In the 1950s, when it seemed as if every artist in America was working in an abstract style, a handful of visionaries in the San Francisco area were creating to the beat of a different drummer. The "Beats," close cultural allies of the Beat poets, defied fashion by addressing recognizable subjects in their work. And it is the recent work of one of these former Bay Area beatniks that Robischon Gallery presents in the fabulous exhibit Manuel Neri: Bronze Sculpture and Drawing. Though Neri's work has been displayed at the Denver Art Museum in the past, the Robischon show marks the first time he's been afforded a single-artist presentation in Denver, effectively making this show his local premiere.
That's not to say that Neri is a total stranger to our region. Like so many others associated with the Beat generation, his time on the road included stops in Denver and Boulder; for a summer in the early Sixties, he was a visiting artist at the University of Colorado. It made sense that Neri was invited to teach here. At the time, the region was a center for artists who, like him, struggled against abstraction. The work of mid-century Denver sculptor Edgar Britton is particularly close in style to Neri's. And among Neri's students at CU was a Colorado artist who went on to make a worldwide reputation for himself in the field of hyper-realist sculpture, the legendary John de Andrea.
In the years before his brief stint here, Neri was the director of San Francisco's Six Gallery, where he found himself in the center of some of the most legendary Beat events of the late Fifties. One gig he booked at the gallery was a reading by Allen Ginsberg of the infamous "Howl," a poem that soon after became the centerpiece of a censorship trial. The trial, ironically if predictably, brought national attention to the Beat movement--and, of course, to Six Gallery, the center of a San Francisco visual art scene then thought to be second in stature only to New York's.
The artists Neri associated with--and who, like him, exhibited at the Six--included his onetime wife, Joan Brown (Neri was married four times), as well as David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, Jay DeFeo, Bruce Conner and the artist known as Jess. Nearly all of them were more famous than he at the time. But in retrospect it is Neri who came the closest to resolving the problem they had all set out for themselves: how to convey a recognizable subject and simultaneously remain contemporary. Unlike Neri, Diebenkorn, Conner and Jess would do their greatest work only after they left this difficult problem behind.
Though they chose different approaches, the Six Gallery artists were all self-consciously rejecting the abstract expressionism emanating from New York. And though San Francisco is a continent away from New York, the effort wasn't as easy as it sounds. Not only was abstract expressionism the dominant voice in the art world, key players in the movement such as Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still were right in town teaching at what is now the San Francisco Art Institute. In fact, Neri studied with both of them.
Neri says he "chose to stick to the figure and to stick to the West Coast," anticipating that "it would be a long time before the figure would make a comeback in New York." (He was right--he had to wait more than three decades, until 1981, before he got his first solo show in New York.) But though Neri and other San Francisco artists didn't set out to form their own movement, they were essential to the development of California funk, in which artists found inspiration in the dirt, grit and violence associated with urban decline and decay. (The funk movement found a corollary in the pop artists back East who also rejected abstract expressionism.)
Neri was the original funk artist, employing in the early years both ad hoc and insubstantial art materials, including found objects and plaster. Since the Fifties, plaster has been Neri's material of choice to form the preliminary casts of his bronzes. The idea of decay, expressed by his scabrous surfaces, is an effect easy to get with plaster and one of many ways that Neri's work reveals its funk-art origins. But his sculptures have never been too funky; instead they illustrate Neri's interest in expressionism as well as revealing his love of classical forms.
The influence of European art is obviously at the root of Neri's classicism, even if the artist consciously minimizes its role. Neri, after all, lives part of each year in the Italian town of Carrara, home of that country's most famous marble quarry and for centuries a center for traditional sculpture.
The spectacular Robischon show doesn't include any works in plaster or stone, instead focusing on several magnificent life-size figures in bronze, a few exquisite smaller bronze figures, and a handful of masterful drawings. All the work in this show is concerned with the female nude, an interest Neri embraced early on and which more recently has come to exclusively occupy him. Neri says that for him the female form represents a universal symbol, pointing out that "the oldest Western art found by archaeologists were stone carvings of the female nude."
Like that primitive art, the surfaces of Neri's sculptures have been eroded. They are pitted and pockmarked in places, smoothly polished in others. These polished areas are either the natural golden color of the bronze or have been painted with vivid colors. The polychromatic handling of the sculptures, like their basic forms, was inspired by art history. Notes Neri, "The ancient Greeks painted their sculptures."
But the use of color in sculpture is also a natural outgrowth of ceramics, the medium that first occupied Neri in art school. It was during his school days in California, he says, that the work of a classmate, Peter Voulkos (who would later become one of the most important ceramic artists in the world), came to impress Neri. It wasn't Voulkos's style--abstract expressionism--but rather "his command of the materials and his respect for the demands of the materials" that Neri says he found most moving.
Neri's mastery of his own materials is well illustrated in his life-size sculptures, four of which anchor and dominate the Robischon show. The spontaneous gestures Neri created in the plaster originals are perfectly preserved in the transition to bronze, and the bronzes themselves have been expertly finished. Each of the four standing female figures has a featureless face, furthering Neri's universalist aims. And one is more beautiful than the next, even though their androgynous broad shoulders and small breasts make them barely anatomically correct.
In the sculpture "Untitled," the female figure conveys a totemic presence. She blindly stares straight ahead, her face a simple smear that has been additionally obscured by a heavy coat of white oil enamel paint resembling a veil. Much of the torso also has been painted, in both white and yellow enamels.
In spite of the lack of detail and the unexpected and unnatural colors, Neri achieves a lifelike feel by the casual pose the figure strikes. In this case, both arms and legs are crossed in a relaxed stance. Subtly different casual postures are imparted by the other three large sculptures, "Prietas Series V," "Untitled Standing Figure No. 7" and "Ostraca."
Like the larger works, the smaller sculptures are concerned with the female nude, and they're every bit as good. Again the figures are minimally detailed and have typically been decorated with oil enamels (though a few feature the more traditional approach to finishing bronze, patination). But in comparison to the life-size nudes, these sculptures are fragmentary. Some are missing arms and legs, while others are partly submerged in architectonic forms. In both cases, the reference to antiquity is easy to recognize.
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In "Isla Negra Series II" and the very similar "Isla Negra Series III," the crouching figures emerge from slabs that form the backs of the sculptures. More than anything else in this show, these works reflect the influence of another sometime resident of Carrara, Michelangelo. Both "Isla Negra" pieces recall the later mannerist work of the Renaissance master, where the figure was conceived as though it was being revealed from within a block, instead of appearing to have been carved out of it.
Though still concerned with the female nude, the Neri drawings at Robischon are much more abstract than the sculptures--a few broad strokes of color minimally suggest the human figure. And despite being called drawings, these works are actually painted using dry pigments and oil paint sticks, relating in that way to the painted finishes of Neri's sculptures. Neri, however, says he doesn't do paintings. "If it's three-dimensional, it's a sculpture; if it's on paper, it's a drawing [and] paintings are done on canvas," he says. "I don't work on canvas."
The brightly colored figural sculptures and drawings by Neri remind us that the artist has long created work that anticipated the direction of recent contemporary art. But don't hold that against him. Neri never uses color, as have so many who came after him, to prop up second-rate work.
Along with the other representational artists active in San Francisco in the Fifties and Sixties, Neri was dismissed by critics of the time as too conservative, even old-fashioned. But those naysayers have been proven wrong. Given the events of the Eighties and Nineties--and judging from the Robischon exhibit, which is one of the best shows to hit Denver in years--Neri was actually forward-looking.