STANFORD, Calif. — Manuel Neri: Assertion of the Figure, on view at the Anderson Collection at Stanford University through February 12, 2018, offers up a choice selection of sculptures in plaster, marble, and bronze, and also works on paper by Manuel Neri, the 87 year-old dean of Bay Area figurative sculptors. Inspired by a gift from the Manuel Neri Trust to the Anderson Collection of three sculptural works and eight works on paper and supplemented by loans and a work already in the Anderson Collection, the exhibition demonstrates how the artist has engaged the human figure — most often female — as an expressive vehicle across time and media.
Neri’s first experiments with sculpture came after his army service during the Korean War. While attending the California School of the Fine Arts (CSFA) (now the San Francisco Art Institute) on the GI Bill, one of his instructors, Richard Diebenkorn, suggested to the young painter and ceramicist that he give sculpture a try. In his debut exhibition in 1956, Neri exhibited life-sized plaster and cardboard figures alongside mixed media and assembled sculptures made from cast off materials including wire, cardboard, wood, and scraps of his army fatigues.
In the years that followed, plaster figures built over metal armatures became Neri’s trademark. The earliest works in Assertion of the Figure are an “Untitled” 1958 male/female duo in painted plaster that have been placed at the top of the Anderson Collection’s grand staircase. Armless and headless — like broken, ancient idols —and slathered with wide strokes of red, yellow, blue, and ochre enamel, they share a stylistic kinship with nearby Abstract Expressionist canvases by Clyfford Still, Frank Lobdell, and Joan Mitchell. Already apparent in these early works is a kind of dualism: they reference classical forms while also radiating contemporary anxiety and subjectivity.
When Neri first adopted it, plaster was widely regarded as a second-rate material suitable only for maquettes and lamp bases, but he quickly seized on it’s quick-setting properties and receptivity to common tools. In 1998, on the occasion of an exhibition of his work at the Orange County Museum of Art, Neri spoke about why he preferred working with it.. “It’s a blah material,” he philosophized, “a dumb material. It doesn’t dictate to you at all. You can do anything you want to with it, practically, from a polished, glass-like finish to a rough, broken surface.” At $3 per bag, which Neri could only sometimes afford, plaster was also a forgiving material that allowed mistakes and improvisation: a poor man’s marble that could be hacked into submission. There is a certain implied violence present in the many nicks, scrapes, and gouges that mark Neri’s plaster figures. They are evidence of the artist’s intensity and physical struggle while in the throes of his process.
Joan Brown, who Neri met in a CSFA class taught by Elmer Bischoff — “She was wild as hell,” Neri later recalled — once observed how “Manuel would put on plaster real fast, cut that arm off, throw it away, and twenty minutes later he’s got a new arm there.” Brown, who became both a muse and collaborator, appears in a seated pose in an aluminum cast of an original 1959 plaster, created in the same year that Neri and Brown graduated from CSFA, left their spouses, and moved in together. They would go on to marry in 1962, have a son together and then divorce in 1966. Bluntly expressive and ruggedly formed, “Joan Brown Seated” (1959) represents a kind of stylistic intersection between Neri and Brown’s artistic concerns and working methods.
Although they had a short, rocky marriage — they got along well in the studio and poorly outside of it — the couple influenced each other tremendously. According to the Anastasia Aukeman, in her book Welcome to Painterland a history of the artists working in the Filmore area of midcentury San Francisco, their relationship was later remembered by their mutual friend Mark di Suvero
as “amazingly symbiotic,”. In fact, Brown sometimes painted on Neri’s sculptures, and he was known to add strokes of paint to her thickly encrusted canvases. Both artists brought to their respective works the hybrid approach of Bay Area figuration that fused the spontaneity of Abstract Expressionism with figurative imagery. In a 1963 piece for Artforum magazine, editor John Coplans lauded Neri as “powerful,” while also detecting a “crazy mixture of something both passionate and sloppy.”
In the many plaster figures Neri executed in the decades that followed, the same kind of wild energy prevailed. Often working on groups of similar armatures, developing two, four, six or even eight figures at the same time, Neri alternately shaped, molded, and smoothed a universe of plaster figures, often adding strokes and patches of strong color to the final product. During a ten-day exhibition at 80 Langton Street in San Francisco in 1978, Neri, fueled by coffee, worked through the midnight hours on a set of eight related figures that were revealed — in progress — to daytime visitors who stood amidst piles of Neri’s plaster chips. It was a bravura public performance of Neri’s transformative power and confidence.
The addition of color — which Neri has contextualized as following the ancient Greek custom of coloring figures with tempera — has been Neri’s way of baptizing his figures in chromatic chaos. To some, Neri’s addition of color has seemed a stroke of genius, while striking others as an annoyance. In a 1989 interview with the William James Association Prison Arts Project, Neri reveals that when he began carving in Carrara, Italy in the mid-1970s, the locals were at first “outraged” when he added swaths of oil-based enamel to his marble sculptures.
“Makida III,” a 1997 carving on view at the Anderson Collection, is partially wrapped in feathery pale pink and blue strokes, a delicate and counter-intuitive
application of color that somehow works in concert with the head’s luxurious smoothness. Marble brought out another side of Neri: his refinement. Jason Linetzky, the Director of the Anderson Collection, says that seeing the assembled works in “Assertion of the Figure” has shown him Neri’s impressive ability to adapt to different media.
Across the upper margin of one of Neri’s drawings is an inscription in pencil: “Arte de la verdad de nuestra vida” (Art gives truth to our life). The phrase offers an insight into the motivation of an artist who has worked exceptionally hard and who in the 1989 interview said that making art “is not fun for me.” Seen in the context of the Anderson Collection, where the energies of his works are shared by a magnificent group of Abstract Expressionist and Bay Area figurative works from the Anderson Collection, Neri’s work somehow looks focused, more connected with a longer line of artists working in those traditions. Dis-interested in theories and fashions, Neri has spent his career reaching for something unwavering and ancient: the magic and power of the human form.
Again, in the Prison Arts Project interview Neri said, “I wasn’t the first guy who came along who used the figure.” He certainly was not, but when seen outside the Anderson Collection, where seven of his bronzes are also now on view, not too far from the Cantor Center’s magnificent group of Rodin sculptures, Neri’s work seems to have found the right setting where his true concerns can shine. Neri stayed with the figure (and in California) while abstraction rose to dominance in the contemporary art scene, and by this loyalty created an oeuvre that has considerable vitality and an unwavering sense of artistic purpose. When the plaster chips were flying and the paint was dripping, Manuel Neri always knew what he was looking for.