East Coast, West Coast

The Robischon Gallery has launched its fall and winter schedule with Manuel Neri, an important exhibit that focuses on the latest creations by the world-famous California artist. Neri has become a household name around here; this is the third time in recent years that Robischon has presented a solo turn by the Bay Area sculptor.

The show, which fills all four of the front spaces in the gallery, imparts a distinctive and somber ambience. In the last couple of years, Neri has moved from the bright colors that were his signature toward a softer, off-white monochrome finish. Although there are some polychromed sculptures at Robischon as well as some paintings on paper, the show is dominated by the monochrome finished pieces that have been set against the gallery's white walls.

Born in northern California in 1930, Neri moved to San Francisco in 1949 to begin San Francisco City College's fine-arts program. He went on to study at the University of California at Berkeley, the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. He taught briefly at CSFA and at UC-Berkeley, but he spent 25 years teaching at the UC campus in Davis.

As early as 1953, Neri was exhibiting his work in museum shows in California, but it wasn't until the 1980s that he became widely known outside of his own stamping grounds. Today his work is included in private collections and museums around the world, including our own Denver Art Museum. That piece, a life-sized bronze figure of a nude woman from 1991, was purchased from the Robischon in 1996. The sculpture is now going out on loan after being on exhibit for the last year or so in the Stanton Galleries on the DAM's first floor.

One of the reasons Neri's fortunes soared in the 1980s was the increased interest by art historians in the figural abstractionists that were working in the San Francisco area beginning in the 1940s and '50s. This group, who used the human form as a taking-off point for abstract painting and sculpture, is now seen as the chief rival of the New York-based abstract-expressionists who specialized in non-objective abstraction in the mid-twentieth century. At 69, Neri is younger than many of the figural abstractionists, but he has long been associated with them. And his work over the last two decades is an obvious continuation of his interests of fifty years ago, providing his oeuvre with the weight of artistic continuity.

Although only three objects are included in the first grouping of Neri pieces at Robischon, the space is entirely filled. It's not that the pieces are large -- they're not -- but they have been placed in such a way that each one may be seen individually, without competition from the others. This spare approach to installation, which is seen throughout the show, is quite effective.

The first sculpture is Untitled III, a life-sized bronze of a headless and armless nude woman that looks back to classical Greece. But it's a little funky, too: Although it is made of bronze, it was cast from a wood-and-plaster original, and the armature at the base was cast along with the figure. The sculpture has been partly painted with oil-based enamels in white and pale pink and relates to Neri's more recent, light-colored sculptures.

One such piece, Ostrakon Series No. 1, sits across the room; it is a small bronze of a headless female torso finished in a creamy-white patina. The figure is conventionalized and is even more closely related to classical antiquity than Untitled III. But Jim Robischon, the gallery's director, points out that Ostrakon is formally simpler than Untitled III and is related more in form and color to Neri's marble sculptures, none of which have been included in this show.

Hanging between the two sculptures is Mary Julia, a painting done in acrylic and graphite on paper. The pose of the figure in this work is reminiscent of the one in Untitled III. Neri's works on paper are expressionistic in style and are a direct corollary to his sculpture.

One of the most beautiful things in this strong show is Ostrakon #7, a plaster sculpture decorated with a little bit of paint. Set on a warped piece of wood, the delicate plaster surface of the sculpture reveals Neri's every mark; it's positively otherworldly.

Neri's spontaneity is also revealed in a set of three bronze-cast figure studies; the artist started out working in ceramics, and that influence is still seen in this group.

Pecadoras Series II, a bronze with a light-colored patina, is one of several small figures lined up in the second half of the show. Like Ostrakon #7, it relates to classical sculpture, as do the others in this area.