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 was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center in 2006. For a full list of Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, click here.

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 applies 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 figure of endurance.

Peter Selz: I see painted bronzes and painted plasters. Of course, you once carved in wood and in marble. How do you decide which material to use?

Manual Neri: Each material brings its own character to the work. I love plaster because it’s a blah material. It doesn’t get in the way. It’s wonderful. You can manipulate it in any way: you can paint with it; you can sculpt with it. Whereas marble brings a very strong essence of its own, which I have to confront and bring into the work and make it work with my ideas. That’s why I’m very careful when going to the quarries in Carrara, to be very selective of what I’m going to bring into the studio.

Busto de Mujer No. 1, 1974. Plaster, water-based pigment, wood, wire, and burlap, 27. X 12 x 13 in.

PS: Then you paint on it. Giacometti told me that he thought of bronze like canvas, a surface on which to paint. Do you respond in a similar way when you paint on bronze?

MN: Very much so. I certainly looked up to Giacometti when I was a youngster and took a lot of leads from him. I started off in ceramics, which brings color to the material. A good friend of mine, Nathan Oliveira, often does monoprints – and I love that thing, that touch, of making each print or sculpture an individual piece; that’s what color can do for me. It drove the Italians crazy when I started painting on marble. I had people walk clear across town in Carrara to come over and complain. They would say things like, “You have no respect.”

PS: For the marble, right? You started working in plaster. At that time, the Bay Area sculptors, Voulkos, Arneson, and de Staebler, all worked in clay, and they thought it was wonderful and continued with it. Why did you prefer plaster to clay in your early work?

MN: I stopped working in clay right after leaving art school mainly because I did not have the facilities, the kilns for firing. Working in plaster was much, much cheaper.

PS: When did you first decide to become a sculptor? You were painting too for a while – very good paintings, both figurative and abstract.

MN: I think it was 1950. I was in electrical engineering at Berkley. I had to make up a lab class, and that summer, I went over to San Francisco City College and decided on an art class for an easy B. I just wanted into Roy Walker’s ceramics class. He’s still alive. Wonderful man – he never made a name in the art world, but he gave me an introduction to art that was very important to me. At that time, in the early ‘50s, there was fantastic people teaching in the Bay Area. Clyfford Still was around, and we had all the top names from back east coming out here to teach summer classes because they didn’t have any money.

Walker gave me a list of galleries to visit, and he told me where the museums were – I had never been to an art museum. There was a Clyfford Still show, and this crazy stuff just knocked me out.

Bull Jumper III, 1989, Plaster with water-based pigments, 30.25 x 21.5 x 42 in.

PS: And then you started painting?

MN: No, I wanted to continue with the ceramics. Walker said, “Hey, there is this crazy Greek student over at Arts & Crafts. Go over and visit him, talk to him.” So I went, and it turned out to be Peter Voulkos. There were some great students there; Nathan Oliveira was a student there too.

Mary Julia Klimenko: [Neri’s principal model since 1972.] But you went the other way. You went from the shape, from three dimensions, to painting.

MN: A little later, yes. But I started painting. And then I was drafted in January 1953 and went off to Korea. I was gone for two years, returned, and went back to Arts & Crafts. I was very lucky to have returned at the time when Diebenkorn came back from New Mexico. He started teaching at Arts & Crafts, and I took his painting class. He really started me painting.

PS: You mentioned Still, Oliveira, and Diebenkorn. In the Bay Area, there were two big trends: there were the Abstract Expressionists and the Bay Area Figuratives. What made you decide to go into figuration rather than abstraction?

MN: Well another big thing happened. When I came back from Korea, I watched my first kids being delivered, which just knocked me out. The woman, giving life – I made up my mind to use the figure of the woman. I wanted to make her the vehicle to carry my ideas. And that’s why I turned to the figure. There were great people around: Jim Weeks, Elmer Bischoff. All those people were painting the figure, had turned back to the figure.

PS: Mary Julia, what is the interaction between the model and the sculpture?

MJK: Right after I started modeling for Manuel, I discovered that he loved poetry, and so I brought poetry to the studio. What happened is an interesting oscillation. I have always understood that my figure is a vehicle for Manuel’s emotional landscape. The first book we made together is called Territory because we argue about whose territory my body is. There’s always been a kind of working through me to his ideas. And I use him: when I’m writing, I always see him. In the studio, I soon realized that it didn’t take much of movement or a turn, because he would come over and turn me. What I began to understand is that for Manuel, just a slight gesture is like a poem. It spoke. It could say so much, with subtlety. I think that we’ve always been able to work with each other in that way.

Linea, 2003. Marble, 72 x 16 x 22 in.

PS: Talking about poetry, in 1955, I think, you were instrumental in bringing Ginsburg the Six Gallery.

MN: Six Gallery in San Francisco was started by six artists. Later, I was made director by the group – my claim to fame was that I never sold a single thing. Our rent was $35.00 a month so we didn’t worry about things like that. At the end of a show, we would throw everything out and make another show. That kind of openness was so exciting. At the time we were all crying because we weren’t alive in the ‘20s in Paris, yet it was happening right here: literature, jazz, you name it. Every Saturday night we had an open house at the gallery. We had poets in the area read there, performances of all kinds, including Ginsburg – he read the full, finished “How!” for the first time at the Six Gallery.

PS: What about funk? You had plaster loops in the 1960s in the “Funk” show. But you weren’t really a part of that.

MN: No. Actually, those plaster loops, that form, came out of early ceramic pieces I had done. And later, I started producing them in plaster. There used to be a jazz club called The Cellar in North Beach. I heard some musicians there use the word “funky,” and I said, “God, what a great word, let’s name our movement ‘funk art.’”

PS: Back in the ‘60s and later on you did some religious imagery.

MN: That all came about because I moved into the church in Benicia and rediscovered religion by working inside a church.

PS: They are very beautiful. One of them was commissioned? An Ascension of Christ?

MN: I did that mainly because looking at Greek sculptures, those partial figures conveyed a power much greater than if they had been whole. I wanted to use the figure in that way.

Untitled Male Figure Fragment, 1974. Bronze with patina, 60.25 x 13.25 x 24 in.

PS: We are looking at Mujer Pegada No. 2.

MN: For each piece like this, I do a variation of four or six pieces together. Because when I take an idea and I want to work on it, I want to be able to open it up instead of trying to attach too many things to one piece. That way I can open up the idea and try different versions. So it may take up to a month of working that out.

PS: And then you paint.

MN: After they are cast. And even when they are plaster. I throw a little bit of color on there just to make certain things stand out. I use color for different reasons, to camouflage and hide or to accent and bring out.

Peter Selz’s most recent book is Art of Engagement: Visual Politics in California and Beyond.