Manuel Neri, whose offbeat sculptures of figures missing limbs and heads count among the most significant works of the Bay Area Figuration Movement, died of natural causes on Monday at 91. San Francisco’s Hackett Mill gallery, which represents Neri, announced the news in an email blast earlier this week.
“Neri’s highly evocative, lyrical work with the female form, chiefly in plaster, bronze, and marble, represents a vivid link between modernist sculpture and the fullness of the Western figural tradition,” the gallery said in its obituary.
When Neri began producing his strange painted sculptures during the postwar era, he was associated with a rising crop of Bay Area artists whose work tended toward figuration at a time when critics still preferred an Abstract Expressionist aesthetic. Along with painters such as Richard Diebenkorn and David Park, Neri is considered a part of a generation of artists that also includes Joan Brown (to whom Neri was briefly married) and Robert Qualters. Unlike some of his better-known colleagues, however, Neri gravitated toward sculpture, not painting.
By the mid-1950s, Neri had already become an integral member of an avant-garde San Francisco art scene. He served as a director of Six Gallery, which famously presented Beat poet Allen Ginsburg’s reading of Howl in 1955, and was a member of the Rat Bastard Protective Association, a group that also included artists Bruce Conner and Jay DeFeo. In a similar spirit to those artists, Neri produced works early on that made use of cheap materials, such as cardboard, wire, cloth, and newspaper. In using such banal matter for his work, Neri was among the many American artists at the time who were working to bring the everyday into the field of sculpture, imploding the boundary between art and life.
Later works would come to take on a more elegant, though no less mystifying, aesthetic. He would go on to create his human forms using plaster, bronze, and metal—materials that have been used by sculptors for ages, even though what Neri did with them could hardly be called traditional. Many of the figures Neri crafted feature barely defined faces or with see-through portions that expose the sculpture’s innards. These sculptures are neither portraits in the conventional sense nor effective figurative studies intended to display a knack for depicting human anatomy. Instead, they aspire to something more conceptual.
“I love the body language that people have, the way they move, the way they position themselves,” Neri said in a 2008 Smithsonian Archives of American Art oral history. “That says so much of the person for me, and this has almost nothing to do with the face. That’s my interest there. In fact, a lot of times, I’ll even leave the head off because I don’t want to deal with that.”
Born in 1930 in Sanger, California, to Mexican immigrants, Neri went on to attend the San Francisco City College, where he initially planned to study to become an electrical engineer. A course with sculptor Peter Voulkos was among the factors that pushed him toward becoming an artist, however. He began as a painter, and later translated the Abstract Expressionist–like techniques he used to his sculptures, which are sometimes slathered with various hues of paint. Starting in the late ’50s, Neri also began teaching art, first at the California School of Fine Arts, then at the University of California, Berkeley, and finally at the University of California, Davis, where he was a professor for 25 years.
In the 2008 oral history, Neri said he was a rare non-white artist among an almost entirely white cohort, and that he was made keenly aware of his status as a Latino. But, he asserted, “What is referred to as Latino art, I don’t connect with.”
Neri’s art has been considered hugely important to the Bay Area art scene, though it has not received quite as much recognition beyond that part of California. It wasn’t until 1981, for instance, that Neri had a solo show in New York. Reviewing that show at Cowles Gallery, New York Times critic Hilton Kramer praised the artist for synthesizing Abstract Expressionism and Bay Area Figuration, writing, “No one else has carried this complex heritage into sculpture with quite the energy or originality that Mr. Neri has brought to it.”