Jeff Friedman was expecting a delivery on a Monday morning in August when a man sauntered into his Tribeca showroom holding three delicate glass tubes bent in the shape of letters. Friedman asked for each letter individually and put two down on the table in front of him while holding up a large, Art Deco-style “C” to inspect it. The letter was transparent save for a slight gray tinge to it, perhaps the result of being exposed to rain and smog for many years.
“This is neon from Radio City Music Hall,” Friedman told me. “There’s a slight crack somewhere, but we’ll find it and fix it. For a dollar, I’ll let you hold it.”
Friedman owns Let There Be Neon, an appointment-only neon showroom and factory on White Street that has been creating signs and artworks since 1972. Its brick walls are illuminated with signs, clocks, and artworks in a technicolor spectrum resembling a Coney Island WeWork space. Thousands of glass tubes coated with phosphorus are stored based on their width and color. In a small room in the back, fabricators melt and bend the glass according to intricate designs, pump neon gas into each tube, and test transistors to ensure the sculpture lights up.
The aesthetic suits Friedman, a Brooklyn native who met the shop’s founder, filmmaker and artist Rudi Stern, in 1977 and decided to leave Brooklyn College to take a job assembling and installing neon works. He hasn’t left since.
“There was an immediate creative connection and my life’s path had been set,” Friedman said.
Signs for retail stores largely paid the bills. But it also became an essential resource for painters, sculptors, and performance artists, thanks to Stern’s relationships with New York’s emerging new media art scene. Keith Haring relied on Let There Be Neon to electrify his motifs and create the sign for his Pop Shop. So did Laurie Anderson, whose 1983 violin performance employed one of the first portable battery-powered neon pieces ever created. Artists as diverse as Robert Rauschenberg, Nam June Paik, Dennis Oppenheim, Tracey Emin, and Yoko Ono relied on the studio’s expertise.
So did the rest of the public, especially New York’s bars and restaurants. Diners noshing at Union Square Cafe, shopping for lox at Russ & Daughters, or downing IPAs at Old Town Bar passed under the warm glow of Let There Be Neon’s lights emanating above their storefronts. Sometimes their creations end up in unexpected places. Broadway and movie theater marquees as well as SoulCycle studios are emblazoned with the shop’s work. They liven up the sets of The Sopranos, Broad City, and 30 Rock.
The common electrified thread through all these projects is Friedman. Since every job is unique, he seeks to bring an artistic sensibility and a professional touch to each order, whether it’s a simple “Bar” sign or an artist-designed infinity mirror that takes three months of labor. (Friedman’s shop also makes LED lights, but those are almost never used by artists.)
Not that Friedman ever gets starstruck dealing with his famous clients. “They get starstruck with me. All the time,” he said jokingly. “If people inquire to us directly, it’s because of our reputation or because they worked with somebody who worked with us before or their gallery referred them to us.”
Contemporary artist and muralist Steve “Espo” Powers had always known about the studio’s neon expertise, but he didn’t approach them until a sign for a Coney Island exhibition that another workshop made — a neon version of the word “CHARM” that blinkered to the word “HARM” — had glitches and shattered in transit. So he gave them the design and they remade it from scratch.
The process of making neon remains the same. Artists bring an initial sketch of their project to the studio, where Friedman and his staff create a shop drawing to help them fabricate the piece. The design process can go back and forth many times until the artist is satisfied.
Fabrication workers select glass tubes based on their color and width. Some glass is coated with phosphorus by the manufacturer, but vintage glass is already tinted. Then, workers place the tube in a three-foot-tall gas-powered welding machine that emits two rows of small flames at 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit before shaping the glass to conform to the pattern of the drawing.
“You tinker with it until it gets correct, then it cools down within a couple of seconds and you can no longer bend it,” Molly Rae, Let There Be Neon studio manager, said. “It takes a good 10 years of constant work to master until it becomes muscle memory.”
Once the glass is bent into shape, fabricators pump the tube with neon and argon gasses and seal it. They then add the transformer with wires attached to it that plug into a wall and test the piece to ensure that it lights up.
Determining the location of transformers can be daunting. Williamsburg artist Ivan Navarro first approached Let There Be Neon in 2005 because he liked Robert Rauschenberg’s neon bikes and wanted to do something similar with a free-standing chair. The seat, legs, armchair, and bag would each be a six-foot piece of neon, but Navarro had questions about how the transformers would be integrated without distracting from the design.
They ended up with two versions — one in white made for Gatson Gallery and one in black light that used vintage neon glass pieces that was shown in a pitch-black room in an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami.
Unfortunately, someone broke it almost immediately.
“The structure was very secure but we had a totally crazy accident,” Navarro said. “There was a museum group coming from somewhere in Texas and a person from the group felt very tired and sat on the chair but didn’t know it was going to break. [Let There Be Neon] remade it and a week later it was fully working.”
Some pieces can involve intricate designs that can take months to craft. For one of Navarro’s infinity chambers exhibited at the Armory Show, Friedman and his team made curved pink and turquoise neon tubes that they installed in front of a mirror.
Choosing the right color isn’t so simple either. Brooklyn artist Zoe Buckman, whose work grapples with womanhood and mortality, wanted to make a two-dimensional hourglass for her solo show but wasn’t sure which shade of white to use. Let There Be Neon illuminated several different white neon tubes on a wall so she could compare their hues in the light. For a uterus that had boxing gloves for ovaries, the shop offered fiery pinks. And she chose a “really aggressive bright white” for a neon chastity belt that hung from the ceiling.
“For the hourglass, I wanted that to draw you in and have that feel like home,” Buckman explained. “For the chastity belt, I wanted to repel you and have you think about the years of repression and physical discomfort women have experienced.” She wanted to work with neon for her series about the different life stages of being a woman and surviving a difficult pregnancy because the gas slowly depletes from its glass tubes after 60 to 70 years, mirroring our own mortality in a way.
“Neon made sense for that body of work, it’s a natural gas, it’s depleting, it’s a time capsule,” she said. “The gas won’t last forever, it will eventually run out. It’s not like a painting you can give to your grandchildren. I don’t think you can give a neon sign to your grandkids.”
Still, people have still tried to preserve them. Let There Be Neon restored the 1987 Silence = Death sculpture by the AIDS activist art collective Gran Fury for the New Museum (they fabricated the original too) and they fabricated original editions of Olafur Eliasson’s “The house that made up its vision as it walked” (2003). They also worked with the Guggenheim Museum to restore Richard Serra’s belts, and this fall they’re collaborating with the institution on an exhibition that has not yet been publicly announced.
The work most frequently involves making copies that the museum exhibits to the public while the original remains in storage. But they also replace glass tubes that break while they are shipped, add neon that has leaked out, and swap out transistors that don’t work.
“Neon is an ephemeral medium, so it needs to be totally replaced when a work is restored, and basically made new a lot of the time,” said Abby Lepold, senior registrar at the New Museum. “We usually have all the information and specifications to make the artwork, but because of the nature of neon, it doesn’t last forever, it can be remade, and it stays true to the artist’s vision.”
The hardest part of restoring a neon piece is getting the color’s hue to match the rest of the sculpture. Let There Be Neon has an extensive stock of vintage glass tubes, but colors fade in different ways depending on how they are stored and exhibited and even where they were made. (White is the hardest color to replicate because it can change based on slight differences in temperature, Friedman says.)
Sometimes artists don’t want their work to be fixed. Artist Tracey Emin specifies that any existing editions of her work be destroyed and documented if they are ever remade into other editions.
“She’s very particular about it, even if we have the same color, because a new piece will be slightly brighter than others,” Friedman said. “If you put a brand new tube next to the slightly older one, one will look slightly different, and her preference is to remake the entire piece for its color consistency.”
That consistency is everything, especially when a neon work illuminates the twilight above a neighborhood pub or shines in an otherwise empty room in a museum exhibition.
“It will never be relegated to the past. It’s just too cool looking,” Steve Powers said. “LED lights don’t do the same thing, It works like artificial intelligence. You think you’re getting the real thing but when you get up close to it you’re like, ‘ahh, it’s deception, I hate this, it’s terrible.’”