Artist to Know: Chryssa Vardea

Liz Catalano
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Millea Bros. Bring Sculptures and Sketches by Neon Art Pioneer

Known as an isolated yet brilliant artist, Chryssa Vardea built a career around light. She used a mononym and helped popularize neon art during the 1960s and 70s. Her works inspired the likes of Andy Warhol and set off an avalanche of light-based fine art in the 20th century. “Neon itself signified America and its technological advances,” art critic Barbara Rose wrote in Artforum about Chryssa’s chosen medium. “But there was a darker, dystopian Bladerunner feeling about the failure of technology to produce progress, which made Chryssa’s constructions both glamorous and ominous.”

Millea Bros. will present several pieces by Chryssa in an upcoming three-day auction. Bidding for Chryssa’s art, including two neon sculptures and several sketches, begins at 10:00 AM EDT on May 20th, 2021. Before the auction starts, learn more about Chryssa’s life and work.

Chryssa Vardea in her New York studio. Image from Cultural Ghosts.
Chryssa Vardea in her New York studio. Image from Cultural Ghosts.

Born in Athens in the early 1930s, Chryssa grew up during the Nazi occupation of Greece. She later started a career in social welfare, assisting earthquake victims while painting on her weekends and off-hours. Soon, her art caught the attention of a Greek critic. Chryssa followed the critic’s advice, gave up her career in public service, and moved to Paris to study art. She continued learning in California before settling in New York in the early 1950s. 

Chryssa found herself in an intensely foreign landscape. Abstract Expressionism rose while Chryssa experimented with paintings and sculptures. The neon blaze of Times Square and Chinatown particularly inspired her. Chryssa started gathering neon tubes to use in her sculptures, bringing the outdoors in. Many of her pieces used the Latin alphabet, Chinese characters, and Cyrillic script as a launch point. While Chryssa was not the first artist to use neon seriously in art, her perspective and timing drew the attention of the New York art world.

“For a brief moment before Pop took off,” writes Blake Gopnik, as quoted by ARTnews, “Chryssa was a rising star such as Warhol still had no hope of being.”

Chryssa Vardea, untitled neon sculpture, c. 1960. Image from Millea Bros.
Chryssa Vardea, untitled neon sculpture, c. 1960. Image from Millea Bros.

The upcoming Millea Bros. auction will present an untitled Chryssa sculpture made around 1960, shortly before her first solo exhibition at The Guggenheim. The mixed media piece features twists of neon scattered among painted wood fragments. Viewed from the front, each element looks like a simple rectangle. Closer inspection reveals rows of shapes that resemble the letters ‘Z’ and ‘N.’ This lot has an estimate of USD 8,000 to $12,000. 

Another available neon sculpture, executed around 1972, depicts a coiling line of yellow neon against a red background ($3,000 – $5,000). Both neon lots formerly belonged to Litsa Tsitsera, a New York electrical engineer who was one of Chryssa’s earliest and most enthusiastic patrons. 

The Pop Art movement eventually caught up to Chryssa. Bigger names overshadowed her early work, and she felt out of place in New York. Chryssa left the city in the 1990s following a rift with her art dealer. She then cut off ties with friends before opening a new studio in Athens. She died in 2013 after years of silence.

Chryssa Vardea, ABSTRACT. Image from Sotheby’s.
Chryssa Vardea, ABSTRACT. Image from Sotheby’s.

Chryssa’s auction prices lag behind many of her avant-garde contemporaries. However, her art became more popular after one of her aluminum sculptures sold for GBP 37,250 (USD 53,696) at Sotheby’s in 2010. While that hammer price was on the lower side of the presale estimate, it signaled a renewed interest in Chryssa’s neon sculptures and preparatory drawings. 

Her works started to regularly pass their auction estimates by the end of the decade. A plaster relief and plexiglass sculpture titled Mixed Red N’s sold for $13,750 at Clarke Auction in late 2019. One month later, Christie’s sold a 1985 pastel and charcoal drawing for $32,500 against a $6,000 high estimate. These results may promise more recognition for an oft-neglected artist. 

Two neon sculptures by Chryssa and several of her sketches will come to auction with Millea Bros. on May 20th, 2021, at 10:00 AM EDT. Find the complete catalog and register to bid on LiveAuctioneers.

Interested in more artist profiles? Auction Daily recently explored the career of Korean expressionist artist Choi Wook-kyung.

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