BetteBack March 3, 1975: Friends Commission Neon Portrait Of Midler

Ames Daily Tribune
March 3, 1975


NEW YORK (UPI) – Rudi Stern says neon has been getting a raw deal all these years. Behind all those beer signs lurk an art form.

Neon has been the captive of one industry, namely signage, said Stern at his lower Manhattan studio.  There s no reason for it to be captive to signage.

At his shop, called  Let There Be Neon, he is breaking the barriers that once relegated neon to tavern windows and rundown neighborhoods.

An offshoot is a workshop for those who want to decorate their apartments with neon sculpture.

At the back of the studio stands a life-size profile of a nude female in neon. To the right is a soft green palm tree, to the left a glass coffee table over the bluish glow of winding neon tubing.

We’re working on designs which would provide far more illumination than fluorescent and can be far more decorative, he said.

Stern said neon used to be highly visible..signs advertising the Packard automobile in 1923 in Los Angeles caused traffic jam s. At the end of World War II there were 5,000 shops. But that was in the 1940s.

There are now about 200. Of the 200 they probably have one glass bender coming in one day a week and the dust is three inches thick when he gets there. A glass bender molds the neon tubing into endless shapes.

Stern, 39, who has worked in light projections and video for 15 years, said sign companies helped bury the neon industry. They tell prospective customers neon is the  old look, and the future lies in incandescents.

The sign companies succeeded in putting out of business many of the neon shops that were very ingenius… that were able to combine the highest forms of art and technology in impressive ways.

So prices got higher and the quality of work diminished, he said.

Neon also caught the brunt of environmental complaints of visual pollution.

You take a picture of U.S. I, and the local newspaper will write about the neon jungle. People don’t know about neon, so neon is blamed. But any frame of that picture contains less than two per cent neon the rest is garbage.

But now, the neon revival is under way. Since his shop opened three years ago, Stern has done work for NBC-TV, Pierre Cardin and Bloomingdale’s.

Friends of singer Bette Midler had her portrait commissioned in neon, and the New York rock concert with Todd Rundgren was splashed with neon pieces.

Even old, dusty neon signs are bringing up to $100 from collectors.

And the neon workshop, which costs $300 for a 10-week course, has been a surprising success.

One thing I want to do is turn people onto the craft Stern said. So far his students, who include several architects and designers, have turned out neon mushrooms, a tomato and one energetic student constructed a three-piece neon work that will lower from the ceiling in his bedroom.

All of which catches some of the old style glass benders off guard. Stern said now and then they drop by the showroom to inspect the glowing art work and the signs, including some which sell for as high as $15,000.

They just look around in amazement, Stern said.  Some say You know, we always thought there was more to neon than a pizza sign.

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