Jazz shapes caught in marble

THE California sculptor Manuel Neri makes objects that belong to a tradition at least 3,000 years old. He cuts marble from a quarry near the one Michelangelo used, and his apartment in Carrara, where he spends part of each year, is around the corner from a house Michelangelo once lived in. Most of Neri's sculptures depict the female nude. He has assimilated stylistic influences from ancient Greece and Egypt, Latin America before Columbus, and modern Europe. Among the 20th-century sculptors who have influenced his work are Picasso, Marini, and Giacometti.

For all its precedents in sculpture, however, his work more truly reflects the atmosphere of improvisation in painting, poetry, jazz, and life that characterized the 1950s art world in San Francisco, when Neri studied art.

Neither his teachers nor the critics ever greatly encouraged him to pursue painting as a career. But his early ideas of how to be an artist were formed by the ideal of spontaneity and free handling of materials associated with Abstract Expressionist painting.

Neri was born in 1930, in Sanger, California - an agricultural community near Fresno. His parents were farm laborers from Mexico, and his family led a migratory life until he was 14, when his father died and his mother settled in Oakland with her children.

As a teen-ager Neri became interested in electrical engineering, and his introduction to the practice of art came in a ceramics workshop that he took to lighten the load of science and math courses. After studying engineering for a year at Berkeley, he transferred to art school.

His first medium was clay, but he gave up ceramics because too much of the process was out of his control. After shaping the clay and painting it with glazes, he had to bake it in a kiln, and too often the final result disappointed him.

Painting allowed him control as well as spontaneity. Nevertheless, he painted so thickly that his work came to resemble low-relief sculpture, and in the end it seemed wisest to concede that he was a sculptor who loved to paint.

Working in plaster allowed him the combination of immediacy and control that had eluded him with clay. He could either leave the surface unfinished or paint it. By 1958 he had settled upon his basic subject, the female nude, from which he has seldom deviated over the ensuing 30 years.

At first it was enough that he could express his ideas as quickly in a sculptural medium as in paint. Then, in 1961, he went to Europe. His visits to the great European museums impressed upon him a long-term view of art; quickness alone did not suffice.

He still values the appearance of spontaneity. Even today, when financial success has made it possible for him to cast sculpture in bronze and cut marble in Italy, his work can look casual to the point of awkwardness.

But the truth is that his work has been informed by deep study and frequent revision. By the 1970s he was exhibiting sculpture that had been added to and subtracted from over a period of 10 years or more.

Time and change are among the explicit themes of his work. The broken-off arms and legs of his figures, together with their chipped and scratched surfaces, suggest the art found in ancient ruins. But it is not only art that seems to endure; it is humanity itself. Neri shows us the strength in sculptural forms that are not conventionally noble, and in people who look a little funny as well.

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