Making Art: 40 Years of Sculpture & Poetry with Manuel Neri
by Mary Julia Klimenko
fmsbw press (The Divers Collection), January 2021
Amazon / 178 pages – memoir
Making Art: 40 Years of Sculpture & Poetry with Manuel Neri is a firsthand, rather raw emotional account of the artistic process and accompanying complex relations played out between artist and model. In 1972, a tall slender longhaired twenty-seven year old Mary Julia Klimenko began working with artist Manuel Neri in what eventually became an ever increasingly knotted intermingling of various roles as artist, model, muse, and mistress. Her memoir attempts make some sense of these roles in relation to his art amidst the tangled nature of their relationship. It is a story told as turbulently as it is deeply immersive and forthright. Klimenko does not so much reflect upon her experiences as relive them, often again and again, through the writing.
Neri’s sculpture has long caught my eye. The oftentimes bright splashes of paint across harsh, hacked away by blunt force chunkiness, of otherwise clean plaster white of the feminine form is difficult to pass by unnoticed. Neri’s deliberate acts taken out on the material leave vivid marks, conveying emotive movement, casting traces of human imperfection and possible hastiness unignorably upon the work. Yet, as Klimenko claims: “It wasn’t thoughtlessness or violence that informed Manuel’s work.” Rather, “He moved quickly without thinking about precisely what the ax was going to do. He just knew it needed doing, and it required doing right then before he thought on it too long.” The resulting art is vividly alive with prepossessing features conveying an eerie sense as if being alert to the passing stares of museum visitors. An unavoidable, often unnerving intimacy emanates from any encounter with one of his works.
For quite a while, I knew little if anything about Neri. I simply began recognizing his work immediately upon seeing it. As I kept coming across his sculptures regularly in and around San Francisco, I figured he must have local connections to the area. Soon I discovered he had been married from 1962-1966 to the artist Joan Brown, a San Francisco native whose figurative painting is associated with the Beats and other local art scenes stemming from local 1950s counterculture. Mention of Neri and Brown, whose artistic relationship began long before their marriage, frequently pops up in just about any writing regarding San Francisco galleries of the era. The commentaries I have happened to come across, however, generally focus far more upon Brown and her work rather than Neri. For myself, he has always remained a bit of a mystery.
As a result, my ears pricked up right away when I heard from the folks at fmsbw press that they would be publishing a memoir by Neri’s long time model Klimenko. To be honest I was in fact rather perturbed when they seemingly next published Klimenko’s book of poetry Suspension of Mirrors instead. Shortly after, there was a group reading for fmsbw press down at the Luggage Gallery on Market Street where several of us read from our books (fmsbw had published my own Sketch of the Artist). I was hoping to hear Klimenko make some mention of Neri but don’t recall hearing her do so, and readings being readings I was rather too distracted anyway—I don’t believe we even met at all.
Nevertheless, Klimenko most likely must have a read poem with Neri in mind as throughout Making Art she ties her poetry directly to her work with him. “Somewhere around 1974” after being challenged by her therapist to ask herself the questions “Who am I? What do I do?” and without better answers than she is a mother to three in a second marriage who happens also to be having an affair, Klimenko began attending college. Soon she made it to San Francisco State University. In a creative writing class with poet Tom Crawford—“Poetry,” he said, “is a gift from the gods. It’s sacred, and we’ll treat it that way.”—came the assignment to write a poem.
After class, the day our homework assignment was to write a poem and bring it in, I went to Manuel’s studio to work. I was nude, standing face forward in a pose, saying a line, he’d say, “Yes,” or “No.” If he said, “Yes,” I put it in. If he said, “No,” I left it out.
Afterward, first poem done, she was hooked. As she declares, “I finally had my own identity.” Yet right from the start, Neri was her guide, literally approving that first poem line by line. She was in fact fulfilling a role he would have taken on himself save for a hidden disability: “I learned, after bringing more of my poems to the studio to read to Manuel, that he’d always wanted to be a poet but that he couldn’t because he’s dyslexic, so he chose visual art instead.” It becomes quite clear that she obviously had a tremendous desire for Neri’s approval, “I made a fantastic discovery, that Manuel valued me as a poet.” Poetry came to play a key role in their sessions as they moved forward in their artist and model relationship.
Poetry became a part of the fabric of Manuel’s work. I read my poetry to him. I wrote poetry, like a lioness on a hunt only I brought poetry instead of dead animals to the studio. Because I wanted to keep Manuel’s interest. I wanted him to stay, needed a reason, I thought, to be there. I was afraid I couldn’t hold his interest with my body, and that he would tire of me and send me away. It was gratifying to know I could hold his attention with poetry. I read every major poet’s works for him.
This becomes in her words a “collaboration” of artists. The two of them finding in each other the means to create works of their own making in a shared sense of endeavor:
We didn’t have children, nor a marriage, we had something we’d never had before with anyone, and we became addicted to the feelings of possibility we had when we were together, and he was sculpting, or painting and I was writing or reading aloud. It was always in the amber air, in the music, the poetry, us circling each other every time as if it were the first time because we both knew, in art, we started with an idea then surrendered to the mystery of creating where the artist surrenders to the creative impulse and follows the art muse to wherever it ultimately takes the work.
This sounds like many an artistic relationship. However, Neri, eighteen years her senior (an age difference she makes note of on multiple occasions) clearly held the upper hand as the fully realized accomplished artist that he was from the beginning of their time together. On more than one occasion, the power dynamics at play between them make for uncomfortable reading.
Manuel did remake me in a way. He was the only person who had ever taken a real interest in me and saw me for me and not who the other person wanted me to be. I could and did tell him everything I thought about without censorship. He listened to me tell him about myself from as far back as I could remember. Every rejection, every heartache, every longing, every fear, and every sexual experience I’d had that I could remember. It took years.
Over the decades, Neri and Klimenko traveled the world together. Nearly every trip came about in connection to a new show of his work. On several later trips to universities and museums, Klimenko had the opportunity to present herself as a poet giving readings and the occasional workshop. She earned an MFA in poetry as well as a MA in counseling and came to support herself working as a therapist. Yet the ties between her and Neri have remained an essential component of her life. Their artistic romance has had its own ups and downs as Neri moved through sequential lovers and Klimenko divorced and remarried. At least twice, a proposal of marriage between artist and model arose but never materialized—which the smothering of was mutual, more or less. Klimenko at any rate preferred the synergy they had in the studio and was unwilling to risk losing it.
I didn’t know what his idea was, but it never mattered to me. I took the poses and watched the sculptures come alive as he made them. I took the pose as he made it just right by arranging my lips into what he wanted. Later, I found out he was trying to create a crucified Christ, imagining what it would look like hanging from the cross, while looking at me lying across two ratty couch cushions on a plaster dust floor in the middle of the night, in a circle of light thrown by the klieg light, and I thought it was romantic and knew he loved me. That’s all I wanted. I did my best to take the exact pose he wanted, I didn’t care about the shards of plaster sticking me in the ass and shoulders, I pushed the condition of the couch cushions to the back of my mind as well. I consciously tried to project my energy to him by the exactness of the poses, by willing myself to concentrate only on Manuel, watching him work in silence, watching him glance over at me and then back to the sculpture. There was always that serious time between there being no sculpture and the sculpture emerging. I didn’t talk to him during that time. I knew he needed to focus on what he was doing and nothing else. The poems and music began after the quiet time.
While as fascinating a testimonial to the relation between model and artist as this is, the overall organization of Klimenko’s book feels haphazard. Several episodes are restated without any cumulative effect or altering of the story. Certain chapters contain such similar moments concerning the same set of events that it feels as if Klimenko made several starts at covering particularly notable occasions only to have the writing drift off track as she became taken up by this or that thread of memory. These repetitive moments are sometimes near verbatim recollection of the same conversation or event. Some editorial guidance to snip these passages here and there and shape things up a bit would have only strengthened the worthwhile elements of Klimenko’s tale. Nevertheless, for those readers and art scholars interested in Neri and his work portions of Klimenko’s recollections will likely prove invaluable. In addition, Klimenko’s own life story reveals lessons on avoidable quagmires for many a lover and beloved. With what is love remaining the unanswered ongoing exploration behind it all.