, the origin point for her mature style. The inverted V form also recalls the Greek letter lambda, a symbol for electrical conductance, which measures the ease with which an electric current passes.

Most works in the second gallery room are of a different sort entirely: non-electric, mainly traditional art media, and largely monochrome or duotone. Bronze Tablet No. 2 (1956) and Bronze Tablet: Homage to the Seagram Building (1957) are metal wall mounted plaques that resemble non-movable type, their jumbled letters presenting a vision of logorrheic repetition. As a child during the Greek Resistance, Chryssa witnessed furtive messaging by the rebels via graffiti, one possible source for her obsession with disjointed and fragmentary text. Her newspaper-based printworks of the early 1960s present a gauzy visage in one corner of the gallery, pieces that notably predate Warhol's media recreations. A hybrid exception is Cycladic Movement (n.d.) with four luminous white tubes set into a grid of white wooden handle-like forms. Closer examination reveals the "handles" to be block letters affixed by their bottom edges and projecting outward. Again, Chryssa shifts the semantic signs of language, changing them into something tactile and three dimensional.

Multiple similarly titled works directly address her Hellenic art heritage. The series Cycladic Book (1957-62/1997) features rectangular slabs of white marble, incised with gentle sloping curves and beveled edges. The artist's signature is clearly cut into the right side of each, the only "writing" in these horizontal volumes. Cycladic Book (1957) is another series of these book forms, this time in plaster, housed in vitrines. No letters are inscribed but the surfaces are not blank. Textural sweeps, as if from a brush, are joined by almost gestural grooves in the plaster surface. These Cycladic influenced works both nod toward the Neolithic figurines of five thousand years ago found in Greece, while also casting their shadows upon the roots of the emerging Minimalist scene, presaging Robert Ryman's white paintings and Carl Andre's white Styrofoam floor pieces.

Study for the Gates #14 and #15 (1967) are deep indigo neon works whose subtitles reference Euripedes's tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis. A parallel to Chryssa's heretofore underappreciated work might be drawn, as an imperative sacrifice of the female allows men to proceed forward in their pursuits and conquests. She quickly became known as an individualist who remained highly skeptical of the New York scene and its machinations; this often combative stance towards even her own art world proponents probably stymied her momentum. Her singular personality as a workaholic unafraid to labor alone for years on end upon a certain idea contributed to her increasing isolation as well. Chryssa's atypical approach to language might also have been a factor, as she expressed persistent doubts about the terminology and summary catchphrases often used to explain and classify her art. Now viewed at a remove from contemporaneous market factors, her work proves full of influential explorations and intense formal transformation, flying in the face of assumed art historical narratives.

David C. Shuford is a writer, musician, and art librarian living in Queens, New York.

Dia: Chelsea, New York David C. Shuford