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The Emergence of Neon Art

October 04, 2013 3 min read

An article delving into the history of neon and how neon art is being enjoyed by a new generation of artists.

In a blog post about the rise in popularity of neon as an art form it would seem strange to talk about the possibility it has already had its time in the public eye and is now fading in its usage, but that is exactly the point. While its commercial value is said to be diminishing in some quarters, neon art is becoming an intriguing form of decoration and although it is less mainstream than in the 1950s and ‘60s, it is still a great way to get a message across.

The Origins of Neon and Its Rise to Prominence

Neon was first discovered by William Ramsay in his London laboratory back in 1898. Named after the Greek word for ‘new’, neon was taken on by French entrepreneur Georges Claude who created the neon lamp 12 years later. Claude Neon developed neon signs for a range of businesses and institutions well into the 1920s.

Illuminated signs were becoming popular in big US cities like Los Angeles and New York throughout the 1930s as this was a cost-effective means of promoting businesses, while these neon creations were also part of a cultural attitude too. Flashing neon signs became symbols of democracy.

The glamorous appeal of neon did die down in the late 1940s and ‘50s, as many inner city areas were in decline. In fact, this was its lowest ebb, with neon losing its novelty and becoming more of a sign for sleaze and characteristic of run-down urban areas.

Las Vegas: Bucking the Trend

However, despite the fact that the impact of neon was fading fast across the United States, Las Vegas was about to enter its neon heyday. The Neon Museum contains many of the city’s iconic signs from yesteryear, with this popular tourist attraction showcasing more than six acres of signage.

Neon has always had its critics who argue that its bright glow represents the height of artifice, but paradoxically neon light-making is actually an artisanal craft. This is a pure art form and skills are required to create these colours by hand.

Reestablishing Its Role In Modern Society

Neon specialists now spend their time in workshops developing new and exciting signs that still captivate the audience, with the form commonly displayed in areas where foot traffic is at its highest. Pedestrians passing neon signs on the street still admire its use, whether for commercial or artistic purposes.

Many small businesses use neon to personalise their identity, with its image still highly distinctive and the gas in glowing tube approach to advertising still feels real in a world of LED and video.

As neon is now mainly used by niche enterprises and firms that want to stand out from the rest, it is not as noticeable as it once was, but as an art form it is really emerging, with a new generation of neon artists creating iconic pieces.

Neon as an Art Form

More than just gaining a cult following, neon, in the form of vintage and salvaged signs plus retro displays, has been used to create quirky art collections and this type of lighting still features in advertising campaigns throughout the world.

Wall-based neon art and sculptures are also more common in public settings with Chicago’s O’Hare Airport one example of how abstract neon patterns are displayed on the ceiling of the concourses and made to change according to the music being played.

While the usage of neon may have changed over time, its manufacturing process is still very much the same as it was a century ago.

Many artists are looking to translate their ideas in this way and bring their visions to life through this decorative form. One the manual skills required to make signs have been discovered, neon can be used creatively to produce all manner of individual pieces.

So neon is certainly nothing new, and while its commercial heyday may have passed, it is still an interesting option for businesses looking to promote themselves in a unique way. But it is in its role as a modern art form that is showing neon off in a completely different light.