Keith Sonnier, Brice Marden, Cy Twombly

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In LA, obsessed with youth as we are, it is tempting to always focus on the up and coming artists. Who and what is trending? But this month, a couple of the established masters have shows that demonstrate the ways in which artists can continue to push themselves and hone their ways of seeing and thinking.

What, for example, can be done with neon? Just two gases argon and neon, pumped into glass tubes. Most people think of signs. Since 1968, Keith Sonnier has used neon as a way of drawing with light in space. His most recent large scale works, Portals, are at Maccarone through April 9.

Keith Sonnier, "Circle Portal B," 2015
Neon, wire and transformer
Courtesy the artist and Maccarone

Sonnier, 75, is a pioneer in this field, emerging in the fertile post-minimalist era of the late 60's and early 70's when artists dedicated themselves to industrial materials and the role of spontaneity. A native of Louisiana, Sonnier began his MFA studies at Rutgers at a time when experimentation was encouraged and studio space in nearby New York City was cheap. As one of the artists in the game-changing 1969 exhibition When Attitudes Become Form, his work was part of the changing approach to sculpture along with peers Lawrence Weiner, Barry Le Va and Jackie Winsor, to whom he was married for some time.

Keith Sonnier, "Palermo Portal," 2015
Neon, wire and transformer
Courtesy the artist and Maccarone

His work on prints with Gemini G.E.L. has brought him to LA periodically and in 2004 he did a major architectural commission, Motordom for architect Thom Mayne in the courtyard of the Cal Trans building downtown. Such architectural commissions have been a major component of his art since the 1980's, a background that has come to inform his wall works including those on view in the gallery. Wall Extension (2015) does just as the title describes, a multi-colored rectangular presence standing perpendicular to the wall. Monticello was the specific inspiration for Sonnier's approach to these pieces that intersect rather than parallel the wall.

Keith Sonnier, "Gothic Portal," 2015
Neon, wire and transformer
Courtesy the artist and Maccarone

Gothic Portal (2105) features pointed arches in yellow and blue while Roman Portal (2015) is a rounded arc. Though based on architectural forms, Sonnier freely plays with lines of neon in citrus-y, exotic colors and occasional erotic protuberances. There is sophistication in Sonnier's loopy, lopsided compositions. We might call it reductive baroque, insinuating entry to places of worship or comfort as well as entry to other realms, be they lustily physical or metaphysical. The large circular pieces look like faces which, of course, have portals of their own. The apparent simplicity of his art belies the implicit knowingness of a mature artist.

Brice Marden, "Uphill with Center," 2012-2015
Oil on linen, five panels
Brice Marden/Artists Rights Society, New York/Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

In a similar vein, Brice Marden's new paintings are lessons in looking and feeling at Matthew Marks Gallery through April 16. Considered a master of unbroken fields of color, Marden, now 77, gained early attention for incorporating encaustic into the paint, given it a velvety, sensuous surface. As with Sonnier, Marden emerged as a painter during the earliest years of minimalism, graduating with an MFA from Yale in 1963. After years of success with the subtle monochrome paintings, Marden began compositions of serpentine lines inspired by ancient Chinese calligraphy and carving.

Brice Marden, “Nevis Stele 3,” 2007-2015
Oil on linen
Brice Marden/Artists Rights Society, New York/Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

In this show, Marden has brought these two opposing factors together in a 16-foot-long horizontal painting made of five panels, Uphill with Center (2012-2015). Monochrome earth tones drip into rivulets of color over raw canvas on the two panels placed either side of a central composition of curling lines. Control and freedom, nature and culture, western and eastern aesthetics are balanced. Other monochromatic paintings in the show, such as Over Autumn (2015) manifest the luscious surfaces of his earliest work but with a chameleon palette of brown or ochre or green. The painting changes color with the changing light or the viewer's position. Some of his pictures use terre verte, a compound used in Renaissance painting technique. Looking at but also looking through his surfaces of mutable color is like walking under a canopy of fall leaves. His first solo show in LA. in over 30 years, these are works that reward an in-person experience but you can get some idea in this video.

Cy Twombly, "Spoleto Festival," 1980
Mixed media collage
Courtesy c. nichols project

Completing this tour of established artists, for a few more days there is a small show of just five works on paper made between 1957 and 1984 by the great Cy Twombly. They can be seen at c. nichols project through March 19.