A&E

An unexpected gift

Anderson Collection expands its holdings of work by sculptor Manuel Neri

Three years ago, the Anderson Collection at Stanford University opened to much acclaim, both as a new addition to the arts district on campus and as an invaluable resource for the visual arts. The 30,000-square-foot museum contains the private collection of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson (who prefer to be known as "Hunk" and "Moo"), which was cultivated over a 50-year period. In a recent interview, Hunk Anderson explained that the gift reflected "the best of the best of what we owned." That original gift is about to become even better, with the addition of 11 works by sculptor Manuel Neri. These pieces are featured in an exhibition, "Manuel Neri: Assertion of the Figure," through Feb. 13, 2018.

It should be noted that single-donor museums often tend to be static tributes to a collector. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, for example, precludes the display of art not originally purchased by Stewart herself. The problem for such museums is how to sustain interest, after the initial fanfare surrounding their premiere. During the three years that went into the planning of the building that houses the Anderson Collection at Stanford, both the donors and the architects were aware of such concerns.

"The building is a dedicated museum for the Anderson Collection — that's where it all starts," Hunk said.

But a space for borrowed works also was considered in the planning, explained Moo. "It's a small space but we have had some great exhibitions," she added, noting that the recent Nick Cave show generated a lot of positive response.

And while the Anderson Collection does not actively solicit outside donations, sometimes things just come together and an offer that is too good to pass up presents itself. This was the case with the Manuel Neri gift of sculptures, reliefs and works on paper. Because the Anderson Collection already owned a significant work by Neri, "Untitled Standing Figure,1982," it seemed like a natural evolution to expand upon the holdings of the most important sculptor in the Bay Area Figurative movement.

According to a representative from the Manuel Neri Trust, the artist (who is 87 and no longer producing art) has been concerned about the distribution of works remaining in his possession for a number of years. For the past 15 years, there has been a concerted effort to gift works of art to museums around the country. The trust places art in institutions that already own work by Neri and strives to gift pieces that give "a sense of process." To that end, gifts usually include both preparatory drawings and completed pieces. San Francisco painter Joseph Goldyne suggested to the trust that the Anderson Collection would be fitting home to such a gift. The Andersons, working with director Jason Linetzky, selected the pieces.

"We like to collect an artist's work in-depth," explained Hunk. For her part, Moo was thrilled to be able to choose several works depicting Joan Brown (once married to Neri), a Bay Area Figurative artist not represented in the Anderson Collection. She spoke excitedly of one piece, "Collage and Ink Figure Study No. 35 (Joan Brown), 1963."

"A collage — now that was a big surprise!" she said.

The Neri gift, according to Hunk, is appropriate for the museum because "it is of high quality and fits the scope of the collection."

Neri, born in 1930, comes from humble roots. The son of farm workers, he was raised in the city of Sanger, near Fresno. He entered San Francisco City College in 1950, intending to become an engineer, but a chance exposure to a ceramics class changed his course. He attended several art schools in San Francisco and was there at a critical nexus of influences — from Mark Rothko and Clifford Still to artists who were rebelling against the constraints of Abstract Expressionism and returning to the figure. David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn and Peter Voulkos would have an enormous impact on Neri, as he made the discovery that sculpture, not painting, was his natural medium. Because of financial constraints, Neri elected to work in plaster, explaining "it was cheap and you could throw away your mistakes."

Like classical sculptors, he created fragmented torsos (almost always women) but added his own twist by gouging, slashing, sanding and filing the surface. Soon, he began to add color — bright, vivid slashes of pigment that seem to mirror the manner in which the abstract expressionists used paint. The combination of the traditional nude form with gestural painting made his work stand out, and soon he caught the attention of the art world.

In 1981, art critic Hilton Cramer wrote, "No one else has carried out this complex heritage into sculpture with quite the energy or originality that Mr. Neri has brought to it." Recognition via museum exhibitions around the country followed, but Neri was also an educator, teaching at University of California, Davis, from 1965 to 1990.

When the artist found that plaster was too fragile, he began working in more durable materials such as bronze and marble. (For many years, Neri spent summers in his studio in Carrara, Italy — the same place Michelangelo worked). "Makida III, 1997," is a lovely head study in marble, with finely rendered facial features. It is at once delicate and solid, with washes of pink and blue oil-based enamel adding an exotic touch. A series of marble-relief maquettes (dating from 1983) reflect the artist's lifelong fascination with the female body. Although diminutive in size (around two feet), each reflects a sense of ethereal grace and perfection of form.

Neri, who always sketched, explored on paper ways to translate two dimensional ideas into three dimensional objects. Using graphite, charcoal or gouache, the artist sometimes used his sketchbook as a diary, adding text that described his feelings or issues at the time. The drawings in the exhibition reflect the artist's spontaneous approach, expressed in quick, dynamic strokes of pigment or charcoal. The three "Mujer Pegada (1984)" studies are fascinating in the way that Neri chose to cut away small sections around the figure, creating a sense of three dimensions on a flat surface.

Following the exhibition, the pieces will be rotated in and out of the permanent collection. Explained Linetzky, "They expand opportunities the museum has to teach from and allow students, faculty and the public to experience Neri's work firsthand."

In addition to the Neri sculptures inside the museum, seven sculptures on loan from Hackett/Mill Gallery in San Francisco were scheduled to be installed outside the building in mid-October.

A 350-page, fully illustrated catalog, published by Stanford University Press, accompanies the exhibition.

Freelance writer Sheryl Nonnenberg can be emailed at nonnenberg@aol.com.

What: "Manuel Neri: Assertion of the Figure"

Where: Anderson Collection, 314 Lomita Drive, Stanford

When: Through Feb. 12, Wednesdays-Mondays 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (open until 8 p.m. Thursdays).

Cost: Free.

Info: Go to anderson.stanford.edu.

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