Neon lighting has moved from vulgar Vegas to some of our most beloved art. Andy Warhol was right – it’s one of ‘the great modern things’
Neon is up in lights, again. The gaseous element whose glamorous glow has been appropriated by one artist after another since the 1960s is now crossing from contemporary art into every cultural field going. It pulses in the National Theatre’s hit Angels in America, shines ethereally white in the artwork for Arcade Fire’s Everything Now and gleams a sleazy violet in ads for Netflix’s wrestling comedy Glow.
Once neon symbolised vulgarity, sleaze, Las Vegas. Now it symbolises art. Artists have made luminous commercial signage so much their own that the new wave of neon in popular culture consciously apes that artiness. Arcade Fire’s album cover resembles Martin Creed’s white neon conceptual statement EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT. Ripoffs of – sorry, homages to – Tracey Emin’s confessional neons are also appearing everwhere: the other day I did a double take at the Old Vic theatre because the bar was full of Eminesque pieces of neon poesy. You have probably seen these increasingly omnipresent signs saying whatever someone pays a signmaker to say in shops, restaurants or your kitchen.