CHRYSSA VARDEA MAVROMICHALI / dit: CHRYSSA (Greece, Athens b. 1933 / act: New York & Athens)
Chryssa was born Chryssa Vardea Mavromichali on 30 June 1933 in Athens, Greece. A Greek natural, Chryssa became a U.S. citizen and earned a reputation for her sculptured assemblages utilizing light from neon, and plexiglas combined with mixed media. For Chryssa's historic place in the milieu of Light Art, Sam Hunter claims that "Historically, Chryssa was actually the first artist to use direct emitted electric light and neon, rather than projected or screened light." [Sam Hunter 1974, p.11] Her 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.
Chryssa got her early education in Athens, and first studied to be a social worker. She was then sent by the Hellenic 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, Chryssa studied art with Angelos G. Prokopiou (1909-1967). Then she went to Paris, France, and studied briefly at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and associated with surrealists André 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 Times Square, New York City" (Heller & Heller 1995 p.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.
Chryssa 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 'A' and 'W'. In particular the 'S' letter form in her work originates in Euripides' tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis. She was inspired by Irene Pappas, in her role as Clytemnestra, twisting her body into a gesture of shock that led her to scream. Chryssa translates human anguish and grief into the art symbol of 'S'.
For Chryssa, a primary motivating factor is remaining cool or mentally collected amidst the onslaught of bombarding information and to process it through her creations in new ways so that nothing is repeated. She set up her own work place in a vacant building in Brooklyn and did much of her own hard physical labor, although she did employ glass blowers and foundries. A major effort was The Gates of Times Square (1964-1966), a monumental 3-D metal and neon sculpture that combines language, signs and visual aspects of the urban environment as inspired by New York's 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 pure joy to fear, 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. Untitled Light Sculpture (1980) is another notable assemblage 22 feet long, 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 presented personal the following personal exhibitions: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (1961); Museum of Modern Art, new York (1963); Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (1965); Pace Gallery, New York (1966, 1968); Department of Fine Arts, Harvard University, Massachusetts (1968); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (1968); Galerie Rive Droit, Paris (1968); Galerie Der Spiegel, Cologne (1969); Graphic Arts gallery, San Francisco (1970); Galleria d'Arte Contemporanea, Turin (1970); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1972); Musée d'Art Contemporain, Montréal (1974); Galerie Denise René, Paris (1974); André Emmerich Gallery, Zurich (1974); Musée de l'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris (1979); National Gallery - Alexandros Soutzos Museum, Athens (1980); Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo (1982); Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (1988, 1991); and Memories of Chinatown & Memories of American Cityscapes, Mihalarias Art, Athens (2010).
Chryssa continues to live and work in Athens.
[Megakles Rogakos 08/2010]
HUNTER, SAM Modern Art Series: Chryssa 1974 Harry N. Abrams, New York
RESTANY, PIERRE Chryssa 1977 Harry N. Abrams, New York [translated from French by John Shepley]
JULES HELLER & NANCY HELER North American Women Artists of the 20th Century 1995 Garland Publishing, New York
RUBINSTEIN, CHARLOTTE STREIFER American Women Artists: From the Indian to the Present 1982 Avon Books, New York
KOTZAMANI, MARIA Chryssa: Memories of Chinatown & Memories of American Cityscapes 2010 Mihalarias Art, Athens