Neri Gift to the Nasher

Nasher Sculpture Center
Jan 24, 2017 7:03PM

                 The Nasher Sculpture Center’s founding director offers his insights into a breathtaking group of works by the Bay Area artist recently donated to the Nasher’s permanent collection.

One of the most challenging ambitions that any modern sculptor can self-impose is to attempt to discover in the age-old theme of the human body a meaningfully new interpretation. Yet this is exactly the task that Manuel Neri (American, born 1930) set for himself more than five decades ago. Since the late 1950s, Neri has worked with intense dedication on constructing and reconstructing, imagining and reimagining, human anatomy in a prodigious body of work embracing different media and stylistic permutations. Through a magnanimous gift from the artist of 15 sculptures and drawings, the Nasher Sculpture Center is now one of the premier depositories of Neri’s work, with a collection amounting to a small retrospective.


Neri’s studies at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland starting in 1951 led him first toward sculptural ceramics and later, thanks primarily to the strong influence of teachers Richard Diebenkorn and Nathan Oliviera, to paintings in the highly colorful, boldly gestural style of the Bay Area Figurative Movement. At the same time, Neri was making subversively raw Funk Art sculptures of small figures from scraps of discarded materials, and soon took an interest in working with plaster. Suddenly these three directions—bold coloration, rough assemblage, and plaster modeling—converged in the earliest of Neri’s large-scale painted plaster figures. Often headless and armless, and caught in slightly awkward, tension-producing poses, these partially painted figures, almost exclusively female, set a course that Neri has explored ever since.

Manuel Neri, Carla V, 1964, Plaster, oil-based enamel, graphite, wood and wire, 67 x 22 ½ x 20 in. (170.2 x 57.2 x 50.8 cm.) 

Manuel Neri, Arcos de Geso I (Diptych), 1985, Plaster with dry pigment, wire armature, and styrofoam, burlap, and wood, 80 x 114 x 12 ½ in. (203.2 x 289.6 x 31.8 cm.)      

Manuel Neri, Arcos de Geso Preparatory Drawing Study IV, c. 1985, Mixed media on paper, 13 5/8 x 10 ¾ in. (34.6 x 27.3 cm.)

Manuel Neri, Arcos de Geso Preparatory Drawing Study V, c. 1985, Mixed media on paper, 14 x 10 ½ in. (35.6 x 26.7 cm.)

All works by Manuel Neri. Nasher Sculpture Center, Gift of Manuel Neri Trust. ©Manuel Neri

The earliest sculpture in Neri’s recent gift, Carla V from 1964, provides a clear representation of these beginnings. The figure is life-size and made of plaster over an armature of wood and wire. It is elevated on its own base of roughly cobbled-together lumber, preserving the “rough and ready” character of the artist’s earlier assemblages. The stretching of the torso to one side activates the pose and such compositional gestures as disproportionately long legs, cropped arms, and a bulging back all add notes of spontaneity and abstraction. Bay Area painters drew inspiration from East Coast Abstract Expressionism, and Neri’s exuberant application of vivid colors—red, blue, silver, yellow, and black—reference that same source, as does his handling of surfaces. Plaster is a highly workable material, and the surfaces of Carla V have been sliced, gouged, smoothed, scored by fingers, and otherwise textured with an empathetic sense of the artist’s physical engagement.


Whether consciously or intuitively, Neri’s formal techniques hark back to earlier sculptors. Marino Marini and Pablo Picasso both painted sculptures con brio, Auguste Rodin aggressively cropped limbs and heads, and Alberto Giacometti endowed standing figures with new psychological gravity. But there is also something of the classicist in Neri. In Arcos de Geso I (Diptych), the kneeling figures are more classically proportioned and smoothly finished in ways that relate back to Greek and Roman idealism. As Neri once said to this writer, “I feel I am more European in my work than American.”


Within the relatively narrow focus of figural representation, Neri has addressed a wide range of techniques, materials, and interpretive perspectives. He has worked in marble, bronze, plaster, and even Styrofoam, and the emotional dimensions of the figures are equally diverse. All-white or mostly white figures have a quiet, ghostly quality quite different from the flamboyance of Carla V. Neri’s marble carvings, with generally smooth finishes, go the farthest in their affiliations with ancient art. Figures with particularly strained poses, such as those squatting or arching their bodies off the ground, have an athleticism that communicates a special sense of flexibility and muscle tension. Reclining figures can seem somnolent and weighty. The amputations of female form are sometimes unnerving, and other times purifyingly beautiful. Neri’s figures in no way are specifically illustrational but do convey a host of sensual and emotional experiences.


The range of his work is even more impressive when his draftsmanship is considered. He has been a prolific draftsman throughout his career, working in media as diverse as ink, graphite, charcoal, watercolor, oil pastel, and acrylic, and often combining two or more media in a single composition. Ten drawings are included in his gift to the Nasher. Some of these are preparatory studies for sculptures, such as a group of drawings that lead to Arcos de Geso I; some are independent conceptions that stand on their own as works of art; but all depict the female form and all are executed with a combination of gusto and control that marks Neri’s drawings and paintings on paper as some of the finest works of their kind in contemporary art.

by Steven Nash

Nasher Sculpture Center