Vardea (Mavromichali) Chryssa
(1933 - 2013)
Vardea (Mavromichali) Chryssa was active/lived in New York / Greece, France. Vardea Chryssa is known for neon luminous pop image sculpture, assemblage.
Vardea (Mavromichali) Chryssa
Biography from the Archives of askART
Born and educated in Athens, Greece, Vardea Chryssa, known
professionally as Chryssa, became a U.S. citizen and earned a
reputation for her sculptured assemblages utilizing light from neon,
and plexiglas combined with mixed media pieces. One of her pieces, Untitled Light Sculpture (1980) is 22 feet long and is installed in
the atrium of a building at 33 Monroe Street in Chicago. It was
programmed electronically to create changing patterns of reflected
light through 900 feet of neon tubing.
Biography from RoGallery.com
Chryssa's sculptures with
precision and definite form were a reaction against the prevalent
Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s with its emphasis purely upon the
artist's intent. In her work, the focus is on materials and the way
they are shaped for specific use by craftsmen.
She got her early
education in Athens, and first studied to be a social worker. She was
then sent by the Greek Ministry of Social Welfare to the Dodecanese
Islands and later to the Ionian Sea island of Zante, whose population
had suffered great loss from earthquakes. Disillusioned that monies
were being provided to restore monasteries but not to help other
earthquake victims, Chryssa changed her life's direction to become a
painter. In Athens, she studied art with Anghelos Prokopion.
she went to Paris, France, and studied briefly at the Academie Grande
Chaumiere and associated with surrealists Andre Breton, Edgard Varese,
and Max Ernst. In 1954, she moved to San Francisco, California for a
year of study at the California School of Fine Arts, and there she
first saw the work of Jackson Pollock, which had a freeing affect on
her and inspired her to experiment with pure form. But later she
reacted against action painting with her assemblage sculptures of
In 1955, Chryssa settled in New York
City, and became the first artist to incorporate neon light tubing and
commercial signs into sculpture. It is asserted that her "mature work
grew out of the Greek experience, before and after World War II, wedded
to the raucous letters, signs, symbols, and lights of Time Square, New
York City" (Heller 125). In fact, she was so taken with the lights of
Times Square that she unsuccessfully tried to get a job as a sign maker
but was prevented by labor union rules. However, one of the members
gave her sign-making lessons in his shop.
She first made Pop
images such as depictions of automobile tires and cigarettes and in
sculptures, utilized letters of the alphabet, ideas that predated
similar images by Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. Her first major work of
interwoven light and letters was Times Square Sky of 1962, but she
was dissatisfied because she thought the piece was too crowded. To
create a sense of breathing, she inserted neon light, and for the first
time, this material became an art medium.
From that time, she
was prolific and created many variations based on the letters W and A.
For her, a primary motivating factor was remaining cool or mentally
collected amidst the onslaught of bombarding information and to process
it through her creations in new ways so that nothing was repeated. She
set up her own work place in a vacant building and did much of her own
hard physical labor, although she did employ glass blowers and
foundries. A major effort was a piece titled The Gates of Times
Square. Timers were programmed to turn the lights on and off, and
black glass cases gave a sense of night. Her goal was to achieve a wide
range of emotions from fear to pure joy, and it is alleged that she was
not always cool or joyful with others when she was at work. Her
reputation has been that of a driving task master with results that
have brought her much acclaim.
In 1972, she was given a
one-person show at the Whitney Museum, one of many prestigious
one-person exhibition venues that included the Guggenheim Museum
(1961), Harvard University (1968), and the Musee de l'Art Moderne in
Jules and Nancy Heller, North American Women Artists of the 20th Century
Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein, American Women Artists
Chryssa (born Chryssa Mavromichali in 1933) comes from a famous and
once-powerful family from the Deep Mani. She herself has said, "I
do not come from a rich family [but from] a family with good education
(for example, one of my sisters studied medicine) and good exposure to
the creative arts": This sister, for instance, was a friend of Greek
poet and novelist Nikos Kazantzakis.
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Chryssa began painting
while she was still an adolescent, and on the advice of a leading art
critic in Greece, her family sent her to Paris to study at the Academie
de la Grande Chaumiere in 1953-54. She was barely twenty-one when she
sailed to New York. "I had an enormous curiosity about America and I
felt that it would be much easier in America to achieve a freedom of
expression rather than in European countries."
Chryssa, best known for her "Luminist" sculpture in brilliantly colored neon tubing, was born in Greece.
after her arrival in the early 1950's, Chryssa discovered the
neo-Byzantine world of Time Square and its lights. She also found
inspiration in the newspaper for which the Square is named. Her
Early "Newspaper" paintings and sculptures were innovative experiments
using typography, newsprint collages, metal molds, and alphabetical
forms in raised relief. The luminous mythology of Times Square,
its giant glowing and blinking signs and letters fascinated Chryssa.
The impact was overwhelming as she associated the dazzling imagery of
the Square's neon signs to the art of Byzantium. The references
she uses to indicate the breadth of her discovery are highly
significant. She said: "I saw Times Square with its light and
letters, and I realized it was as beautiful and difficult to do as
Japanese calligraphy... In Times Square the sky is like the gold of
Byzantine mosaics or icons. It comes and goes in the foreground
instead of remaining in the background."
These signs were ultimately transformed by the artist into her own
mysterious symbols and alphabetical elements expressing, as she put it,
the "Homeric wisdom" of the signs.
Chryssa's genius is expressed
in a variety of mediums, ranging from sensitive arrangements of
calligraphic elements in plaster and metal to the luminous, and equally
disciplined, neon works. Her work lifts the anthropology of our
world to its greatest height.
Chryssa has had individual and
collective exhibition shows at the Museum of Modern Art, The
Guggenheim, The Whitney -New York. Harvard University; Institute of
Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania; Carnegie Institute
among many others.
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