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Books & Exhibition Catalogs

Livres d’Artistes. Brighton Press, San Diego, CA. 1994.

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Nixon, Bruce. Manuel Neri, Artists’ Books/The Collaborative Process.
Introduction by Robert Flynn Johnson, published by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in association with Hudson Hills Press, 2005.

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Robert Flynn Johnson’s Introduction written for the exhibition catalogue, Manuel Neri, Artists’ Books/The Collaborative Process, published by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2005.

I haven’t understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it.
~ Igor Stravinsky

… Artists’ books, or the production of more elaborate volumes referred to as livré d’artiste, often involve extensive collaboration between diverse creative individuals. These usually include a publisher, a printer/designer, and a writer or poet whose words are put in conjunction with the artist’s imagery. The relinquishing of the natural and absolute control that artists take for granted in their studios often dissuades them. The prospect of an inspired collaborative production is outweighed by the fear that competing creative forces will dilute or obscure the artist’s original intent.

… It is clear that … Mary Julia Klimenko and her poetry that was the catalyst for the artist. Since 1972, Klimenko had been Manuel Neri’s primary model and muse. Parallel to this activity, Klimenko had developed into a respected and widely published poet. That the idea of some form of collaboration between her poetry and Neri’s art would take place was almost inevitable.

The creative collaboration between living poets and writers with artists is a major feature of artists’ books of the past century. Such pairings as Pablo Picasso and Max Jacob; Jean Arp and Tristan Tzara; Joan Miró and Paul Eluard; Fernand Léger and Blaire Cendrars; and Jasper Johns and Samuel Beckett are only representative examples of the fruitful artistic alliances that have brought forth enduring examples uniting word and image.
Nixon, Bruce. Things That Dream: Contemporary Calligraphic Artists’

Books/Cosas que sueñan: Libros de artistas caligraficos contemporaneous,
Introduction by Joseph Goldyne, published by Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, California, 2012.

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Joseph Goldyne’s Introduction written for the exhibition catalogue, Manuel Neri, Artists’ Books/The Collaborative Process, published by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2005.

Books need readers and artists’ books need those who love to look as well as to read, individuals who are visual to their core.

The most inspirational and persuasive force in the graphic and sculptural prelude to Manuel Neri’s evolution as a book artist has been the poet Mary Julia Klimenko. Her insight and sensitivity were uniquely suited to Neri’s. But she has also been his model, reader, and confidante since 1972, the year in which she first enrolled in a poetry class. In four decades of collaborations with Manuel Neri, for that is what their sessions in the studio most certainly have been, Klimenko would inspire Neri directly, but so would the very back and forth of their shared ideas—Klimenko posing and/or reading, and Neri watching her and listening to her read her own poetry or that of Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973) or Federico García Lorca (1898 – 1936). For forty years, it has been Klimenko’s voice that Neri has heard reading poetry and for forty years it has been her body that has inspired his drawing and sculpture. How many times did they hear the same poems and how many times did the sculptor draw the poet? We shall never know, but the answer would be in the thousands. Their creative relationship in the studio was clearly suited to Neri’s already established direction and needs. The artist, more a being of intuition than reason, must have lingered and dreamed amidst the brilliantly expressed emotions captured and cultivated in these gatherings of poems. Most significantly perhaps is that Neri’s receptivity, despite the occasional bottleneck of conflicting intentions, has never waned. It has persisted with unceasing vitality for forty years.

That vitality has propelled Manuel Neri’s book work for more than two decades. He began his first joint effort in the medium with Mary Julia Klimenko in 1990. The result of their initial collaboration, published in 1991 by Brighton Press in San Diego, was She Said: I Tell You It Doesn’t Hurt Me. The text, a series of eight poems by Klimenko, was accompanied by Neri’s etched and torn images of the poet’s head. Tough, gritty and individualized by tearing the paper and hand coloring the impressions, the prints fulfilled Neri’s ambition to create images that would preserve the spontaneity of his drawings and present a one-of-a-kind feel. Enhancing their dimensional presence was the fact that the book was constructed so that each print would have to be removed from its paper folder to reveal the poem. Agreeing that She Said: I Tell You It Doesn’t Hurt Me was a success, Klimenko and Neri began to speak seriously about ideas for other projects.

The books born of these discussions were Territory, also published by Brighton Press in 1992, followed by Crossings / Chassé-croisé, published by Editions Koch in 2002 – 2003. For both of these works, Neri created unique images to accompany poems by Klimenko. Territory featured one original drawing and five photolithographs of other drawings, while Crossings / Chassé-croisé included eleven photographs of Klimenko by Lee Fatherree (initially intended as a recording of ideas for sculptural poses) hand painted with oil-based pigments by Neri.

In 2004, the centennial of Pablo Neruda’s birth, Neri and Klimenko talked about working together on a project to celebrate Neruda by creating a series of unique books devoted to their favorite Neruda poems and accompanied by Neri’s original drawings. Soon their ambition expanded to include books devoted to the Lorca poems they both loved. It was agreed that Klimenko would write the introduction for this series of artists’ books. Fortuitously, for more than two decades Neri had been setting aside what grew to be a small trove of drawings to use for something special. These were in effect his “books in waiting,” and he decided that the sequestered drawings would be a perfect fit for the Neruda and Lorca poems.

Choosing to employ original drawings as key elements in any artists’ book clearly makes identical copies impossible. But, as suggested above, the concept of a small edition of absolutely identical copies never had any traction with Neri. It was not a matter of his opposing that traditional approach in principle. Rather it was his personal inability to work with conviction for that result as a goal. Neri’s life’s work has been to make sculpture, and drawing became an essential part of the process. Figurative sculptors as committed and superb draughtsmen are nothing new, and the last two hundred years alone have given us Canova, Degas, Rodin, Lipchitz, Manzu, Marini, Giacometti, Moore, and Smith, to name only the most celebrated names.

In Manuel Neri’s career, drawings really have never been preparatory studies in the traditional sense, but could be understood as a record of studying his subject as well as an important reference source for future work. The need to keep his hands at work is a driving force for Neri, and though his large number of drawings might be dismissed as only a fortunate by-product of that force, the best examples of Neri’s draughtsmanship well represent his aesthetic ethos and are among the most significant graphic expressions of his period and school.
As a committed draughtsman, Neri has continually produced an unusually rich body of drawings over the course of the years. Like the multiple sequential snapshots that constitute the approach of photography known as “reportage,” many of these are discarded, often not because they are bad drawings, but rather because they do not provide the artist with a resonant recollection or at least a frisson. The approach, however, is fundamental to Neri’s way as an artist. He seeks variation, if not in subject itself, then in the states of that subject’s being.

Drawing as thought made visible is critically useful in recording observation, but also and perhaps more importantly, feeling. Neri’s emotions while observing—his sense of both his model and himself listening to poetry that he held especially meaningful—inspired his drawings, and making a selection of these to accompany the texts of the poetry that spurred them on was an understandable way to proceed. His vision of pairing his original drawings with specific poems to create a series of books that were loosely organized around a unifying theme meant that an edition was not possible; the solution to continuing the project was to create a series of one-of-a-kind manuscript books. Once this became clear, Neri turned to the idea of having the text for each book written by hand, and he contacted the esteemed calligrapher Thomas Ingmire to participate in this project.

The artists’ books Neri envisioned and which came together at his behest display the distinguished calligraphy and ingenious binding structure of ambitious and magnificent twentieth century artists’ books (true livres d’ artiste). Neri considered the drawings he chose for these books to be a fitting accompaniment for the at once neo-romantic and expressive poetry of the authors. Never intended as illustrative of that poetry, the drawings were chosen because they seemed to Neri to align somehow with the feelings expressed in the poems. His rapid gestural strokes of color or suggestive charcoal or ink passages were integrated with the more conservative arts of calligraphy and binding—arts classically tethered to high craft. It should be said that calligraphy and binding have essential jobs to do in order that the book as a vessel of text and structure simply survive and communicate. Yet, in some of these books, Ingmire’s calligraphy, for all its elegance and delicacy, can be like a bewitched wind pulling the letters of a word apart and creating a new entity, a word artfully manipulated by a hand on a mission to embellish and liberate as well as to communicate. In effect, Ingmire has been pushing calligraphy away from reproduction of text toward invention of calligraphic pictures for years. Neri, for his part, provides a kind of stylistic valve, assuring that craft is kept in balance with the freshness of his drawings.

One of the most refined examples of the dynamic equilibrium that can exist between a draughtsman of Neri’s inclinations and a calligrapher of Ingmire’s tendencies is achieved in Oda a la bella desnuda / Ode to a Beautiful Nude. In this muted but superb ensemble, the cadence seems of the classical past, of the high-renaissance presentation of an ancient author with raised gold capitals followed by a flow of the most tranquil humanistic script in black ink. Here, the calligraphy incorporates passages of gold- and silver-leaf. The overall effect is reminiscent of a jeweler’s combination of brushed and burnished gold and silver. The dignity of the limited palette is completed by the juxtaposition of Neri’s drawings with their gauze-like grey charcoal strokes and passages of inky black. The pages of Oda a la bella desnuda / Ode to a Beautiful Nude become a logia of order and fealty through which one’s eyes pass to the meaning of the poem. One of the artists’ tasks in such a joint effort, and it can be quite a task, is to avoid inadvertent competition with the source art, the poetry itself. Accordingly, the success of such a venture is dependent as much on its aesthetic restraint as on the independent qualities of its calligraphy and drawing.

Many may regard binding as icing on the cake, but when it feels at one with its text and illustrations, it seems better to see it as a visual overture that has either sampled from the text and illustrative program, or perhaps invented a synthesis that respects both. To be sure, every task of binding cannot meet such an approach; the cases of the Bible or Dante are examples of world literature that are truly beyond a “decorative binding” solution…except one of utmost simplicity. Indeed, many livres d’ artiste are spoiled by bindings that try to compete with an epochal literary achievement. In the case of the poetry that Neri and Ingmire have tackled, a less daunting task was at hand. They have addressed august verse, but verse that journeys to the heart rather than to an abstract stratospheric plane. Daniel Kelm has approached the problem of appropriateness by stamping, tooling, and coloring passages of Ingmire’s calligraphic interpretations into his leather designs. Thus, metaphorically, one might say that Kelm’s participation in these books assured that the distinguishing features of the interior of the ‘house’ were to be introduced at the ‘front door’—that the commitment and care that had gone into the graphic assemblage within were foretold by the quality of craft displayed at the entrance.

Manuel Neri is an artist whose earlier plaster sculptures, often with portions of armature exposed, awoke the west coast of the 1950s and ’60s to the rich potential of the figurative sculptural tradition. His creations appealed for their rough and textured presentation, as if they had just emerged from the plaster-cast room at a county hospital, and it is this association that, at least initially, seems discordant with Neri’s work as an artist participant in the making of meticulously crafted books in the grand manner. Yet Neri himself saw his white plaster works in the same way he would eventually perceive his marble pieces hewn at Carrara—as descendants of Greco-Roman ‘classicism.’ As far as the artist was concerned, they might well have sprung from a ruin such as the fifth century B.C. pedimental fragments of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. In a like manner, it was the artist’s romantic sense of his aesthetic lineage that underscored his receptivity to the vehicle offered by livres d’ artiste. Neri’s participation in the kind of visual banquet offered by such resplendent books serves a similar purpose. It provides the artist entry into a domain notably settled by highly distinguished forerunners—admired pioneers
who joined their arts to compose fulfilling and respected visual chamber music. Such unique books as have engaged his talent and devotion are indeed examples of ensemble playing at a most lyrical level.