Sunday, 20 September 2009





In his long career, Manuel Neri has been fortunate in the critics and art historians who have chosen to write about his work. They form a roster of distinguished American names. What can a critic who is not in fact American find to add to these analyses of Neri’s achievement?


I would like to start by quoting a concise summation offered by the late Henry Geldzahler in his Introduction to a substantial book on the sculptor’s early work. Neri, Geldzahler says “has married the Greco-Roman canon of beauty in its post-Rodin fragmented mode to the stylistic imperative of abstract expressionism as it was seen in the Bay Area in the 1950s.”


It is difficult to better this – as far as it goes. The question is: does it go quite far enough?


From a European point of view there are elements in Neri’s work that are both fascinating in themselves, and which offer parallels that stray a little from a purely American path. For example, there is Neri’s use of his signature material, plaster. Geldzahler quotes Neri’s own observation about this: “I just love plaster. It’s cheap. You can do anything with it. You can keep[ adding to the figure. If you don’t like what you have, you can start over. And I love that dead white.”


I can think of few, if any, American sculptors of Neri’s generation or later who have shared his devotion to this particular substance. It is, however, very easy to think of a British sculptor who used plaster in much the same way – Elisabeth Frink. Frink, too, loved plaster for its rapidity, and for the way in which the artist could change direction almost instantly – hacking away material, or spontaneously adding it. Her sculptures, particularly the early ones, show the same contrasts between gently modeled areas and those that have been violently slashed and gouged. The likeness between the two artists has been to some extent concealed by the fact that Frink from her beginnings usually carried the work a stage further, and cast her figures in bronze.


It has also, however, been hidden by the relative rarity of figurative sculpture among the American artists of Neri’s generation. Where figurative sculpture has existed in the United States, post World War II, it has usually gone in directions other than those chosen by Neri. George Segal and Duane Hanson, for example, chose a route related to Pop Art. Robert Graham is a classicist, whose figures are coolly self-possessed and self-contained. Robert Arneson’s work, often with a satirical edge, is related to folk art.


Frink’s work, in a European context, belongs to a current of post-war figurative Expressionism which carried with it a number of other British sculptors – among them are Lynn Chadwick, Kenneth Armitage, and Bernard Meadows. One can also detect a somewhat more tenuous link to the early, figurative work of Anthony Caro, also to works by the Frenchwoman Germaine Richier and even to certain works by Giacometti and Marino Marini, though for me the resemblance to Giacometti is less strong than some of Neri’s admirers seem to think. These post-World War II European sculptors are expressionist but also humanist, filled with the angst of the new atomic age, but not neo-primitivist, after the fashion of the original Expressionists in early 20th century Germany.


When one looks at Neri’s work in this expanded context one is struck not only by the fact that he seems so cosmopolitan, but also by his links to another form of art – to painting. This is not surprising, since from the beginning of his career he had a close professional and personal association with the painters of the Bay Area figurative school: David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff and Nathan Oliveira. His aesthetic is much closer to theirs than it is to that of other American sculptors of the same place and time.


Despite his professed love of the white surface, Neri has always made extensive use of color, which he employs in a way that often seems to contradict the sculptural forms. He relates this to his free use of plaster: “What’s taking place on the surface of the structure when I move the material around or hacking into it is no different from pushing paint around.. Color is a part of what’s happening on the surface, and it does not relate to actual anatomical form.”


This sounds as if Neri is anxious to stress his credentials as a truly spontaneous creator, always at the service of his most immediate instincts. It is true that he once described himself as “just a Beat sculptor”, and his links with the San Francisco literary movement that first found public expression at the City Lights bookshop are well known. He was in fact one of a group who organized the reading at the artist-run Gallery 6 when Allen Ginsberg first presented the full version of his most celebrated poem, Howl.


Contemplation of his career does not support the view that he is in some way naïve. For example, there is a group of drawings from the 1950s included in the current exhibition that have a totally unexpected historical resonance. They depict standing female figures, seen singly and in pairs, and are close cousins to certain drawings by Bonnard. Another group, from the same period, is quasi-abstract, with rectangular forms floating in space. These are nevertheless figurative – we are looking at and through a window. In one case, the window seems to have a bed in front of it, but in general the observer seems to be on the outside, looking in. Some commentators have seen these atmospheric images as emblems of Neri’s situation as an ‘outsider’ in the San Francisco art world – because he was a little younger than the leading painters of the figurative group, and also because of his Hispanic origin.


The drawings nevertheless radiate a quiet intimacy that is also to be found in drawings where the imagery is more specific, such a ‘Model in Chair’. I think it is important to remember that, rather unusually for a sculptor, intimacy of communication is one of Neri’s themes.


Because the exhibition covers the full span of the artists’s career, it is possible to get some idea of how his art developed. Though he has always been extremely consistent stylistically, he has never been static. The artistic personality he established in the 1950s began to evolve in the following decade. His approach to the figure becomes more personal with advent of a new model called Carla, with a heavy bosom and a slightly awkward stance. The hipshot poses recorded in both sculptures of this period look forward to the much more fluid images that appear in the 1970s – many of them inspired by a new model Mary Julia Raahauge [Klimemko], with whom the artist had an intense creative relationship.


The ‘Posturing’ series, from the end of the decade, represented a new kind of freedom in Neri’s approach to the body. As the name itself implies, the subject became the eloquence of the gesture, not just the body itself. The series is, however, founded on a paradox. At the end of the 1970s Neri began working at Carrara in Italy, and had difficulty in finding models there. He therefore borrowed poses from fashion magazines, where the self-conscious gestures of the young women fascinated him,


This concern with movement and gesture intensified in the 1980s. The ‘La Palestra’ series implies, by its title, that the figures are seen in a gymnasium. They are therefore a tribute to the modern American cult of the athletic life. This cult is, as Neri clearly realizes, paradoxical. Its devotees are city-dwellers, maintaining their svelte figures by artificial means. The women portrayed in the sculptures and drawings of the series have an element of physical clumsiness and an air of self-consciousness about this, despite the slender grace of the actual forms. If one looks at the masterfully rapid drawing that served as a study for one of the sculptures one notes the resemblance to drawings by Rodin. What Neri shares with Rodin is an unprejudiced eye. He does not see expected forms, or over-familiar gestures: he sees the human body as it really is, and seizes unexpected transitional shapes that the rest of us are not quick enough to notice.


In the last two decades Neri’s work has continued its evolution. In part this has been dictated by the technical challenge of using materials other than plaster. While plaster is easily translated into bronze, the shift to marble has had a more significant impact. The academic sculptors of the 19th century attempted to ignore the difference between clay or plaster and stone. They employed skilled artisans to make marble replicas of sculptures conceived in other materials. Neri is too much of a Modernist to do this. His work in marble has a dense, compact elegance that make it very different from his sculptures in plaster. There is a historical echo, but it is not that of ‘classical’ sculpture as we usually conceive it, but of the Archaic Greek statues of maidens [kore], and perhaps, too, of early representations of the Mother Goddesses Demeter and Cybele.


This leads me to one final observation about the nature of Neri’s work. In the extensive literature generated by his long and distinguished career, he is often spoken of as a classical sculptor. To my mind this involves a misunderstanding. He is, obviously, an artist with a keen sense of historical awareness – the gift, perhaps, of his Spanish and Mexican heritage. I cannot, however, see him as an artist who is committed to any kind of Platonic ideal. He began his career as a member in good standing of the ‘funk’ milieu in San Francisco, with all that this implies in terms of spontaneity and the use of humble, often junk, materials. From this staring point, he went on to explore personal sensations, personal reactions, much as the original Abstract Expressionists did, but using representations of the human figure as his means of expression, rather than abstract marks.


What seems to have impelled him towards this choice is a fascination with our animal nature, or, to put it more bluntly, with the animal nature of the opposite gender. Though Neri has sculpted male figures from time to time, his obsessive subject is the female body. Into his work he pours all the things that a man can think and feel about a woman – tenderness, protectiveness, aggression, estrangement, anxiety, all subsumed by a constant sense of wonder. This is not a classical thing to do, in any sense of that much-misused adjective. For me, Neri is one of the great romantics of American art. He is romantic about what he does.- the profession of the artist. He is even more romantic about his subject-matter.


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