The Benicia artist community lost one of its most brilliant stars in November when Manuel Neri, internationally acclaimed sculptor and painter, passed away at the age of 91.
Until recent years when his health declined, Neri lived and worked in a former Congregational, then Unitarian Church on West J Street in Benicia, which he acquired in the 1960s after joining the art faculty at UC Davis in 1965.
Neri’s development of innovative techniques as a sculptor of the human form in plaster coincided with the rise of the Bay Area Figurative Art movement, a reaction of regional artists to the abstract expressionist style of art that was dominant in the 1950s. He principally sculpted the female form in plaster; his figures expressed emotional body language. He became known for adding paint to his sculptures, treating the figure as a three-dimensional canvas. His work complemented the unique talents of the “dream team” of other members of the young emerging Davis faculty, which included Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Arneson, William Wiley and Roy De Forest.
The Davis artists were associated with the start of the Funk Art movement, which shunned abstract art in favor of figurative and tangible subjects, incorporated humor, autobiographical subjects, and everyday objects, and elevated ceramics to a new level of importance in art. Neri and other Davis faculty became ambassadors of the school, traveling widely and attracting students who became notable artists, including Richard Shaw, Lisa Reinertson, and Arthur Gonzalez.
Several of the Davis artists brought the vibrancy of their art to Benicia, where Robert Arneson had grown up and encouraged other artists to establish their studios.
Benicia had become increasingly inviting to artists for the availability of affordable studio space after the Army base there closed in the mid 1960s. De Forest and artist Clayton Bailey, who also taught at Davis, both established studios in nearby Port Costa. Arneson and Neri brought hundreds of artists, students, and art patrons through Benicia to visit their studios. With dozens of other artists, they created an art center with numerous exhibitions and art events at the Clocktower and other Arsenal buildings, as well as on First Street. They had energy, ideas and vision.
The son of immigrants from Mexico, Neri grew up in the farming community of Sanger, California.
His family relocated to Oakland when he was a teen, and he studied engineering at City College of San Francisco and UC Berkeley before discovering an interest in ceramics through a class with Peter Voulkos. His subsequent art education at California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco was interrupted by military service. The GI Bill provided the resources for him to complete his education.
Neri’s artistic accomplishments gained him an international reputation and many awards, with his figurative sculptures in plaster, marble, and bronze in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., all major Bay Area galleries, and many other institutions. He maintained a low-key personality, comfortable with anyone, from patrons who came to his converted church-studio to see his art, to students valuing the opportunity to watch and learn.
Neri balanced a busy social life enjoying the company of family and friends, and attending events, exhibitions, and movies, with dedication to his studio, where he displayed a workaholic type of enthusiasm and intensity. He easily worked through the occasional chaos of the studio, full of people, music, dogs, and kids. Gracious with visitors, he was a mentor to his students and to younger artists in the Benicia community.
“I studied with Manuel in the early 1980s when I was both an undergraduate and graduate student at UC Davis,” recalled Benicia sculptor Lisa Reinertson.
“Manuel was a teacher of little words, but he worked alongside us, as we made several quick sketches of the figure, added, subtracted, carved and modeled the clay, and learned to see. Manuel was soft spoken, kind, and generous as a teacher. He was at a height of professional success as an artist. Witnessing that up close and personal was definitely inspirational for us students. But we also witnessed the work ethic, conceptual explorations, vision, and passion for art that was at the heart of it all.”
The City of Benicia gave both Neri and Arneson Lifetime Achievements in the Arts Awards in 2014 for their contributions to the Benicia art community. “He appreciated the Benicia community and their appreciation of him and his art,” said long-time friend Pam Dixon. “It’s what Manuel Neri and the others in his era did that made this town what it is for art today. They created what has become a legacy of art in this community.”