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 Vardea (Mavromichali) Chryssa  (1933 - 2013)

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Lived/Active: New York / Greece/France      Known for: neon luminous pop image sculpture, assemblage

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Vardea Chryssa
An example of work by Vardea (Mavromichali) Chryssa
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This 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.

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.

Then 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 controlled precision.

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 Paris.


Sources:
Jules and Nancy Heller, North American Women Artists of the 20th Century
Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein, American Women Artists

Biography from RoGallery.com:
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.

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.

Soon 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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