Returning to Las Vegas after more than four decades, Brian O’Doherty finds that enveloping new spectacles have replaced the gigantic signs he once praised in these pages.
TIME IS ODD everywhere, particularly in America, where a century can seem shunted into a decade. And time is especially odd in Las Vegas: held in suspension, elasticized, circadian rhythms canceled, a version of immortality promised, no tick-tock, just a smooth air flow in the desert.
Several centuries have passed since I regularly visited Las Vegas, then at its apogee, in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Walking the Strip you strolled through a man-made Monument Valley. The monuments? The towering signs, of course. They offered an ecstasy of neon with staccato blinks, timed cycles, fluid runs, sudden bursts, transient sheaths of fibrillating light, all semaphoring seductive messages for their palaces of chance: “Here you can make millions (or lose your shirt).” And the linguistic virtuosity! Words were clipped, stretched, and abruptly compressed. The signs delivered (and illustrated) their messages by punning on their shapes to invent their own concrete poetry from imagination’s font.
Those great signs are now gone. Like the giant mammals, they were too big to survive. The Strip’s successors—acromegalic hotels, ever larger—briskly and firmly write their names on their parent buildings in blocky, sans-serif type, identifiers only. The entertaining spectacle of the signs, which had their own aesthetic (even ethic) for presenting information are replaced by brilliant attempts to forestall a visit to Europe by reproducing its iconic treasures. Illustrating an ancient American inferiority complex, Europe signifies culture. That culture has been ransacked, appropriated, re-presented, translated, and put on offer, in a reflection of American innocence, without those ironies that would take away all the fun. Iconic cherry-picking? Here is the Eiffel Tower, now a very large toy. The Arc de Triomphe stands near a huge balloon adorned with a digital sign. Look at that pyramid, quite convincing. There is Venice’s St. Mark’s campanile. Nearby is an exact reproduction of a Paris street corner, quite atmospheric, these fakers are good. Somewhere, a child visiting Europe with his parents has no doubt exclaimed, “Gee, Mom, it’s just like Las Vegas!”
This is progress. Vegas’s once wicked edge has been blunted to allow a polymorphous circus to flourish, offering an amiable embrace, catering to families. Back in the age of the signs, acres of bare flesh were available in the grand hotels’ entertainment machines. The shows offered an operatic sense of luxury, climax, and excess (the eighteenth century was alive in Las Vegas). The flashiest costumes, the most ornamented Marie Antoinette hair, the longest legs, and the greatest voices of the era were all served in those distant days with a titillation of wickedness, a touch of danger, and an icy heart. Sex, once wafting in the atmosphere like an air freshener, has lost its musky edge. The bar girls who looked like vamps are now just girls roosting at the bar, not fantasies of themselves. Everyone looks just like themselves, however themselves may look.
Inside, the ceremonies of chance are conducted in a twilight, absorbing day and night. Silence is broken only by group exhalations after laden pauses, the cricket sound of the dice, a sudden flow of silver from a slot machine. The slot machines’ arms have been amputated—the mere touch of a button now sends apples, oranges, and plums spinning. The blackjack tables gather their shadowy crowds around bright oases of green, business conducted—as quasi-ritualistic occasions should be—in silence and suspense. What is the medium here, that which facilitates, transforms, but ever remains unchanged? Money, of course, which within this zone has more than monetary value: it has symbolic value. Money is the holy viaticum around which everything else revolves. But inside these palaces, money undergoes a strange metamorphosis. It becomes slippery, chipped, devalued, light to the fingers, only to resume its hard value back outside.
Indeed, inside and outside are primal divisions here. When the eye’s laggard cones and rods emerge from the inner dusk into bright daylight, the “reality” outside, in one of the many switches Vegas pulls on the compliant body, seems brittle, artificial, a somewhat depthless landscape.
The inside of the long-lived Caesar’s Palace (built 1966), a classic survivor delivering its own parody of classicism, still outstrips all its competitors but one (on which more later). Here the invitation is not only to gamble, but to shop. Window after window offers idealized lures. Magnetic elegance lives behind these panes of glass, suggesting you can become what you see. The aim is to stimulate desire, the preface to possession, though romanticized as the unattainable beyond the glass. Objects and jewelry become fetishes, often reflected in the ubiquitous mirrors that endlessly check your identity. These subtly lighted window displays (perfect mannequins wearing perfect clothes) are Vegas’s intimate stage sets, each an episode in a narrative of fascination, Boccaccio in America, talking to the strollers in their perpetual evening. The stunning invention evidenced here recalls the Christmas presentations at Bonwit Teller, perhaps the historic gold standard of window dressing.
Outside, what has the city done to delight in the absence of the great signs? It has constructed entertainments at a willfully naive level of boyhood (not girlhood) fantasy. In recent years, two pirate ships engaged, guns flashing, the sounds of battle rolling, on the artificial lake in front of the Treasure Island Hotel. There was a script which “actors” declaimed. There were pretty dancers, music, flashing lights, lots of rigging, smoke, a formidable spiral staircase, and, ultimately, fireworks. Did one ship sink? What is stunning is the amount of care, energy, and money that went into perfecting a mediocre show.[pq]American culture, as visitors have remarked for nearly two hundred years, is in rapid motion, trying to consume the future before it has occurred.[/pq]The famous volcano outside the Mirage is a daylight disappointment. It looks like an accumulation of discarded dirty pillows. At night, it vomits its savage, beastly flames. Impressive, I suppose, as fire always is. Some other outdoor sights are paralyzed artifacts: the huge MGM lion had a mildly cubistic makeover (for many years, visitors could enter the MGM Grand just below the lion’s mouth-where are you, Niki de Saint Phalle?); the great Luxor pyramid faithfully emanates Egyptian mystery.
An inside/outside site at one of the newer hotels offers, with your cocktails, a wide, unbroken sheet of water falling into a lake that never fills. (What are its dimensions? The ever so slightly warped space in Las Vegas does not encourage dimensional readings.) But the ultimate water experience is to be found in a majestic row of spouts and valves, cunningly timed, outside the Bellagio. An almost military drill (shadow of Busby Berkeley) marshals each of some forty units and gives them a dynamism of great imagination and mobility. The jets spray out brief curtains forward, backward, sideways, but variations in pressure make the jets undulate like whips being cracked. And when one stream marries the vertical jet next door, the two interweave and undulate together, producing a long row of shimmying water dancers that are among Vegas’s finest moments. Wait until the sequence is completed. Then, with the second and third repetition, its program deciphered, the surprise, as it does with mechanical things, evaporates. After the first enactment, miracles have a limited sell-by date.
But the winner (in terms of creating a totally convincing artificial environment and thereby licensing every imaginative excursion) among all of Las Vegas’s extravaganzas is the Venetian Hotel, an extraordinary amalgam of pastiche with a magnificent hallway à la Versailles, enlarged Caravaggesque images (well painted) on many walls, one excellent restaurant among the semi-ethnic feeding sites, and an artificial lake-river, with gondoliers poling along their gondolas (which Byron compared to a coffin clasped in a canoe). Do not forget the excellent replica of the Doge’s palace.
What crowns this fantasy of appropriation is the stunning fulfillment of Vegas’s not so subconscious dream—the ultimate control of night and day in an adjusted climate, under a perfectly false (painted) blue sky, to be darkened at will. In this Fuller-like bubble, the gamblers, the eaters, the camera clickers, the strollers all swim through a thickened, sweetened air, slightly slowed as they populate the miracle of outdoors indoors. The sky darkens, lightens, stimulating the body. The faithful corpus makes its unconscious adjustment inside this vast, warm stomach—Vegas’s full-body massage. When one returns to the real world outside, it does not offer reassurance; instead, one perceives it with a degree of suspicion.
HOW IS TIME marked in historic Las Vegas? One way is to record the departure schedule of the big mastodons, the giant signs. For decades they appeared to be doing their duty well—announcing place, elevating a message board, inventing a symbol. Yet between the dates they were first erected and the dates they were wrecked, something in Las Vegas changed. Part of the reason (which must be somewhere among de Tocqueville’s durable insights) is American impatience with the new when it ceases to be new, a habit (perceptual fatigue?) visible in every major American city. If you break something in the United States, don’t try to fix it. Get a new one.
The first great sign, for the Sands, a relatively modest concoction, went up in the 1950s and came down some time in the 1980s. Most of the great signs were erected during the 1960s, as each new hotel/casino tried to outstrip the last. This brief period, golden as the 1440s in Florence, was the optimistic height of Las Vegas sign building. The sky was literally the limit; creativity was in full flood. Las Vegas, an outpost of Los Angeles in the 1940s and ’50s, defined itself through—it sounds absurd—monumental signage. The crowds and cars cruised the Strip, the Valley of the Signs. By implicit consensus, the Stardust (1968–2007) was the king of signs. Markers for the Flamingo, the Frontier, the Aladdin (home of the most complex of the old signs) were in their own way (i.e., how they articulated their message) magnificent. Yet one by one, down they came, generally after a life span of around thirty or forty years. The Frontier lasted until 2007. The Castaways came down in 2006. The Flamingo, the most elegant of the signs, is still there but deprived of neon.
Unlike the soundless fall of the great oak in the forest, the Stardust’s fall, in 2007, reverberated. Remarkably, this destruction, like that of Penn Station in New York, stirred preservation instincts, particularly in the local Allied Arts Council. Even as it was coming down, its fragments splashed into a pool of regret. The owners of the property donated the broken corpse to a small start-up institution, called by the rather grisly name of the Boneyard. And thus began one of the great professional acts of retrieval and restoration of memory in American culture. The Boneyard houses the main collection of what is now called the Neon Museum, founded in 1996. The museum, a scholarly public institution, has tracked down, acquired, and preserved many of the signs, or what remains of them, documenting their provenance. In a brilliant coup, the museum closed an amazing circle by returning some of the signs—or pieces of them—to downtown Las Vegas.
To visit the Neon Museum and Boneyard, a two-acre open space, is to enter a living archive of dead signs. It is one of the most extraordinary museums in the world. Physically, it looks like a dump, for the accumulation of signage detritus outstrips the museum’s capacity to display and catalogue its holdings (though one important book has been published). The remains recall Shelley’s “Ozymandias” in the desert. There is the Stardust galaxy resting on its side. There is a fragment of the Frontier logo. Here, Aladdin’s lamp. The amount of material is vast; the visitor is guided along wide avenues between eight-foot-high walls of accumulated signage, through a maze of pathways that can, if you wish to display your sophistication, recall the Hampton Court labyrinth and other European complexities. The erudite guide keeps up a commentary on the history of each sign, the eccentricities of the casino owners, the vagaries of the excessively wealthy, the hints of criminal menace, and the sheer fun of creating a new vernacular art which, with loving devotion, is encouraged to transcend itself and become—what? Art-like certainly. A form of public address, an aesthetic experience by immersion in a past era in which nostalgia, Eliot’s “unearned emotion,” is redefined in terms of Burkean awe.
Why did the signs come down? Partly because advances in technology made neon somewhat déclassé. But they had done their job superbly and were wonderfully crafted. They induced awe, prompted a kind of bemused fascination, and did their advertising duties efficiently and uncomplainingly. With the exception of great buildings like the Chrysler in New York, America’s monuments don’t hang around to admire themselves. American culture, as visitors have remarked for nearly two hundred years, is in rapid motion, trying to consume the future before it has occurred. But the main reason for the signs’ removal en masse was more banal. As always, follow the money. The Stardust sign came down because its parent casino realized—apparently rather suddenly—that it occupied some fairly extensive real estate. Why not take down the sign-and build? Building is an irresistible impulse in Las Vegas. You can count time by the generations of hotels that succeed each other. Las Vegas needs to reinvent itself every decade with new enticements. There were plans. A venture called Echelon—another casino?—was to rise on the Stardust’s big footprint. Today the plot is still bare—though an Asian developer reportedly has plans.
The not-so-hidden subtext of this interrupted remake of large parts of Las Vegas is easy to track. The existential question “Why is Las Vegas?” can be answered by any six-year-old: money is Las Vegas’s raison d’être. The casinos need people inside. That is why Las Vegas exists. Outside is a foreign country. The signs didn’t bring people in. They declared; they did not invite. So in a move from the vertical to the horizontal, from the sky to the pedestrian and the automobile, the signs were succeeded by the era of cantilevered entrances that, with a skill worthy of architect Morris Lapidus, the laureate of sophisticated narcissism and comfort, flatter visitors and invite them indoors.
So what do visitors to the Neon Museum feel? They may well understand an experience reported by those nineteenth-century artists, particularly German and American, who tramped the marble wreckage of the Roman Forum seeking to register vibes from the imperial past, frequently in a stew of nostalgia for a remote age they were now experiencing by proxy. The experience of the Boneyard may not be the equivalent of meditating on the ruins of Rome. But it is a particularly American experience that speaks to the compression of time here.
Contemplations of recent history in the US, whether of baseball statistics or Vegas’s dead signs, are reminders of mortality. They carry precise meanings related to history, to the past carefully reimagined, and to what passes for a theology of consumption and decay, and a version of resurrection. Of resurrection? Decidedly. For, the Neon Museum has returned some of its holdings to their previous sites. When the scintillating Silver Slipper from the casino of the same name tiptoed back downtown, rising on a Las Vegas Boulevard median, a brilliant—and invisible—transformation had changed its essence. Once merely a relic, it has returned to the public gaze not as a mnemonic for a casino, but as a full-fledged artwork in its own right. For the Neon Museum has not just preserved it. In a strange alchemy, in which reciprocal paradoxes abound, it bestowed on it a status it never had before.
Brian O’Doherty is a writer and artist who served as editor of Art in America from 1971 to 1974.