Washington, DC

Manuel Neri

Corcoran Gallery of Art

With the large number of Neri’s works on prominent display at the Corcoran, and a hefty full-color catalogue, the recent “Manuel Neri: Early Work, 1953–1978,” shown together with an exhibition of five of his recent marble sculptures, could have been mistaken for a major retrospective. Neri’s early work is figurative, lifesize, usually constructed out of plaster, and augmented frequently with wire, wood, canvas, or other support materials. The sculptures, sometimes partly painted, are often lifelike enough to suggest a rough and perhaps damaged George Segal plaster cast, (e.g., Seated Female Figure with Leg Raised, 1959), while others are so horrifically contorted they’re more like a volumetric rendering of a Lucian Freud female nude (e.g., Shrouded Figure, ca. 1960). Indeed, it’s the posture of most of the female figures, incongruously evoking both rigidity and vulnerability, that makes them so disturbing. Thus the forms suggest severed limbs rather than missing parts. The later female nudes, however, dating from the early ’70s, attain a kind of gracefulness, as though they’d been trapped during a heightened state of attention in the volcanic ash of Pompeii. With these later works it is as though Neri had learned that not all deaths are humanly willed and violent.

The five recent marbles are something altogether different, abstracted versions of the female form that seem to take their central inspiration from the mysterious, damaged sculptures of classical antiquity, as well as, to a lesser extent, the rough, half-formed sculptures of Michelangelo or Rodin. Neri’s are as stylized as any archaic examples of the medium, though the figures tend to be thinner—undoubtedly inspired by his longtime model Mary Julia—even if the works seem to describe generic moments of the figure rather than any particular woman or idea of womanhood. All five of the sculptures lack extremities, and only one has a head. They are sensual, elegant, and mannered, but hardly erotic.

At this stage in his work, Neri seems as much obsessed with the expressive qualities of marble as with the female form. His stone of choice is white with gray veins; he explores all the possible textures of stone, from stippled to hacked to acid-eaten to smoothly polished. But the later works, however compelling, seem a compromise: neither beautiful nor horrifying, simply virtuosic, they are the work of a sculptor who seems to have mastered his craft just as he tempers and revises his vision into something softer, less distinctive, and more palatable.

Justin Spring