Wood Figure No. 1, c. 1956–57. Wood, cloth, newspaper, cardboard, wire, thread, plaster, and paint, 35.2 x 20.75 x 18.75 in. Courtesy Hackett Freedman Gallery, NY.

Figural Poetry: A Conversation with Manuel Neri

Manuel Neri, the son of Mexican immigrants, was born in the San Joaquin Valley in California in 1930. At a time when industrial Minimalism was the leading mode of sculpture, a number of sculptors in Northern California—Robert Arneson, Stephen de Staebler, and Neri—worked hands-on in clay or plaster and found innovative approaches to the human form. In the 1950s, Neri was part of the spontaneous poetry, jazz, and visual art scene of the Beat Generation. Traditional distinctions between media became irrelevant, and Neri fashioned fetishist assemblages from found objects, painted figurative—and, sometimes abstract—pictures, and then applied bright pigments to his plaster figures. Many of them were, and are, fragmented and truncated. Over the years, Neri developed these plaster figures into eloquent images of human sexuality and vulnerability.

In 1961, when he took his first trip to Europe, he was deeply affected by the art of the Western tradition, especially fragments of Greek and Roman sculpture. Later, in 1980, he started working in the Carrara marble quarries and began a series of formal classical figures. He will chisel, hammer, and polish the stone, revealing its lapideous quality to produce female figures of endurance.