Triptych Image: Left Panel: Kelly Mark, "Nothing Is So Important That It Needs To Be Made In Six Foot Neon"; Middle Panel: "La Fonda Dancers"; Right Panel: HGs, "Freemon Street"
“What, in the end, makes advertisements so superior to criticism? Not what the moving red neon sign says — but the fiery pool reflecting it in the asphalt.”
— Walter Benjamin
BEHIND A PLYWOOD PARTITION in Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles, a neon light has flickered unseen since the Great Depression. Purchased by Clifford Clinton in 1935, the cafeteria is governed by “Clifton’s Golden Rule,” a precept that ensures that everyone who enters can eat, even those unable to pay in full. Clinton transformed what was formerly Boos Brothers’ Cafeteria into a space that reflects time he spent in the Santa Cruz mountains as a child. A cascade of water spills into a handmade stream that winds its way through plastic redwood trees; on the walls, numerous paintings of forest scenes lit by neon emphasize the idea and its artifice.
In 1949, one of these illuminated tableaus was obscured when the restroom that contained it was renovated and transformed into a storage area. The electricity, however, was never disconnected, and the neon tubing has glowed in the darkness for the past 62 years, costing Clifton’s a cumulative 17,000 thousand dollars in electricity bills.
Neon is an ostentatious element, which is what made it ideal for advertising. At the beginning of the 20th century, few other entities emitted such a charismatic glow. It recalled the molten metal of a forge, the sparks of gunpowder, and the phosphorescence of radium — but unlike these more dangerous illuminations, it was safely contained within a glass tube whose sole purpose was to capture one’s attention, to the exclusion of all else.
As Christoph Ribbat tells us in Flickering Light: A History of Neon, neon was almost immediately appropriated for marketing. Discovered at the end of the 19th century, neon (derived from the Greek for “new one”) had been ubiquitous in Europe since 1911, when Georges Claude, a French chemist, engineer, and entrepreneur, introduced the neon tube to Luna Park, a Parisian iteration of the original Coney Island amusement park. A year later Claude’s close friend, Jacques Fonseque, began promoting the use of neon for advertisements, and Claude patented a “non-corrosive electrode” that made neon tubes inexpensive to make and therefore widely accessible.
An able chemist in his own right, Claude piggybacked on the discoveries made by William Ramsay and his assistant Morris Travers in London in 1898. In the four years prior to the discovery of neon, Ramsay, with the help of Lord Rayleigh (John William Strutt), had discovered argon, helium, and krypton — all of which, like neon, are extracted from air and immune to chemical reaction — but it was neon whose effect was most impressive: “The blaze of crimson light from the tube told its own story,” Travers wrote of the discovery, “and it was a sight to dwell upon and never forget.”
Ramsay and Travers found the reaction interesting enough, but Claude, keenly influenced by th...read more