Chryssa Vardea-Mavromichali (Greek: Χρύσα Βαρδέα-Μαυρομιχάλη; December 31, 1933 – December 23, 2013) was a Greek American artist who worked in a wide variety of media. An American art pioneer in light art and luminist sculpture widely known for her neon, steel, aluminum and acrylic glass installations, she has always used the mononym Chryssa professionally. She worked from the mid-1950s in New York City studios and worked after 1992 in the studio she established in Neos Kosmos, Athens, Greece.
Chryssa was born in Athens into the famous Mavromichalis family from the Deep Mani. Her family, while not rich, was educated and cultured; one of her sisters, who studied medicine, was a friend of the poet and novelist Nikos Kazantzakis.
Chryssa began painting throughout her teenage years and additionally studied to be a social worker. In 1953, on the advice of "a leading art critic in Greece," her family sent her to Paris to study at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière where André Breton, Edgard Varèse, and Max Ernst were among her associates and Alberto Giacometti was a visiting professor.
In 1954, at age twenty-one, Chryssa sailed for the United States, arrived in New York, and went to San Francisco, California to study at the California School of Fine Arts. Returning to New York in 1955, she became a United States citizen and established a studio in the city.
Then at the age of 79, Chryssa died of heart-related problems, in Athens, Greece, on December 23, 2013.
Major works and milestones
Chryssa's first major work was The Cycladic Books, a series of plaster reliefs which the French art critic Pierre Restany described as having produced "the purified and stylized geometric relief which is characteristic of Cycladic sculpture." According to the American art historian and critic Barbara Rose, The Cycladic Books preceded American minimalism by seventeen years.
Arrow: Homage to Times Square is a large 8 ft by 8 ft (2.4 m) work in painted cast aluminum. In a 2005 interview in Vouliagmeni, Chryssa said of this work: "I only ever kept one work for more than 15 years in my studio, "The Arrow" – it is now in Albany, in the Rockefeller Collection."
Chryssa's work was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in curator Dorothy Canning Miller's Americans 1963 exhibition. The artists who were represented in the show additionally included Richard Anuszkiewicz, Lee Bontecou, Robert Indiana, Richard Lindner, Marisol, Claes Oldenburg, Ad Reinhardt, James Rosenquist, and others.
The Gates to Times Square, regarded as "one of the most important American sculptures of all time" and "a thrilling homage to the living American culture of advertising and mass communications," is a 10 ft cube installation of two huge letter As through which visitors might walk into "a gleaming block of stainless steel and Plexiglas that seems to quiver in the play of pale blue neon light" which is controlled by programmed timers. First shown in Manhattan's Pace Gallery, it was given to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York in 1972.
Clytemnestra is in the Corcoran Gallery of Art collection in Washington, D.C. It is based on the anguish of Clytemnestra, upon learning that her daughter would be sacrificed by Agamemnon, as portrayed by Chryssa's friend Irene Papas in the Michael Cacoyannis production of Iphigeneia at Aulis on Broadway. This work, or another version of it, has additionally been installed outside the Megaron Concert Hall (compare megaron) in Athens.
Chryssa's 70 ft (21 m) Untitled Light Sculpture, six large Ws connected by cables and programmed electronically to create changing patterns of light through 900 feet of neon tubing, is suspended in the atrium of 33 West Monroe, a Skidmore, Owings & Merrill design and its former headquarters, in Chicago, Illinois.
Chryssa 60/90 retrospective exhibition in Athens in the Mihalarias Art Center. After her long absence from Greece, a major exhibition including large aluminium sculptures - cityscapes, "neon boxes" from the Gates to the Times Square, paintings, drawings etc. was held in Athens.
In 1992, after closing her SoHo studio, which art dealer Leo Castelli had described as "one of the loveliest in the world," Chryssa returned to Greece. She found a derelict cinema which had become a storeroom stacked with abandoned school desks and chairs, behind the old Fix Brewery near the city centre in Neos Kosmos, Athens. Using the desks to construct enormous benches, she converted the space into a studio for working on designs and aluminum composite honeycomb sculptures. The Athens National Museum of Contemporary Art, which was founded in 2000 and owns Chryssa's Cycladic Books, is in the process of converting the Fix Brewery into its permanent premises.
Chryssa presents her paintings at the Mihalarias Art Center.
A partial listing of monographs on Chryssa's work:
- 1968: Diane Waldman. Chryssa: Selected Works 1955–1967. New York: Pace Gallery (48 pp.) ISBN 0-938608-21-5.
- 1974: Sam Hunter. Chryssa. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (76 pp.) ISBN 0-500-22018-2.
- 1977: Pierre Restany. Chryssa. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (274 pp.) ISBN 0-8109-0366-0.
- 1983: Douglas Schultz. Chryssa: Urban Icons. Buffalo: Albright-Knox (170 pp.) ISBN 0-914782-47-9.
- 1990: Douglas Schultz. Chryssa: Cityscapes. London: Thames & Hudson (162 pp.) ISBN 0-500-09209-5.
Exhibitions and collections
- 1961: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
- 1965: Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia
- 1968: Harvard University
- 1972: Whitney Museum of American Art
- 1979: Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
- 1961: Le Nouveau Réalisme à Paris et à New York, Galerie Rive Droite, Paris, June 1961
- 1963: Museum of Modern Art
- 1977: Documenta '77 in Kassel
- 1991: Princeton University Art Museum
- 1997: Leo Castelli Gallery
- 2000: European Cultural Center of Delphi
- 2003: European Cultural Center of Delphi
- 2005: European Cultural Center of Delphi
- 2007: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- Albright-Knox Art Gallery
- Boca Raton Museum of Art
- Corcoran Gallery of Art
- Empire State Plaza
- Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki
- Museum of Modern Art
- National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens
- Walker Art Center
- Whitney Museum of American Art
Additional exhibitions and collections are listed by the Artforum Culture Foundation, AskART.com, and additional sources.