In the January–February 1972 issue of Art in America, then editor-in-chief Brian O’Doherty chronicled a road trip to Las Vegas, where he marveled at the city’s neon signs. “The signs,” he wrote, “exist between degenerated clichés reinvigorated by pragmatic feeling and a cogent visual etiquette . . . one that is able to converse visually with the people whose ideals of wealth and fun these signs symbolize.” More than forty years later, O’Doherty returned to Las Vegas, finding the entertainment capital transformed, and many of those dazzling signs exiled to the Boneyard of the Neon Museum, a repository for some of the city’s most iconic, yet discarded, emblems. We offer his original travelogue below. —Eds.
What do you look at when you’re driving? Everything enlarges and rushes by, except for one thing that is absolutely still, the point where the road converges in the distance—the vanishing point. The vanishing point never vanishes. But one knows it is disappearing and being renewed. It looks the same always, one knows it is always different. So it stands, literally, for a process, but a process disguised as paralysis.
So the vanishing point, no matter what is wiping past at 70 mph, is always there—stuck at the apex of that pyramid of road along which we measure passage by the clicking of the interrupted white line. That pyramid is collapsible into a triangle, a flat plane, as when one approaches a landing strip at night. So while the vanishing point is theoretically at infinity, it can hang inches away from the eye. It exists at a myopic infinity. Near and far are reversible because no middle distance frames them.
The highway continually urges these paradoxes on us. Its intention is to transport us (ambiguous verb), but it mocks that idea by reciprocal cancellations between what you know and what you see. Since evidence and survival are often in contradiction, one is forced to reinterpret one’s sensations. Under a smooth boredom our perceptual motor is kept busy. The high way is thus a bit like other situations of sensory deprivation—flight and space travel. Insufficient data continually prompt new conceptual fixes on a big nothing.
So traveling along the highway we are suspended between two vanishing points, one in front unraveling, one behind gobbling up. Things get big smaller, things get smaller, separated by an abruptly silenced rush. By all logic this vanishing point should be psychologically magnetized. When it’s not there, we are urged towards it. The missing vanishing point is a frustration. When it’s there, we can’t look at it for long, in fact develop ways of not looking at it. For the vanishing point is, through its masking of process, its paradoxes of motion and rest, a psychological hazard. It where we will be, and have been. We are constantly passing it.
Only then it is someone else’s vanishing point. We are constantly vanishing too, and recovering to find ourselves still there. Relapsing into attention, in advance of ourselves by increments, we begin to reenact a vigil. Failure is sleep, yet the situation suggests we drop off, as the road begins to uncoil in a dopey rhythm. The Vigil, like the Quest, is only one of the many nineteenth-century moralities translated into the modern highway, and there deprived of content.
So we avoid the vanishing point, just as we learn to disbelieve the mirages that evaporate like films of spilled water run backward. But if we aren’t looking at the vanishing point, what are the alternatives? The extreme alternative is at an angle of ninety degrees. Looking out the window of a train, the missing vanishing points tantalize, so we sometimes feel urged to press our heads against the glass to increase our quotas of before and after. In the back of a car the situation is some-what the same. Through the side window the landscape is shredded and layered like a cake. The window frames a sluice, in which “nature” or “city” or “walls” are homogenized. Sometimes there are glimpses of distant landscapes advancing with us, so that these recognizable distances are collaged on the chaos whipping by. In open country, sky, mountains, trees, houses ride by on an undecipherable base. The main gauge of distance is parallax, parts of the landscape sliding at different speeds, stage scenery in motion. Generally, however; the side view is abrupt, snatched, chaotic. Straight ahead is the vanishing point; to the side, environmental layer cake—a plane with no vanishing point whatever, only points of density and thinness in a millrace.
Obviously the place to which the eye most continually refers is what monitors the sense of motion—the tangential glance to the margins, where visual grass hopping reassures in a situation of unstable perceptual conditioning. Further reassurance comes from fixing on the cars dropping down the road ahead, nudging each other in their long plunge. Boredom is relieved by stealing up and dropping back, passing, threatening to pass teasing the car in the rear-view mirror, gobbling up the white line by a variety of placements. But it is the margins that throw things up and past, where spread on intermittently page by page in all its solicitous cunning is the alphabet and book of advertising. Here we are projected through the apotheosis of the vernacular, the image as word and the word as image, with all imaginable cross-fertilizations, linguistic compression, neologisms and krazy spelling.
The signs frequently idealize the machine, or bits of it that bears you past them—a transferred narcissism, since the car, like a suit of clothes, is part of one’s body image. There is almost a sensuality in recognizing outside Detroit the perfect wheel (all the signs idealize), ten stories high that perfectly fulfills its communal aim. Small size gives the illusion of an individualized experience; huge size the illusion of communal experience—a community whizzing by intermittently, more in time than space. The disk, burly, filleted, its ridges erect for traction threatens to spin as you pass under. As you approach from a distance it shrinks the landscape to an architect’s model. It is armored by its lack of irony. Such idealized perfection is a pole away from the detritus spun off by the highway system, the graveyard where cars are piled into a pyramid of models, styles, colors, durations. Between the giant tire and the graveyard, these two monuments to manufacture and consumption, are lightyears of highway usage, an irrelevant gap as wide as a thousand Americas.
Billboards and signs must present their information quickly within a system that leaves few options. What the highway anyway? Infinite length and slight breadth. The sign is vertical, but has as much length as one nick of the road’s white line. This flowing horizontal and the intermittent stunted vertical introduce us to a kind of grid. We have the endless to-and-fro and the rapid befores-and-afters of signs. All the dimensions operate, but there is a stand-off between inside and outside. Here is a potential architecture that never happens. As it builds up it collapses again. All that builds is a sense of surfaces—the surface of the road, the surface of the sign cutting across it. By virtue of passage, these surfaces slide into scattered but sustained dimension, a kind of reverse vanishing point, like an explosion. For the surfaces are impressed quickly in abrupt gestalts and plugs of information, with quick forgetting, repeated imprinting, and retrieval by repetition. The way the signs are placed in relation to the road is subject to clear laws and necessities.
Information must be separated from the surrounding landscape. This is done by raising it, without anthropomorphic bias of any kind. This raising up is the billboard equivalent of framing. And since it lacks any anthropomorphism, it often recalls some of modernist sculpture’s attempts to get rid of the base. David Smith’s sculpture, with its paragraphs, frontality and slim profile, often seems a sophisticated cousin to the sign’s vernacular. The Travel Lodge sign is formally sophisticated in a very informal way. It bends a curve out toward the highway, tops it with a rectangle (the informational box); on top of that three struts support another, larger box (the headline over the paragraph); on top again, the emblem, its supports projected up unreasonably. Between them, a red ball, a repeated motif in signs. Perhaps its roundness signifies the 360 degrees the sign, in its lateral compression, has abandoned. Or maybe it marks an end to upward progress, as a period marks the end of a sentence. One feels the sign could, like some movies (The President’s Analyst is the famous example), go on indefinitely in its own discursive way; it’s a kind of quasi-vernacular made by committee that keeps nattering away until somebody, for reasons unlikely to be esthetic, puts an end to it. This is the manner in which most orthodox strips assemble their signs, leading to the kind of surprises that Bay Area art affords, if you can get enough of a fix on the signs to prepare yourself to be surprised. In contrast, the great Las Vegas signs build up to inevitable conclusions based on some extraordinary and unspoken premises accepted by Ad Arts and Young Electric, the two great symbol brokers who design and build the signs.
On the highway, the farther the billboard is away from the road, the more it tends to parallel it, so that passing the billboard is an indecisive business; it slides in the direction you’re going. There is no one moment when it is abruptly out of sight. The sign seems to turn in your direction, implying a gliding convergence between road and sign. The billboard is often double-faced, so that you have a wedge, a variously angled V, the two faces of which are applied to two-way traffic. One Las Vegas sign reproduces the prototypical two-faced billboard on a heroic scale—an unusual occurrence since, as Robert Venturi points out, the Las Vegas signs represent not the prototype of the American sign, but its apotheosis. The sign is closer to the road than usual, indicating that traffic along this road—The Strip—is slower than usual—as indeed it is, since there’s a lot of reading to do. The Aladdin sign—an extraordinary anomaly anywhere—takes this wedge idea and brings it to an Art Nouveau conclusion, with the assistance of a daffy kineticism. The larger of the two wedges rotates from right to left, presenting its three faces in turn, relating the sign to intermittent neon and slatted flip-flops. Since the sign and the viewer are both in motion, something is going to be missed. The device only begins to work because of its special location—and isolation—on The Strip, where cars are going slow, sightseeing through a valley of the picturesque. When the sign is approached from the right, the information slides along with the car—so in this case the sign tends to be self-canceling, unless each face presents some self-contained information. When the sign is approached from the left (on the way out of town), the information turns over more quickly—so each face should contain sequential or related information. Studying the sign over a number of years, I have seen neither of these contradictory possibilities realized. Whoever programs or plays it is a poor journeyman fingering a Steinway grand. The idea, however, is sound—having three signs in one, each sequentially visible, telescopes three intervals into one place, rolling up the length of road three separate signs would take. And if it stood at an intersection, where there would be four approaches to the three faces instead of two, the sign would have a problem to which its solution might be deemed an inspiration. No trace of a missing intersection could be found in anybody’s memory, so the picture of the huge wedge rotating far above traffic lights for temporarily halted motorists dissolved. Aladdin is thus perhaps the most convincing example of the useless exfoliation of the sign in Las Vegas, though it provides endless fragments of interest. It is a gigantic and elaborate folly, like Guimard gone berserk. Compared to the logic the American sign, no matter how nutty, maintains, it has a European aspect, a certain smugness in its delirium. Which however is somewhat disarmed by the actual splendor of the sign when seen—it soars past that point in the scale where a mistake becomes monumental and a change in size changes category. When you stand under it, its parts are so splayed out against that delft-blue sky they have little reaction to each other. The overtrained eye briskly snips off bits of the sign in a kind of involuntary visual snobbery that is still a lot of fun. With pieces of Aladdin hauled into a gallery one could invent an artist worth marketing.
A more sophisticated adaptation of the Art Nouveau Tiffany-lamp idea is offered by the Flamingo sign, which successfully models the upward thrust of a pink stern bursting into flower, framed at the bottom by the informational rectangle. When night falls, the germination is actually indicated by the quicksilver rise of neon flute into the column, which overflows and spills on top, then is held for a while like an arrested firework, across which the Flair-pen script writes with nonchalant speed. The Flamingo is Las Vegas’ best example of the single-shaft support. Most of the others are supported by two columns— which opens the way to post-and-lintel arches.
Each of the great signs has a period flavor. Like symbolic lighthouses they guide the traveler into a safe conceptual harbor by plucking at his memories of glamour. Usually movie glamour. For The Strip is a posthumous child of Hollywood—it draws its emblems from a pool of fantasies and gathers each one into a single icon. Each sign is a frozen movie. Riding down The Strip changes one’s head from second to second to glide into fantasies that are codified to the last detail in each movie-set establishment; mentally you change costume with each sign, like an acid-head turning the pages of a kid’s travel book. Caesar’s Palace presses the toga-and-orgy button, Aladdin the pantaloon-and-cushion button; Flamingo the tropical-exotic button; Stardust the Busby Berkeley button. Stardust elevates a bunch of stars whose haphazard distribution will encourage us to think they have alighted from the sky. At night, when they twinkle like mad, this is more convincing. But the serious thought that has gone to elevating a lot of phony stars to carry a fragile emblematic message bespeaks a kind of energy that has, if not its own morality, at least its own code. And its own strict tactics of disclosure. As one approaches, each sign offers information according to an unvarying sequence. First the emblem and/or name, often fused, rises out of the road, setting a particular expectation; followed by the informational box giving headlines, then details in smaller print. The signs are honest. Kierkegaard says philosophy is like a man who brought his clothes to a shop where he saw a sign saying Clothes Pressed Here. But when he went in they said they didn’t press clothes, they only made the sign. The Las Vegas signs press your clothes, squeeze your fantasies, launder your wallet and your flesh, and poise your spirit for elevation or despair.
One of the Vegas signs’ glories occupies a fraction of a second between before and after, and because it isn’t meant to be looked at, gets no more attention than the least probable angle of David Smith’s sculptures. Except for the Caesar’s Palace sign, the sides of the sighs carry no information, simply declaring the stoutness of the structure needed to carry the sign aloft. So there an unnoticed store of stelae in Las Vegas, which rise straight as pencils, zoned with color and scooped with shadow. Seen as isolated slices, as huge man-made nonfunctional objects, they enter those precincts where a lot of smart art-world ideas are waiting for them. But seen live, the signs are splendidly dumb, without being rhetorical about it, and one is glad to cooperate.
Quite apart from its visual splendors, the silent zone shows the signs maintaining the integrity of the plane as if they’d been coached in modernist etiquette. From the front the information is flatly wiped across the eyes—and gone. With this difference. If you turn your head it looks as if the sign has turned itself completely around, for there is exactly the same information, reversed. This is the single most impressive esthetic event associated with the Las Vegas signs.
The two sides of, say, Stardust and Frontier look exactly the same; only somebody has switched the landscape. They are not mirror-imaged. If they were, the lettering on one side would read from right to left. The shape of the sign is exactly mirrored, but the writing is not. The words introduce a regular asymmetry. Passing up and down The Strip one develops an idea one is constantly breaking a plane, going through a mirror slightly flawed by this asymmetry. The signs’ zone between before and after marks a change in medium, in inviting kinesthetic echoes. Something happens to one’s physical baggage that one’s senses can’t quite pick up a molecular shudder that leaves everything the same but one way or another transforms substance and transposes parts.
What Las Vegas does to the body image is a large subject, and I won’t go into it beyond saying that there are a few systems of cues to release one’s habitual hold on one’s sensations, or at least interrupt them to delay one’s apprehension of oneself (e.g., constant indoor twilight, padding that cuts off auditory feedback, and mirrors everywhere, so that one’s body, or more properly, its reflection, becomes an essential and easily fable accessory like a briefcase.
When to this is added a highway full of mirrorlike situations, direction becomes a casualty. The signs, sticking up over everything else, announce and mediate though they can’t be trusted beyond their two-faced declaration of place. A system of gentle psychic (composed of symmetry. and asymmetry in before-and-after situations) slips one into spatial and temporal paradox.
The signs, then, invent within strict conditions, no matter how outlandish. The conditions in turn are dictated by the highway and by the needs they serve in projecting certain communal dreams. They follow a standard procedure in elevating their information, and the best signs do it with simplicity rather than razzamatazz. Their mimicking of some modernist sculpture is a coincidence arising from sculpture’s struggle to rid itself the base in a convincing non-anthropomorphic way.
The signs are very much one with the people who look them, not so much in the way they dress (Las Vegas gets a National Parks crowd rather than the sharp Miami set who dress like the signs), as in the way they speak. Las Vegas has its own language, arising partly out of the patois of gambling, but more a dialect (also spoken in Miami) of enjoyment arising out of the show-biz aura. dialect is not so much of a place as of a class, or rather a zone in the classless society. Full, like the space, abrupt elisions and shortcuts, the language is more slangy than vernacular, less connected to the morals we gladly recover from nineteenth-century weather vanes. Slang is usually built on a more cheesy base. The signs are both slangy and vernacular in that they combine the pedigree of the roadside sign with the epigrammatic gilding of Las Vegas talk. So the signs exist between degenerated clichés reinvigorated by pragmatic feeling and a cogent visual etiquette, not Amy Vanderbilt’s etiquette, but one that is able to converse visually with the people whose ideals of wealth and fun these signs symbolize. So they are a quasi-kind of vernacular that is hard to define, and the masterpieces of this uncertain zone. How uncertain can be seen by the way the signs, when they are written about at all, are taken out of context and dumped at the two extremes of camp and Pop phenomenology.
The signs’ immoderate size bespeaks an ambition that makes them man-made equivalents of nineteenth-century nature. In their way, they journey into the now well-trodden pastures of the sublime. Speaking of New York and Atlantic City movie theaters, Leger referred to a “chaos of the colossal to strike the imagination, to advertise, to do more than is done, the monstrous in the ‘too much.”’ He talked about how it stunned, attracted and trapped. “That is the goal of all this vertigo, which leads to disgust and to Beauty.” Thirty years later, the Las Vegas signs present not chaos, but a lucid, almost classic summary of it.