"La Palestra No. 6," by Manuel Neri, bronze with patina.

Lost and Found

Though his studio was in Pennsylvania, internationally known modernist-sculptor and designer Harry Bertoia, who died in 1978, had a number of Colorado connections. For many years he served as a fellow of the Aspen Institute, and there are important pieces of his work in the permanent collections of the Denver Art Museum, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and the Kirkland Museum, as well as those of private individuals.

But what is perhaps forgotten today is that there once were a number of major Bertoias on public display in downtown Denver, thanks to famous architects such as I. M. Pei and Minoru Yamasaki, who often used his pieces for their important buildings. Two of Bertoia's "Money Tree" sculptures, abstractions with many hanging parts that evoke the spirit of trees, once graced the interior of the Hilton Hotel. (It's now the Adam's Mark Hotel, a rare surviving element of the mostly lost Zeckendorf Plaza by Pei at 1550 Court Place.) The monumental outdoor "Sounding Sculpture" once stood in the forecourt of the U.S. Bank tower, a sleek high-rise by Yamasaki at 950 17th Street. Unfortunately, all three sculptures were discarded by their owners and shipped out of town; "Sounding Sculpture" went all the way to Norway.

"Sounding Sculpture" is a masterpiece, and it looked perfect in front of the chaste formalist bank -- but it was hardly in perfect condition when removed in 1998. The sculpture, a grid of vertically mounted rods capped by cylinders, was designed to move gently in the breeze, thereby producing sounds that were similar in tone to clock chimes. It did move with the breeze as Bertoia wanted, but he did not foresee over-enthusiastic viewers pulling on the rods too forcefully, thus bending and damaging them. The piece was repaired once, in the 1980s, and the top was bound with a chain to prevent people from tugging on the rods -- but that also silenced "Sounding Sculpture."


Manuel Neri

Through December 24
Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street

U.S. Bank should have restored the piece and kept it where it was, but at the urging of architectural firm Fentress Bradburn, which was rehabbing the building at the time, "Sounding Sculpture" was donated to the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum removed the chain, and the piece was subsequently damaged again by those unintentional vandals who wrongheadedly decided to physically interact with it. Ultimately, BMoCA concluded that restoring or even preserving "Sounding Sculpture" was beyond its means and sold it to a Norwegian collector -- a move that remains controversial. But, as I've said all along, the villains of this story are not the well-meaning but misguided folks at BMoCA but rather the powers-that-were at Fentress Bradburn and U.S. Bank who chose to remove it from Denver in the first place.

My coverage of the story since '98 brought me to the attention of historian Mary Thorp, who's tracking down Bertoia sculptures in preparation for a catalogue raisonné of the artist's forty-year career. This is no easy task, because it is believed that Bertoia completed nearly 6,000 pieces, which were sold and scattered to the four winds. To make matters worse, almost none of them are signed, and Bertoia kept only sketchy records.

Thorp was in Denver documenting several private owners' Bertoias, as well as those at the Kirkland. She describes the project, which she began in 1998, as a "magical journey." She's performed quite a trick by uncovering more than 2,000 Bertoias. "One person leads me to the next," Thorp says. In her pursuit, she's logged more than 10,000 miles of travel.

The hardest pieces to find are those that were purchased privately. Many Bertoias wound up in Denver homes, because the now-closed Inkfish Gallery, which was run by Paul and Nancy Hughes, represented the artist and sold many of his sculptures locally. In fact, Paul once told me that Bertoia, a longtime friend of his, originally urged him to open the gallery and was the first artist to sign up with Inkfish.

Thorp has left Denver and is now on the road, though she's sure to be back. If anyone has a sculpture that was purchased from Inkfish or acquired in some other way -- or drawings or monotypes -- contact Thorp at her e-mail address: thorpdesign@juno.com.

It's unnecessary to use the services of a historian-cum-detective such as Thorp to find work by Manuel Neri, another internationally famous sculptor. The strong and highly focused Manuel Neri is now at the Robischon Gallery through Christmas Eve, showing some of the legendary Bay Area modern master's recent work.

Like Bertoia, Neri also has ties to Denver. Immediately inside the front door of the Denver Art Museum is 1991's "Ohne Titel," a conventionalized female nude in painted bronze. And the current show at Robischon marks the third time the gallery has highlighted Neri, which means his work must sell. We can assume, therefore, that Neri pieces have quietly entered local private collections. (In the future, some historian probably will come looking for them.)

This time around, the entire Robischon Gallery is given over to the Neri exhibit -- an unusual move for the venue, which typically presents two or three solos simultaneously. The museum-quality show is exquisitely installed and dominated by the ten bronzes, which are supplemented with a selection of closely related plasters, acrylic paintings and works on paper. The bronzes, of course, are the standouts, but the plasters are how Neri started.

He was born in Sanger, California, in 1930, and entered San Francisco City College in 1949, studying art in the early '50s. He also attended the University of California at Berkeley and the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, among other art schools.

"In the early '50s, abstract expressionism was exploding not just in New York, but in California," Neri says, explaining how his work of that era was done in the style that was popular at the time. Neri turned away from abstract expressionism and toward figural abstraction like so many of his teachers, including Richard Diebenkorn, James Weeks and David Park, but he claims it was personal experience that guided his decisive move.

"I was drafted and sent to Korea in 1953, and I came back and started having kids." Neri remembers. "When my first wife gave birth to our first child in 1955, I was knocked out at the power of women to give birth. It started hitting me: Women really had the magic, and so I have used the female form as the vehicle for my art since that time." Neri's love of women is legendary, and, though single today, he's had four wives since the first, including artist Joan Brown.

The early sculptures based on the female figure were still highly abstract, but in the late '50s, Neri moved toward more clearly defined figural representations. "In the early years, I was just working with the idea of the female form," Neri says, "but then I started to want a model to anchor the work. As soon as I could afford it, I had a model around for my drawings and sculptures." He not only sketches the model, but also takes measurements that he uses in his sculpture. "I take a lot of liberties with the figure, though," Neri points out.

Right away, Neri got a lot of attention for his work, but he still needed to keep his day job as an art professor, a gig he held at various California campuses -- including UC-Berkeley and UC-Davis -- until he retired twelve years ago. "I had museum shows, but I didn't make any money," he says. "It was a completely different world then, in that no one ever made a sale. It wasn't until the 1970s that the sale of my work even began to support me."

It was also in the 1970s that Neri met Mary Julia Klimenko, a poet and psychologist who has been his principal model for over thirty years. Klimenko and Neri were in Denver recently, because they collaborated on a book of poems and photos called Crossings/Chassé-croisé. Each limited edition, on display in Robischon's viewing room, includes a tipped-in Neri painting. Meeting Klimenko and seeing her wander around the sculptures based on her form underscores Neri's point about his taking liberties with the figure. The sculptures don't look like Klimenko at all; they don't even have faces or fingers or other details.

The entry space gives the show a contemplative mood, and to the right is the standing bronze figure "Julia" (as in Mary Julia). In this sculpture, the arms of the figure are held up in front in a pose that suggests pleading. The modeling is rough and scabrous, and the sculpture is finished in a white patina. The combination of the rough surface and the white paint makes this bronze look like plaster, and, not surprisingly it was taken from an original in plaster, a favorite material of Neri's.

Adjacent to "Julia" is the closely related "Untitled Kneeling Figure," and here, too, the pose is one of supplication. The somber, almost religious mood of this pair has led some to think they were created in reaction to 9/11, but they weren't. Though all were recently completed, Neri had been working on them for years.

In the space to the north are more bronzes, notably the majestic "La Palestra No. 6," a female nude in a semi-recumbent pose that's been finished in white. There are also examples of Neri's work in plaster, including a pair of nearly identical headless torsos -- "M.J. Torso II," in bronze-like brown, and "M.J. Torso III," in the more expected white.

Even more than the full-figured sculptures, these torsos recall the early modernism of Rodin and Medardo Rosso, but they also reflect back to classical antiquity. Neri is keenly interested in traditional Western sculpture, and he's maintained a studio in Carrara, Italy, a marble-quarry town that has been a center for traditional sculpture-making since Roman times. "I only work there a couple months a year now," Neri says, "but I used to go for six months at a time."

In the center space are a group of Neri's brushy, expressionist paintings and collages on paper. As usual, the subject is the female nude, but instead of smoothing out the details as he does in the sculptures, Neri simply paints them over on paper or canvas. More coolly elegant paintings are displayed in the viewing room alongside the display devoted to the Neri-Klimenko collaborative book.

A century ago, the rise of abstraction supplanted representational art, but Neri's lifelong approach has been to create credibly contemporary art while holding on to the age-old figural tradition. His undeniable success in making the female nude relevant to contemporary times, as unlikely to succeed as this may have seemed, is a real accomplishment, especially considering how many others have failed.


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