Peter Conrad celebrates a century of the medium that sells the raffish charms of America and has inspired film-makers and artists, from Hitchcock and Coppola to Bruce Nauman and Tracey Emin
Every night, on the corner beside my apartment in Greenwich Village, two words inflame or intoxicate the sky. One is red, the other green, so they imitate the universal code for stop and go, permission and prohibition. The green word, spelled out in thin letters arranged vertically like a fire-escape ladder, is WINES, though the acid colour suggests very unripe grapes. The red word, marching along horizontally with letters that are thicker and therefore seem louder, is LIQUORS; inside these blockish capitals, smaller yellow lines crackle like sparks.
The two words cohabit on a neon sign that advertises an establishment grandly known as Imperial Vintner, which in fact is an off-licence squeezed into a corridor. I've never been in the shop but I regard the sign as my beacon. It's thrillingly raffish to tell a taxi driver: "Pull up by the liquor store", as if this were the entry to some underground lair, accessible only to those possessing a password. Neon, writing its brazen enticements across the darkness and contributing its simmering hum to the uproar of the street, for me sums up the nocturnal romance of American cities.
What makes WINES and LIQUORS glow is a gas ? air chilled until it liquefies, then slowly reheated ? trapped in tubes and excited by electrodes. The tubes have been heated in advance and can be blown or twisted into any shape you please; a phosphorescent coating gives them an eerier, more spectral glare.
The technology has something magical and dangerous to it, because gas is another name for chaos. The etymology is the same: gas hints at the turbulence and instability of nature, with contending forces engaged in perpetual combat. The Belgian chemist Johannes Baptista van Helmont, who coined the word in the 1640s, thought that gas was a spirit, perhaps a demon. In an intermediate zone between solid and liquid, gas can make you laugh or lift you off the ground or concuss you or kill you, even though you can't see it. Studying carbon dioxide, van Helmont found that it was emitted by belches: like a neon sign, our digestive system is a long, curvaceous tube full of gases that breathe fire.
Along with helium, xenon and krypton, neon was first extracted from the air in the late 1890s. Sir William Ramsay and Morris Travers discovered a category of gases missing from the periodic table and the Greek names they assigned to these elements paid tribute to their occult source. Helium refers to the sun, in whose chromosphere it was traced; xenon means strange (as in xenophobia, which warns against foreigners); and krypton implies that the gas is cryptic, in need of decoding. Neon simply identifies something new, enigmatic and unclassifiable.
Unlike hydrogen and oxygen, these gases would not enter into combinations with other elements, which led to their being called noble gases: chemistry has its small snobberies and it's ironic that this low reactivity was taken to be a sign of aristocratic exclusiveness.
Neon is the gas that has happily leant itself to the most ignoble uses. All across America, it announces LIQUORS or EATS or GIRLS or yells XXXX!!! in the flushed red window of an adult video store that has PREVIEW BOOTHS for its patrons. It is seldom used to mark a museum or a library, although it is capable of using its palette of scorching, infernal colours to reprimand the vices that it otherwise encourages.
In the New York neighbourhood known as Hell's Kitchen, not far from the galactic glare of Times Square, there is a homeless shelter with a cruciform neon sign that terrorises its down-and-out customers by declaring SIN WILL FIND YOU OUT. The paint on the metal cross to which the warning is attached has turned leprous with age and the creaking threat hangs above the street like a multicoloured cadaver rotting on the gallows. Neon plays nasty games with us: it goads us to misbehave, then utters this kind of thunderous reproach.
Almost exactly a century ago, the French inventor Georges Claude first put the luminous tubes of gas to commercial use. Claude patented his system in November 1911, after showing off the results at the Paris motor show the previous December. He chose the occasion for his demonstration well. The new form of lighting, made possible by electrodes that went to work like an ignition switch turning on an engine, suited the cult of speedy modernity; when neon was first used in America in 1923, it marked the site of a Packard car dealership in automobile-addicted Los Angeles.
Although Claude was celebrated as "the French Edison", Thomas Edison's incandescent bulbs were meant for indoor use ? they were praised for their domestic mellowness, an advance beyond the wispy, sinister flicker of gas lamps ? whereas Claude's tubes carried light over longer distances and, when the glass was bent into all the letters of the alphabet, made it verbal or vocal. Electricity had already turned Broadway into "the Great White Way". Neon made that description seem anaemic: the journalist Meyer Berger renamed it "the Rainbow Ravine".
Cities such as New York were now able to banish darkness or to use it as a screen for the projection of slogans. In the 1920s, GK Chesterton shook his head at the kaleidoscope above Broadway, which had harnessed "the two most vivid and most mystical gifts of God, colour and fire" and used them to sell "everything from pork to pianos". Unable to forget the prophetic writing on the wall in the Bible, Chesterton found this writing on the sky sacrilegious.
In fact, looking back at photographs of Times Square in the heyday of neon, the spectacle seems tame, banal, laughably wholesome. Gillette touted its razor blades in ruby and turquoise, Pepsodent blazed as whitely as freshly polished dentures, Planters Peanuts promised that "A Bag A Day Gives You More Pep", and the collars of Arrow Shirts sang the praises of the buttoned-down life. What now look mildly sleazy are the neon signs advertising cigarettes, which back then were not thought to be toxic: a penguin on an ice floe smoked a mentholated Kool and a man who testified to the virtues of Camel ? SLOWER BURNING, as the torrid letters said ? puffed out smoke rings with the help of a giant bellows that stood in for his charred, poisoned lungs.
Today, LED panels on the sides of the new skyscrapers have transformed Times Square into a cataract of moving images with which the subdued radiance of neon cannot compete. Light-emitting diodes enable entire buildings to act as signs; more dazzling than daylight, they have no need to wait for sunset. With streets closed to cars and cafe tables set out for rubberneckers, Times Square has become an alfresco, interactive television studio. Passing through on a recent afternoon, I saw a gang of tourists on what used to be a traffic island madly waving at an apparition in mid-air: they were saluting a gigantic replica of themselves on a screen a dozen storeys above the street.
Neon has had to take refuge in dimmer, quieter corners of New York. But an antiquated technology is likely to become an object of sentimental regret, protected by those who balk at the pace of change. There is already a Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles, with the acronym Mona: at its previous location ? it's currently closed, awaiting new premises in Glendale ? its figurehead was a neon Mona Lisa, her smile reduced to two labial squiggles, her hair pyrotechnically exploding in an outburst of yellow, blue and hot pink strands.
Lacking any such institution, neon in New York has acquired a feisty champion in Kirsten Hively, an architect who since last year has been photographing the signs that still iridescently fizz and sizzle in Manhattan and the outer boroughs. She publishes her photographs, with fond anecdotal commentaries on each sign she adds to her inventory, on a witty, sassy blog at projectneon.tumblr.com. Her beguiling slogan, an invitation to fellow-travellers, is: "Follow a girl as she follows the glow".
Hively ? whom I met at a rowdy bar near Union Square, chosen, of course, because she loves the fuzzy conviviality of its neon sign ? is a fl�neur whose wanderings are a course of self-administered therapy. Her architectural career stalled after the financial collapse in 2008. She compromised by taking an office job that supplied her with health benefits and enabled her to keep her apartment, but required a new outlet for her creative energy and her ambition, the forces that propel all New Yorkers. "I needed," she said, "to find a reason to go on loving New York. And last year I was looking for something to get me through the depths of the winter, during all those blizzards."
Hively grew up in Alaska, which taught her to regard the months of depressive darkness as a psychological ordeal. She responded to the gloom by picking up her camera after she finished work and tramping through New York's snowdrifts and slushy bogs or slithering on its glassy, iced-sheeted sidewalks as she tracked down obscure neon signs. "My friends used to say, 'You're going out tonight? It's sub-zero!' I was always glad when I saw the sign for a pharmacy, because I could stock up on cough syrup. In Alaska, we don't stand around in the street with our feet in puddles like I did; we go everywhere in heated cars."
Like every other self-respecting New Yorker, Hively is a tireless and determined pedestrian. "I'm motivated," she told me: that's as good as being motorised. "I started just following a random trail; after a while, it got more systematic. If I saw some beautiful colours a block away, I'd head for whatever it was, then notice another sign a block further off. Before long, I was in neighbourhoods I would never go into on my own even during the day ? but if you have a purpose you don't think about being safe. A lot of the little stores that still have neon signs close early, so many times I'd see something wonderful up ahead and then by the time I'd trudged through the snow and got there, they'd have turned the sign off. Now it's August, it's sunny until late and I'm impatient because I want to see the neon. I must be the only person from Alaska who's really keen for the days to get shorter."
We waited until the arrival of what she calls "the gloaming", then set off on a neon-seeking ramble through SoHo, the Bowery and Alphabet City, the dodgy precinct east of First Avenue where the thoroughfares are identified by letters, not numbers. After a day of stifling humidity, it had begun to rain: imagine a sticky shower of sweat. But the oppressive atmosphere flattered the signs, which blurred in the pearly air and leaked reflections on to the slick streets, as if the gas inside them were turning moist all over again.
Hively is a connoisseur with an acute eye, eclectic sympathies and a few strict prejudices. "Yellow neon is kinda weird," she said with a sniff as we passed an Italian cake shop. "I don't like pink generally in life ? I mean, for clothes and stuff. But I love pink neon, especially when it's combined with lime green. Look how they've painted some of those tubes black so you won't see the connections between the letters. It's like kabuki, where you have actors pretending not to be there."
With Hively striding on ahead, I found a succession of treasures, all of them invisible by daylight. The Heartbreak Bar is a shadowy den in which you can doctor your misery with a drink: Hively pointed out that HEART and BREAK, both in bleeding red neon, were split apart at right angles on the street corner. She then led me to Katz's Deli, which advertises its salami and frankfurters inside a red neon map of the United States. "Beautiful apostrophe," I said, admiring the curly punctuation mark in Katz's name. "Ah, just wait," said Hively. "There's a great ampersand just up ahead." The logogram belongs in the neon sign in the window of Russ & Daughters, a family catering firm whose shop is known, because of its cured salmon, as "the Louvre of lox". Russ's "&" resembles a mermaid with a slippery green fin, and on either side of the salmon-pink subheading APPETIZERS two aquamarine neon fish frolic, diving towards the door as if anxious to be killed, sold and eaten.
Our tour concluded outside a Ukrainian church, with a Russian Orthodox cross jutting out from its facade and fastened by an onerous rusty chain. The crucifix is outlined in white neon, as cold as a corpse and as thin as a skeleton. "Don't you love the chain?" said Hively. "Maybe they think it's gonna fly away back to heaven. When I published my photo of this one on the blog, the priest or deacon or whatever emailed me to say he was glad I liked it. I get lots of feedback like that."
Her expeditions through the frozen streets have led to the convening of an online community that is not entirely virtual. Hively has overcome her shyness about soliciting donations for Project Neon and in her post about a restaurant called Lobster House she suggests, after descanting on the ingenuity of the neon crustacean's animated right claw, that fellow enthusiasts might consider buying her a beer or ? better yet ? a lobster. What began as a solitary pilgrimage has ended by creating a companionable forum where the city's eccentrics foregather.
Hively made me notice things in New York that I had always overlooked and started me thinking about homages to neon, in film and the other arts. No one is more responsive to its baleful commandments than Alfred Hitchcock, who read the messages written on the sky as prophecies of doom, like the curse inscribed by the disembodied hand at Belshazzar's feast. A neon sign, smeared by rain as if seen through tears, beckons Janet Leigh to her doom at the motel in Psycho. In Rope, two men murder a friend and stow his body in a chest in a corner of the room where they then play hosts at a cocktail party for his family and friends. Outside the window of their New York apartment, the separate letters of a neon sign for a warehouse, at first seen only partially and at odd, unintelligible angles, finally come together to utter a secret that none of the characters has guessed: the unheeded clue to the whereabouts of the corpse is STORAGE. And in Vertigo, in a cheap San Francisco hotel room, James Stewart makes love to a woman whom he thinks has arisen from the dead. They embrace in a luminous fog breathed out by the neon sign clamped to the window; green here is the colour of decay, the sickly exhalation from a tomb.
But neon is not necessarily so irate or morbid. In Francis Ford Coppola's One From the Heart, it saturates the air of Las Vegas with sensation. Colours pulse and throb, like blood beneath the skin. In a lingerie shop, a titillating pink sign blushes as it alludes to INTIMATE MOMENTS. Nastassja Kinski, playing a trapeze artist, visits the boneyard in the desert where junked neon signs that belonged to the casinos are sent to die. They all jerk back to life when she appears, glowing as they sketch silhouetted palm trees and fan dancers with feathered head-dresses; gas canisters abandoned in the sand are a sad reminder of the chemistry on which the illusion depends. "This is the garden of the Taj Mahal!" says Kinski, who climbs up a pylon, dodges high-tension wires and does a tightrope walk with sparklers in her hands, like an electrified fairy.
Neon always was an incitement to this kind of hedonism, which is perhaps why Tracey Emin, in her show at White Cube in 2009, thought of using it to confide the sodden regrets of the disillusioned morning after. Across the clinical white walls of the gallery, Emin scribbled a maudlin love note in pink neon tubes that looked like extracts from her tangled intestines: "Oh Christ I just wanted You/ to Fuck me/ And Then/ I Became Greedy, I wanted/ You to Love me". In response to a commission from David Cameron, she has been a little more discreet in creating a neon missive for Number 10. Her sign, installed above the door of the Terracotta Room, says: "MORE PASSION". Not good advice for politicians, I'd have thought, but the neon is incorrigibly excitable.
Neon is a medium for public pronouncements; Emin the exhibitionist made it broadcast a private confession. Jenny Holzer has done something braver and more altruistic, employing neon to denounce the commercial orgy of Times Square: her installation there during the 1980s re-educated the signs, curing them of their consumerism. "PROTECT ME," said a devout revolutionary prayer that blazed on the side of a skyscraper, "FROM WHAT I WANT."
Bruce Nauman's neon slogans manage to have it both ways. One of them advises us to RUN FROM FEAR, while a variant beneath tells us the opposite by reversing two letters: now it cheekily advises us to derive FUN FROM REAR. Three capitals, lit up one by one, first raunchily semaphore RAW, then reverse the order to bellow WAR. Nauman also makes mysteries materialise in neon. Coiled inside a red snailshell, blue letters testify that "the true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths". Or are those truths inflammatory lies? A blitz of words arranged like an asterisk or a hurtling asteroid flashes on and off, naming the impulses that drive us to follow the commands of the signs: HOPE DREAM DESIRE NEED. Nauman's small glossary sums up the reasons why, like Kirsten Hively, we follow the glow. God, creating nature, said: "Let there be light." But when darkness arrives in the city, the world belongs to the Devil and he spells out his temptations ? whether they're alcoholic, erotic or merely commercial ? in neon that gives off heat like the burning fiery furnace.