New Haven

Manuel Neri, Bull Jumper III, 1989, plaster, pigment, steel, Styrofoam, burlap, 30 1⁄4 x 42 x 21 1⁄2".

Manuel Neri, Bull Jumper III, 1989, plaster, pigment, steel, Styrofoam, burlap, 30 1⁄4 x 42 x 21 1⁄2".

Manuel Neri

Yale University Art Gallery

Manuel Neri, Bull Jumper III, 1989, plaster, pigment, steel, Styrofoam, burlap, 30 1⁄4 x 42 x 21 1⁄2".

Most of the works in Manuel Neri’s exhibition “The Human Figure in Plaster and on Paper” feel as if they were made yesterday. This is partly because outgoing Yale University Art Gallery director Jock Reynolds—who has known the accomplished Bay Area octogenarian since his own student days in the art department at the University of California, Santa Cruz—has displayed sculptures executed in plaster rather than marble or bronze as well as works on paper made in sketch sessions involving a model. Reynolds’s decision to rest the faceless figures, replete with gouged surfaces, directly on the floor, and to leave the drawings unframed also enhances their freshness, despite some works being more than fifty years old.

All told, the well-lit, spacious installation features eight works on paper, three sketchbooks, and twenty-nine heads, figures, and wall reliefs, all executed between 1959 and 2009. None of the full-scale plasters share the same pose (even the arms of those that seem similarly arranged are positioned differently). Combined with the improvisatory way Neri sculpted his lithe, nude forms, these differences suggest that at any second the figures that are standing, kneeling, crawling, or sitting on the edge of a chair might change their positions. Consequently, you feel as if you have stumbled into an art studio where a slender, agile nude is assuming a variety of stances.

Because Neri used the same model for most of his career, it’s easy to picture all of the sculptures as representations of the same character over time, allowing the work to shuttle between fact and fiction. Once you start pondering the textures and colors that have enlivened Neri’s work for decades, you also realize how those decisions track the evolving nature of sculpture itself. When Minimalism held sway, the caking plaster must have conveyed a messy provocation. These days, besides adding a rhythmic quality, the coarse material’s drips, blobs, puddles, splotches, and directional changes signal the works’ relevance to current, more instantaneous practices.

As for the color highlights, the blues, pinks, yellows, grays, and blacks marvelously call attention to arms as bent lines, heads as ovals, necks as critical supports, and backs as body parts in their own right, just as important as fronts. The way the paint has been applied—in slashes, streaks, and smudges—also suggests that the definition of Abstract Expressionism should not just be reserved for nonrepresentational canvases.

It was exhilarating to see the progressions of Neri’s work complemented by examples of his sculpture that haven’t been seen on the East Coast since 2003, when Neri had his last of eleven solo shows at Charles Cowles’s eponymous SoHo gallery before it closed in 2009. With his gift for working in plaster and bronze and his talents as a draftsperson, Neri presents himself as a latter-day California version of Alberto Giacometti. Like the European modernist, the American sculptor stands slightly apart from the artists with whom he can be associated. Though his three-dimensional figures belong next to the drawings and canvases of his Bay Area colleagues, including Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, and Elmer Bischoff, Neri has receded further into the background. This exhibition marks a perceptive and corrective effort to historicize Neri’s tireless and astute oeuvre.

Phyllis Tuchman