The New York Neon Shop That Became Legendary



Jeff Friedman was anticipating a supply on a Monday morning in August when a person sauntered into his Tribeca showroom holding three delicate glass tubes bent within the form of letters. Friedman requested for every letter individually and put two down on the desk in entrance of him whereas holding up a big, Artwork Deco-style “C” to examine it. The letter was clear save for a slight grey tinge to it, maybe the results of being uncovered to rain and smog for a few years.

“That is neon from Radio Metropolis Music Corridor,” Friedman instructed me. “There’s a slight crack someplace, however we’ll discover it and repair it. For a greenback, I’ll allow you to maintain it.”

Friedman owns Let There Be Neon, an appointment-only neon showroom and manufacturing facility on White Avenue that has been creating indicators and artworks since 1972. Its brick partitions are illuminated with indicators, clocks, and artworks in a technicolor spectrum resembling a Coney Island WeWork house. 1000’s of glass tubes coated with phosphorus are saved primarily based on their width and shade. In a small room within the again, fabricators soften and bend the glass in keeping with intricate designs, pump neon fuel into every tube, and take a look at transistors to make sure the sculpture lights up.

The aesthetic fits Friedman, a Brooklyn native who met the store’s founder, filmmaker and artist Rudi Stern, in 1977 and determined to depart Brooklyn School to take a job assembling and putting in neon works. He hasn’t left since.

“There was an instantaneous artistic connection and my life’s path had been set,” Friedman mentioned.

Indicators for retail shops largely paid the payments. However it additionally turned a vital useful resource for painters, sculptors, and efficiency artists, because of Stern’s relationships with New York’s rising new media artwork scene. Keith Haring relied on Let There Be Neon to affect his motifs and create the signal for his Pop Shop. So did Laurie Anderson, whose 1983 violin performance employed one of many first transportable battery-powered neon items ever created. Artists as numerous as Robert Rauschenberg, Nam June Paik, Dennis Oppenheim, Tracey Emin, and Yoko Ono relied on the studio’s experience.

Amongst many artworks, Let There Be Neon restored the 1987 “Silence = Demise” sculpture by the AIDS activist artwork collective Gran Fury. (photograph by Elvert Barnes through Flickr)

So did the remainder of the general public, particularly New York’s bars and eating places. Diners noshing at Union Sq. Cafe, looking for lox at Russ & Daughters, or downing IPAs at Previous City Bar handed below the nice and cozy glow of Let There Be Neon’s lights emanating above their storefronts. Typically their creations find yourself in sudden locations. Broadway and movie show marquees in addition to SoulCycle studios are emblazoned with the store’s work. They brighten up the units of The Sopranos, Broad Metropolis, and 30 Rock.

The frequent electrified thread via all these initiatives is Friedman. Since each job is exclusive, he seeks to carry a creative sensibility and an expert contact to every order, whether or not it’s a easy “Bar” signal or an artist-designed infinity mirror that takes three months of labor. (Friedman’s store additionally makes LED lights, however these are virtually by no means utilized by artists.)

Not that Friedman ever will get starstruck coping with his well-known shoppers. “They get starstruck with me. On a regular basis,” he mentioned jokingly. “If individuals inquire to us immediately, it’s due to our repute or as a result of they labored with any person who labored with us earlier than or their gallery referred them to us.”

Ivan Navarro, “Kick (Classic Gray)” (2010) (photograph courtesy Templon)

Modern artist and muralist Steve “Espo” Powers had all the time identified concerning the studio’s neon experience, however he didn’t strategy them till an indication for a Coney Island exhibition that one other workshop made — a neon model of the phrase “CHARM” that blinkered to the phrase “HARM” — had glitches and shattered in transit. So he gave them the design they usually remade it from scratch.

The method of creating neon stays the identical. Artists carry an preliminary sketch of their mission to the studio, the place Friedman and his employees create a store drawing to assist them fabricate the piece. The design course of can travel many instances till the artist is happy.

Fabrication staff choose glass tubes primarily based on their shade and width. Some glass is coated with phosphorus by the producer, however classic glass is already tinted. Then, staff place the tube in a three-foot-tall gas-powered welding machine that emits two rows of small flames at 1,500 levels Fahrenheit earlier than shaping the glass to evolve to the sample of the drawing. 

“You tinker with it till it will get right, then it cools down inside a few seconds and you’ll now not bend it,” Molly Rae, Let There Be Neon studio supervisor, mentioned. “It takes a very good 10 years of fixed work to grasp till it turns into muscle reminiscence.”

Ivan Navarro, “Braids” (2023) (photograph courtesy Templon)

As soon as the glass is bent into form, fabricators pump the tube with neon and argon gasses and seal it. They then add the transformer with wires hooked up to it that plug right into a wall and take a look at the piece to make sure that it lights up.

Figuring out the placement of transformers might be daunting. Williamsburg artist Ivan Navarro first approached Let There Be Neon in 2005 as a result of he preferred Robert Rauschenberg’s neon bikes and needed to do one thing related with a free-standing chair. The seat, legs, armchair, and bag would every be a six-foot piece of neon, however Navarro had questions on how the transformers could be built-in with out distracting from the design.

They ended up with two variations — one in white made for Gatson Gallery and one in black light that used classic neon glass items that was proven in a pitch-black room in an exhibition on the Museum of Modern Artwork North Miami. 

Sadly, somebody broke it virtually instantly.

“The construction was very safe however we had a very loopy accident,” Navarro mentioned. “There was a museum group coming from someplace in Texas and an individual from the group felt very drained and sat on the chair however didn’t comprehend it was going to interrupt. [Let There Be Neon] remade it and every week later it was absolutely working.”

Some items can contain intricate designs that may take months to craft. For certainly one of Navarro’s infinity chambers exhibited on the Armory Present, Friedman and his staff made curved pink and turquoise neon tubes that they put in in entrance of a mirror.

Selecting the best shade isn’t so easy both. Brooklyn artist Zoe Buckman, whose work grapples with womanhood and mortality, needed to make a two-dimensional hourglass for her solo present however wasn’t positive which shade of white to make use of. Let There Be Neon illuminated a number of totally different white neon tubes on a wall so she may evaluate their hues within the gentle. For a uterus that had boxing gloves for ovaries, the store supplied fiery pinks. And she or he selected a “actually aggressive shiny white” for a neon chastity belt that hung from the ceiling.  

“For the hourglass, I needed that to attract you in and have that really feel like house,” Buckman defined. “For the chastity belt, I needed to repel you and have you concentrate on the years of repression and bodily discomfort girls have skilled.” She needed to work with neon for her collection concerning the totally different life levels of being a lady and surviving a tough being pregnant as a result of the fuel slowly depletes from its glass tubes after 60 to 70 years, mirroring our personal mortality in a means.

“Neon made sense for that physique of labor, it’s a pure fuel, it’s depleting, it’s a time capsule,” she mentioned. “The fuel received’t final without end, it would ultimately run out. It’s not like a portray you may give to your grandchildren. I don’t assume you may give a neon signal to your grandkids.”

Zoë Buckman, “Champ” (2016), neon, glass, leather-based (picture courtesy the artist)

Nonetheless, individuals have nonetheless tried to protect them. Let There Be Neon restored the 1987 Silence = Death sculpture by the AIDS activist artwork collective Gran Fury for the New Museum (they fabricated the unique too) they usually fabricated authentic editions of Olafur Eliasson’s “The house that made up its vision as it walked” (2003). Additionally they labored with the Guggenheim Museum to revive Richard Serra’s belts, and this fall they’re collaborating with the establishment on an exhibition that has not but been publicly introduced.

The work most continuously entails making copies that the museum displays to the general public whereas the unique stays in storage. However additionally they change glass tubes that break whereas they’re shipped, add neon that has leaked out, and swap out transistors that don’t work. 

“Neon is an ephemeral medium, so it must be completely changed when a piece is restored, and mainly made new lots of the time,” mentioned Abby Lepold, senior registrar on the New Museum. “We often have all the knowledge and specs to make the paintings, however due to the character of neon, it doesn’t final without end, it may be remade, and it stays true to the artist’s imaginative and prescient.”

The toughest a part of restoring a neon piece is getting the colour’s hue to match the remainder of the sculpture. Let There Be Neon has an intensive inventory of classic glass tubes, however colours fade in numerous methods relying on how they’re saved and exhibited and even the place they have been made. (White is the toughest shade to copy as a result of it might probably change primarily based on slight variations in temperature, Friedman says.)

Typically artists don’t need their work to be fastened. Artist Tracey Emin specifies that any current editions of her work be destroyed and documented if they’re ever remade into different editions. 

“She’s very explicit about it, even when we’ve got the identical shade, as a result of a brand new piece shall be barely brighter than others,” Friedman mentioned. “In the event you put a model new tube subsequent to the marginally older one, one will look barely totally different, and her choice is to remake your complete piece for its shade consistency.” 

That consistency is every part, particularly when a neon work illuminates the twilight above a neighborhood pub or shines in an in any other case empty room in a museum exhibition. 

“It’s going to by no means be relegated to the previous. It’s simply too cool trying,” Steve Powers mentioned. “LED lights don’t do the identical factor, It really works like synthetic intelligence. You assume you’re getting the actual factor however once you rise up near it you’re like, ‘ahh, it’s deception, I hate this, it’s horrible.’”

A night view of the Let There Be Neon store on White Avenue (photograph by Billie Grace Ward through Flickr)


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