If ever art and commerce didn't mix, it was in Rudi Stern's guise.
This isn't a bad thing. This is a beautiful thing.
Consider how many of us in our little sign industry owe our livelihood to him. Some of us know it; some of us won't admit it, and most of us are just clueless.
I hope the latter will read this tribute to our friend.
When I started working at Let There Be Neon in 1977, I had no idea what the future held. A mutual friend said, "Just come in for an interview." Little did I know how drastically it would change my life.
You can't imagine the bewilderment, curiosity and amazement visitors feel when they initially walk into the Let There Be Neon gallery. They gradually realize the only light amongst the "caves" is neon light, whatever that is. The peculiar shapes of these neon lights and the caves soon appear. Eventually, you turn around to the caves, the nooks and crannies, and notice their ubiquity. By the way, the stucco caves existed, contrary to popular belief, pre-Rudi. The perfect fit!
It was 451 West Broadway, off the corner of Prince St. The heart of Soho . . . yet Soho was in its infancy. Still filled with paper mills; little, Italian, neighborhood delis; smoky, blue-collar bars; and the staple manufacturer directly across the street (yes, an actual staples manufacturer, not Staples). All personality would soon be replaced by high-end fashion and $25 sandwiches.
Rudi and Charles Schwartz founded Let There Be Neon in October 1972. Charles stayed on only briefly. It was always Rudi's baby.
He was fascinated by the flowing lines of light and intrigued by their possibilities. He truly appreciated the craftsmen who, at the time, represented neon's final breath.
Rudi, through Let There Be Neon, changed that.
His appreciation of the craft as art, and the art being used in the craft, exemplified his brilliance. Rudi could always spot untapped talent. In Let There Be Neon's early days, Rudi provided young artists with their own neon palettes.
The original neon parrot, neon flamingo, neon Fender guitar, etc., were all designed perfectly by Phil Hazard, Tracey Kirshenbaum, John Barker, Rocky Pinciotti and many other recently graduated art students. No computers, no Adobe Illustrator or Flexisign programs. Just an old, opaque projector, #2 pencils and barrows paper!
Primarily, Rudi allowed artists to create. Even those in sales or fabrication were always encouraged to do something in neon and take advantage of what the studio had to offer — and yes, we'll sell anything!
When you see bastardized neon palm trees, and cactuses in malls and on beer signs, remember, they wouldn't exist had Rudi not laid the groundwork. We still hear, "I understand neon is making a comeback." Oh, if we only had an electrode every time we heard that one!
He brought neon out of the bars and into the home. He gave lighting designers and architects a new tool. He opened up the gallery to glass artists Paul Seide, Brian Coleman and Mundy Hepburn. He gave a platform to the young student David Ablon (now with Tecnolux, Brooklyn, NY).
From France, he brought over Denis Lambert, a top student in a Parisian trade school. Denis stayed for many years and became an accomplished "American style" glass bender. He now teaches the neon course at the Parisian school.
Most importantly, he brought all these diverse groups together. We're all still friends who share a common bond because of Rudi.
Rudi searched the globe for "rare color" glass tubes that Corning and GE quit manufacturing. He bought up old stock from shops going out of business to get all the ruby and noviol glass he could find. We still have tons of uranium glass in the basement rack, along with black blockout glass and old Voltarc candy-striped glass. He found awful materials in Germany and Taiwan, and shipped them in at great expense, but he had his Ruby Red and Bromo Blue again.
He then watched as other, more-established companies benefited from having brought back these colors to a once-again growing and vibrant industry.
Rudi had a crazy notion once, to cut a hole in the middle of the gallery, and insert a plate-glass window into the floor. He wanted people to see our great glass bender, Eddie Johnson, working, sculpting and pumping the glass, down below in the basement. This seemed to be a great and brilliant theatrical concept, until we reminded Rudi that people would also see Eddie pick his nose and scratch himself, which might offend suburban housewives who streamed off chartered buses into the hip, Soho streets and into the gallery.
Many other more artistically and financially successful people, before and after Rudi and Let There Be Neon, have expressed themselves in neon. There's Bruce Nauman and Nam June Paik, Stephen Antonakis and Doug Wheeler, all of whom combined their art into profitable careers. Tracey Emin, Olafur Eliasson and a host of other contemporary artists found new and bold ways to use the beauty of the "continuous, kinetic, flowing and glowing light."
Rudi couldn't profit financially from his ideas. His artistic devil battled his practical angel. The dichotomy caused the intensity, and he couldn't create without it. This was his true success.
He always shared his limelight. Look through The New Let There Be Neon and Contemporary Neon. They're filled with other people's work, and very little of his and Let There Be Neon's.
He always encouraged me, after he left Let There Be Neon, to "let the people create" and "find out what they'd like to do, find out what they're interested in doing with neon and let them do it."
Rudi wasn't a glass bender; he wasn't a designer — hell, he could barely sketch — but he had vision and an articulate manipulating process to make it real.
Let There Be Neon now moves forward and adapts to industry changes; we all have to. After Rudi left to pursue film and light-projection performances again, we would discuss current projects, and he would cringe every time I told him we were using vinyl instead of handpainting and airbrushing, or computer plotting our layouts.
If he were listening now, I would assure him the thread of his vision continues to weave its way into every project we touch. We'll always insist on remaining slightly off center, and remain the go-to studio our clients are drawn to, for thinking outside of the box.
That was the beauty of our friend. There never was any box to begin with.
We all shall miss him very, very much.
Jeff Friedman is the current proprietor of the Let There Be Neon Galley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.