San Francisco

Manuel Neri and Wayne Thiebaud

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

One must try to accept the premise of this two-man exhibit, held in one of the long corridors connecting two wings of the museum. It is that if a curator chooses to exhibit the “personal” sketches, wash drawings, and prints of an artist, along with one or two major works, the whole will give some special insight into the working methods, and perhaps some insight into the germinal ideas, that make up the major works. In the case of Cézanne, enormous insight is gained by viewing his most rudimentary drawings; the converse is true of say, Rodin, whose wash drawings, though beautiful, shed little light on his major works.

Thiebaud’s drawings of candied apples, suckers, pies, and other delectables look good. They are confident loaded-brush drawings of the same things he paints. There all the similarity ends. These drawings are like Rodin’s, ends in themselves. Thiebaud’s paintings depend on the glutted, slickly sensuous paint that makes them up. Their conceptual basis, formal properties, and execution are locked within the thick paint they are made of. No amount of preliminary investigation into his subject matter via drawings or prints gives the onlooker even a hint of what occurs on canvas. The point is that Thiebaud’s paintings happen, or seem to happen, largely in his head. The drawings seem curiously after the fact or diversions, and in some instances merely warm-ups.

Enigmatic, cropped figures cut and pasted out of white paper, and glued to white paper with traceries of glue or ink on the edges characterize Manuel Neri’s collage-drawings. These, like his sculptures, are mute, closed-off, truly withdrawn. The female nudes share a quality with his sculptures, an interior existence entirely unbearable and yet their inability to communicate results only in a bulging, dumb hysteria. A fruitful comparison between Neri and George Segal could be drawn here; they both cover similar formal territory and share the same medium, plaster. But Segal executes in plaster what Brancusi laid to rest when he said, “I’m through rendering corpses.” Segal does extend his figures into environments carefully selected to extend the physical and emotional range of sculpture, but how much better the tableaux would be if they had merely half the intensity Neri manages in a single figure.

James Monte