Manuel Neri, figurative sculptor with a modern twist, dies at 91
Manuel Neri, a renowned San Francisco artist whose life-size, often painted, figurative sculptures of women evoked classical statuary while modernizing it for the 20th century, died on October 18 in his Sacramento home. He was 91 years old.
His death was confirmed by his daughter, artist Ruby Neri.
Mr. Neri was a younger presence in the Bay Area figurative movement, which encompassed a group of artists from the 1950s and 1960s who resisted the trend towards abstract expressionism and returned to art-centric on the face. Its members included the painters Richard Diebenkorn and David Park and sculptor and ceramist Peter Voulkos. Mr. Neri studied with Mr. Diebenkorn and Mr. Voulkos, among others in the movement.
In plaster, bronze and other materials, Mr. Neri rendered figures sometimes without head or arms and painted directly over the casts, incorporating striped or textured details. Her work is centered on the female form; the poet Marie Julia Klimenko was his role model for much of his career.
“What sets Mr. Neri’s art apart is the way he combined the traditional nude figure, executed in plaster, bronze and stone, with the interests – including color interests – of painting,” New York Times reviewer Hilton Kramer wrote in 1981 on the occasion of Mr. Neri’s first solo exhibition at the Cowles Gallery in Manhattan.
“So there is an extraordinary tension – or, if you will, a dialectic – embedded at the very heart of his style,” Kramer continued. “It gives the work a very special dynamism, even if sometimes it also leaves us with the impression of something teetering on the verge of dissolution.
In a 2008 oral history with the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Mr. Neri said, “I have always been fascinated by the body language of people, what they say with their body.
His sculpture could have a destructive side, the missing limbs and torsos evoking the remains of Greek and Roman statuary, damaged over time, seen in museums. But textured surfaces and bright spots of color updated Mr. Neri’s work for the 20th century (though the application of color also brought to mind the painted sculpture from antiquity).
Mr. Neri was part of San Francisco’s bustling Beat scene in the 1950s and early 1960s. In 1954, he and a group of other artists established the Six Gallery, housed in a former auto repair shop on Fillmore Street. Mr. Neri was the gallery manager when a historical poetry reading took place there in 1955: Allen Ginsburg giving the first public recitation of his masterpiece, “Howl”.
Mr. Neri was one of the few Latinos in the American art world at the time. But, as he said in Oral History, he didn’t necessarily “hook up” with the Latin art label: he situated his work more in the context of the Bay Area, where he elected residence.
“I come out of one world into another,” he said. “I had to make that change, but that aroma, that Latin aroma, will always be with me.”
Manuel John Neri Jr. was born in Sanger, California in Fresno County on April 12, 1930. His father was a farm laborer. His mother, Guadalupe (Penilla) Neri, also worked in agriculture and was later employed in an electronics factory. Both parents were immigrants from the Mexican state of Jalisco.
Mr. Neri attended Fremont High School and graduated in 1950. He then enrolled in classes at San Francisco City College.
“And just by bad luck, I decided to take an art class for an easy grade,” he recalls. “And I met a wonderful man who changed my life.” This man was the artist Roy Walker, who introduced him to Mr. Voulkos and brought him onto the San Francisco art scene.
Mr. Neri then attended the University of California at Berkeley and what is today the California College of Arts. He served in the military during the Korean War, then studied at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) on the GI Bill. But he never graduated.
Beginning in 1959, Mr. Neri taught in schools in the Bay Area and later in Berkeley. He joined the Faculty of Art at the University of California at Davis in 1965 and held a teaching position there until his retirement in 1990.
For many years he worked and lived in the town of Benicia, in the bay area, in a former Unitarian church, which he transformed into a house and a studio.
Her marriages to Marilyn Hampton, artist Joan Brown, Susan Morse and Kate Rohrock ended in divorce.
Mr. Neri has received numerous accolades for his work, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center in Hamilton, NJ, in 2006. His works are in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. , the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Washington National Gallery of Art.
He is survived by his sister, Maria Clowser; his guardian, Maria Elisa Cantu; his children Raoul Neri, Laticia Souter, Noel Neri, Maximilian Neri, Ruby Neri, Julia Leonard and Gustavo Neri; and seven grandchildren.