From his obituary in the NYTimes August 18, 2006
Rudi Stern, a multimedia artist who spent decades bending light to his will in the service of both art and commerce — from the psychedelic shows he created for Timothy Leary to the vibrant neon in Studio 54 — died on Tuesday in Cadiz, Spain. He was 69 and had made his home in Cadiz in recent years.
Mr. Stern was a modern-day illuminator, his chosen medium light itself. In the 1960’s, he was known for his avant-garde light shows and was also an early advocate of video art. In the 1970’s, he was widely credited with reviving the dying craft of neon. Over the years, he designed lighting for theater and opera, for television and films, and for rock groups like the Byrds and the Doors.
Most recently, Mr. Stern was known for the multimedia installation “Theater of Light,” which was shown at various locations in New York and New Jersey between 1999 and 2001. Involving multiple screens, thousands of painted glass slides and more than 30 projectors, “Theater of Light” surrounded audience members with densely layered, constantly changing images, intricately choreographed to music.
Writing in The New York Times in 2001, Anita Gates reviewed a performance at the Flamboyán Theater in Lower Manhattan.
“What you see on 2,000 or so slides hand-painted by Mr. Stern is probably as subjective as a Rorschach test,” she wrote. “There are, among other things, geometric patterns, faces on tabloid covers, windowpanes that turn into a skyline, an egg that turns into a street map, a red spider web that weaves itself into batik, lush foliage in jungle colors, royal purple fabric with gorgeous gold thread and the surface of Jupiter as Keir Dullea saw it in ‘2001.’ Or at least that’s what I saw.”
But it was for his work in neon that Mr. Stern was most widely known. He designed signs for Broadway shows, including “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” and installations for performance artists like Laurie Anderson and Nam June Paik. There was also Mr. Stern’s bread and butter, the innumerable renditions of PIZZA, BEER and EAT AT JOE’S that hung in ordinary establishments across the country.
He dreamed of setting the world ablaze. “I have plans for neon pavements, neon highways, neon tunnels; neon on bridges, under water, outlining trees in parks,” Mr. Stern told Omni magazine in 1981.
Rudolph George Stern was born in New Haven on Nov. 30, 1936. As a young man, he trained as a painter, studying with the noted artists Hans Hoffman and Oskar Kokoschka. He earned a bachelor’s degree in studio arts from Bard College in 1958 and a master’s from the University of Iowa in 1960.
After settling in Manhattan in the mid-60’s, Mr. Stern met Jackie Cassen, an artist who worked in light. For the next several years, they collaborated on luminous kinetic installations, including “psychedelic celebrations” for Timothy Leary, the noted evangelist for LSD.
In 1969, Mr. Stern and several colleagues founded Global Village, an experimental video center and performance space in Manhattan. Around this time, he developed a passion for old neon signs, and soon his loft was abuzz with sputtering tubes.
At the time, neon was moribund. First used commercially in France in the early 20th century, neon came to the United States in 1923. It swept the country in the 1930’s, after the repeal of Prohibition, when garish signs advertising cocktails seemed like a magnificent idea. But after World War II, as neon signs were replaced increasingly by fluorescent-lighted plastic, the art of bending colored tubes into sinuous, gas-filled forms began to wane.
At Let There Be Neon, originally in SoHo and today on White Street in TriBeCa, artisans have produced everything from architectural installations to outdoor sculpture to fanciful neon castles that can be dropped, apparently without incident, into fish tanks. (“Neon’s good for fish,” Mr. Stern told The Times in 1979. “It makes them grow.”)
In recent years, Mr. Stern concentrated primarily on documentary filmmaking. His films include “Haiti: Killing the Dream” (1992), which he directed with Katharine Kean. He wrote several books, among them "Let There Be Neon” (Abrams, 1979) and its sequel, “The New Let There Be Neon” (Abrams, 1988).
Mr. Stern’s first marriage, to Moira North, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Raffaella Trivi, and their daughter, Stella, both of Cadiz. He is also survived by a daughter from an early relationship, who declined to give her last name or hometown, Mr. Friedman said. Her given name is Lumiere, the French word for light.