Manuel Neri

CV: Let’s go back to Gizmachi. When was Gizmachi happening? About ’54, ‘53

MN: Mmmm, that name came up, I’m trying to conjure up the name of the guy who brought it up.

CV: Bob Downs?

MN: No. No, no. We were over at the California College of Arts and Crafts, where I first started my art program. That was, God, it must have been ’52.

CV: Was that before you went into the Army?

MN: Yeah, I went into the Army in ’53…went off to Korea and I returned in the end of ’54. And that was a great thing that happened. Number one: I got to see Japan and Korea. The war had just ended as I arrived in Korea. And I came back and I had this great G.I. Bill to come back and finish my whole art thing. So, it worked out very well for me.

CV: I’ve always wondered, I’d never ever asked you the question, I mean, in all our years of friendship or anything. I was wondering, what turned you on in (par leer) to become an artist? I mean, you know, I mean.

MN: No, it wasn’t in (par leer). (cough), I was going to be an electrical engineer, which would have been great because that was pre-digital world, that happened later. That would have been right in line for that whole thing. Uh, I was getting started to go into Berkley and, uh, I needed a math class, I remember, and I needed an English class, or something or other. So, the summer before I started at Berkley, I came here to San Francisco City College and took those classes and, uh, signed up for the classes and I decided to take a dumb art class just for an easy grade. And it turned out to be a ceramics class that a fantastic guy, by the name of Roy Walker, taught. And Roy gave me an introduction to art that was just amazing. Um, he told me sorta what was happening, he pointed me to just the right shows that really, uh, led my to what was happening around…

CV: Where were a lot of the shows at that time? I mean, you know, like…

MN: At museums, of course. And I’m talking either at Berkley or here in San Francisco, or around the Bay Area. There weren’t, the gallery thing was very limited to what was happening in the galleries. You know, it was mainly clowns and landscape painting in those galleries, which was okay, but, um, you know, that whole society of (unintelligible) was their world still. But, you know, that whole New York thing was starting to creep in here. The people who were here, the teachers here, I think Diepencorn had a, later on, had a fantastic effect on me. But Roy Walker, not that he was like, a great teacher necessarily in what I did in his classes was super important, it’s what he had to tell me of what was available. He would say things like, “There’s a really interesting guy teaching at Berkley, visiting, go talk to him, just go ask him to let you sit in on his class.” And that’s what I did. I would just go and sit in people’s classes and listen to them. Hear what they had to say. It’s a great way…

CV: Who was teaching over there? University of California was happening then.

MN: Not much, not the old gang. I’m talking about visiting people. They were from New York, you know. Fantastic people were coming out. They were starving to death in New York, you know. Things hadn’t really grabbed a hold for them.

CV: That’s right.

MN: So, it was super interesting. And then coming here, to this school. Um, you know, later on when I returned from the military, as I said, I returned in ’56 and there were unbelievable people teaching here by then.

CV: Back at CCAC, though, you know, when you were there…you guys used to talk about the tree house back there.

MN: (laughing)

CV: In back of the school, could you describe that tree house? And Billy Al Bickson was a part of that whole thing too, right?

MN: Well, just some craziness, you know. Just talk, mainly. Billy Al was here in this area because there was there was nothing, you know, happening in L.A. yet. So a lot of the younger crowd from L.A. showed up here.

CV: Yeah

MN: And, it was great having them. John Altune (sp) was here… you name it! That whole young gang. You know, and at California College of Arts and Crafts I had some great fellow students there. Fellow students like, Peter Vocus (sp) was, you know, studied there. Nathan Alivera was studying there. We became close friends then. So, there was an unbelievable group of artists, which were concentrated in these little art schools around the area here.

CV: So tell me about Gizmachi (sp).

MN: I, Carlos, to tell you the truth, can’t remember what the hell Gizmachi means. But it was this guy who, he was married to this Mexican woman and it was an Indian word. What it really meant, I don’t know. Probably meant something you can’t even discuss here. But, just fantastic.

CV: I heard that people would bring in, just, you know, slides of say, watchtowers and stuff like that just to turn people on or turn people off, whatever. It was almost like a Salon.

MN: Yeah, but you know, that’s the way we were. We were desperately looking for things that we could…we were putting ourselves together in those days. You know, I certainly was. And, as far as the watchtowers, Christ, I heard about them and I drove down there to go look at the damn things…which was amazing, that guy was just amazing

CV: (audio missing)

MN: Yeah, and I was there before they really cleaned up the area which was terrific.

CV: You know, Bob Rasmussen was telling me, I visited him in Ireland, and he was telling me about Gizmachi and he said it was a big turn-on because he was still in high school. And, uh, somehow he got there and was turned-on by just all of these very odd people, who were artists. They were all just a little older but I can imagine, you know they were like, pretty shy but at the same time lots of energy and wanting to say something and here’s this group of people. It turned Bob on to go to CCAC.

MN: But, you know, the whole San Francisco area, as far as the art world, was extraordinary. Period. And one of the things that made it so, is that, not the ideas that were developing then, they were strong and all that. The people were terrific. One of the most important things, situations that we had, was that nobody was selling anything.

CV: That’s how I grew up!

MN: Nobody was selling anything! That meant that when I went to school with Zemlak Diepencorn (sp), who I really admired, we were just, he was just a fellow artists. It was that kind of, you could buy a Diepencorn for four hundred dollars and he wasn’t selling at that price. It didn’t mean we didn’t honor that; we were very supportive of each other. You don’t have that situation anymore.

CV: Yeah, that true, that’s true.

MN: I mean, (sigh) I ran the Sixth Gallery, as I said, for the last two years and my claim to fame at that gallery was I never sold a single thing. Nothing. It was terrific. We gad great parties!

CV: Oh, yeah, we had terrific parties, we had terrific parties.

MN: (coughing)

CV: Jeez, I can’t even remember them, that’s how good they were. (Chuckling)

MN: (laughing and nodding head)

CV: I remember when you and Joan were living over there on Powell Street. Oh God! Those, go up there and a light would show up there…Jamie and all of us would just, you know, I mean, just go to a café.

MN: I had people like Dicuni (sp) come over and sit around for hours. And Dicuni was visiting San Francisco because at that time he had a young daughter here in town. And he was here visiting and we met him at this crazy party. And I remember Bill Brown, Joan, and I and Dicuni was with this art collector from Florida…BIG art collector. And this whole gang, we ended up partying the rest of the night and we ended up pushing my car through Chinatown, it was out of gas. (Laughing)

CV: (Laughing)

MN: That was life then.

CV: You had the…

MN: The convertible

CV: Oh, the convertible. Oh, I remember the convertible. That was one, remember. Jesus! Remember you taking a lot of plaster from the school and you’d load that thing up and the wheels were off the ground about inches. That was great! (Laughter)

MN: That was my truck.

CV: Yep. That was always wonderful. I remember that first class that you taught. Right down here…right outside of the pawnshop. Remember that first class? There were about eight students. There was that Catholic Priest from Italy.

MN: That’s right! (whispering) And he did great things!

CV: He did fantastic things! I got turned on over there. Joan was there…Frosty was there. Frosty Meyers.

MN: (Nodding)

CV: Who else?

MN: There was this architect. He was a young architect at that time and he went on to be…what the hell was his name?

CV: Ishra? (sp)

MN: No, no

CV: Tom Boles (sp)?

MN: No, I don’t remember (waves hand). He put together Sea Ranch later and did buildings all around the Bay Area. But, uh, it was like a great combination…I couldn’t believe it!

CV: It was beautiful!

MN: It was great! Going around and talking to everybody.

CV: You had all plaster over there.

MN: (nodding and smiling)

CV: And you showed us what to do with plaster and rags and how to make armatures real fast. And then you had all these reproductions and you hung them on the wall really carefully. You know, like you had that beautiful “Yellow Christ” and you had, there were a bunch of them! But they were always pictures that you looked at for a really long time and you had them up there just ready to pounce on whoever wanted to talk about them. I could share stuff about that.

MN: Unbelievable things came out of that class.

CV: Oh, yeah!

MN: All of you. Really…

CV: There was a lot of fire there.

MN: Mmhmm (nodding). Yes.

CV: There was a whole lot of fire there. And, uh, I was just happy to be, you know, there with somebody that, you know, like, I’ve shared a whole lifetime with you.

MN: You know, like, I remember the day Leo introduced me to you. Good day (nodding). It was a good meet.

CV: (laughing) We had some damn good times.

MN: Yeah.

CV: We had some good times. Um, remember the Rat Bastard Parade

MN: Yes. (both laughing).

CV: The Rat Bastard Parade. We all met down in your studio that you shared with Pete Farackus (sp). You know, underneath, right underneath Grant Avenue.

MN: Yes. It was under the street.

CV: Oh, yeah. Right under the street. I remember all of the sculptures that you did that were non-objective. You called them “Non-Objective,” but they were very objective, as far as I was concerned. They were colored plaster. And, uh, all of these very incredible shapes.

MN: Yeah.

CV: I’m wondering, you know, like, you made a change. I forgot what year you made the change. But, all of a sudden you got really turned on to David Park stuff.

MN: Yeah

CV: Talk about that.

MN: What really, what turned me on to David Park’s work was his style of painting, a lot. And I’m talking about that heavy stroke and structure that he did.

CV: Yeah

MN: And for me that was a very sculptural thing. And I wanted to bring that feeling into my work, into the sculptures. And by that time, of course, I had really gotten into the figure and I wanted to work that way.

CV: The scale of David Park’s, you know, I can remember “The Bathers.” And the one where the two guys are rowin’ the boat. The scale on those pieces…

MN: Those little studies he did were just terrific.

CV: With a felt tip marker?

MN: Yes

CV: Killer. Those are the ones that he did right before he died.

MN: (nodding) That whole gang, you know, they call that Figurative Period that started here in the Bay Area, what brought that about was that all these people (coughing) that we knew as our teachers, they all started drawing together and working with the figure enough so that the figure came into their painting. And most of them weren’t expressionists before that.

CV: That’s true. That’s true. I was reading a little bit about Elmer Bishov (sp)

MN: Diepencorn (sp)

CV: Yeah, Diepencorn (sp), getting into that. But there was a guy…Mills who ran the Oakland Gallery, Oakland Art Museum, at the time and Fred Martin told me this story. He said he had all these figurative painters over there and he looked at Diepencorn and he says, “God. Here you are, you’re an abstract expressionist.” And then he said, “I’ve always loved Hopper and I didn’t want to leave him out.”

MN: (Nodding) Fantastic.

CV: You know, I mean but, eloquent, but just, very, very simple it wasn’t like, oh, because of this, because of that. There wasn’t any, no post-modern post-script or anything.

MN: No, no. Deep. Excuse me, we all called Diepencorn (sp), “Deep,” you know.

CV: (laughing)

MN: Deep for us was like, for us, just a fantastic source. You know, he was great.

CV: I remember that when he started makin’ money he bought that XKE and he parked that thing about three blocks away from here because he was embarrassed! (laughing)

MN: Yes! (laughing) You’re right! I forgot about that.

CV: (laughing)
O: I never heard that!

CV: (laughing) You know, he was embarrassed about that…

MN: You know, but….

CV: He was great!

MN: You know, making money in those days was kind of like a put-down in those days. (laughing and scratching head)

CV: (laughing) It was, it was…

MN: If you were making money then there was something kinda wrong with your work, you know. (laughing)

CV: (laughing) Oh, God. I want you to give a description of Mark DiSuvro (sp) coming into your studio and using all of your plaster. Could you talk about that?

MN: Oh, God. I used have that studio over on Mission, you know. Frank (unintelligible) also had that studio next to me. Uh, Mark showed up, you know, we knew each other from S Schools years before. In fact, he’s in town right now. You know, I was over working there and he came to visit and he said, “Man, I wanna make something.” I said, “Sure! Go ahead.” Well, he went crazy! He used all my plaster! Chopped up my furniture and built a sculpture! He built two of them.

CV: (laughing)

MN: And it was not just my furniture but there was a young kid…

CV: Richard!

MN: Yes, Richard’s! The young kid, sorta like, chopped up his furniture

CV: (laughing)

MN: I wasn’t there at the time and I wouldn’t have let him do it, but Richard was really pissed off…I’m sorry, it happens.

CV: (chuckling)

MN: Oh, God.

CV: But, there was one time we walked in there and you were about to start on a sculpture and you’d have to walk over to Mark’s sculpture to pull out one of your tools! (laughing)

MN: Yeah! (laughing) He used everything! Then he got mad because I took some of the stuff back!

CV: (laughing)

MN: Richard tore out the pieces of furniture he could use and Mark was really pissed off.

CV: (laughing)

MN: Oh, God. (shaking head)

CV: Those were some funny days. Remember when, remember, uh, Louie Cervantes?

MN: Oh, sure. Louie and Leon Sargoza, remember, Leon Sargoza? They had a party in back of Spatza (sp) Gallery and they were gonna do a pig. And they only, they picked the biggest pig in the world and they cooked it in one hour. Everyone got drunk and everyone started eating it after one hour. It was amazing that everyone didn’t die of Trichinosis! (laughing)

MN: (laughing) It was raw!

CV: Oh, God. You ever hear from…oh, God, what was his name, the guy that ran Spatza? Oh, God, I forgot his name.

MN: Oh, God.

CV: Not Jim Newman…

MN: Jim Newman?

CV: No, no, Jim came later. But I remember he was doing, like for his art, he was doing pieces that were as big as postage stamps (laughter). Anyway, those were some incredible times. I was, I wanna ask you a few names and see if you can remember some of these people. What about Sung Woo Chun?

MN: I do, yes.

CV: What do you remember about him?

MN: He was just part of the gang. I don’t remember anything specific, you know.

CV: He had, let’s see. He did these paintings, he used to show at Bowls…he did a show at Bowls. And then all of a sudden he left and he became a PhD in Art. He was the first one that I ever heard, that I ever knew.

MN: Well, you can go wrong sometimes (laughing).

CV: (laughing) What about Jose Lerma (sp)?

MN: Oh, Jose. He was a good friend.

CV: Oh, he used to play Mambo records in his, uh, studio

MN: Yep (nodding).

CV: ‘Member that gang he used hang out with? That redheaded guy, who, “Little Red,” who used to be a painter. He had that, uh, there was that group of artists that called themselves the “Upper..” I don’t know, not the “Upper Filmore” but “Russian Hill.”

MN: I really didn’t know too much about…I know the group you mean but I really didn’t know much about them.

CV: Well, anyway, I see Jose every once in awhile and then, uh Louie Cervantes…

MN: Oh, yes.

CV: You remember the pieces that he used to do?

MN: Not really, no. The…

CV: You know, the sculpture, the small sculpture pieces that had funny textures and stuff. Anyway…

MN: I vaguely remember them.

CV: Anyway, he was a guy that I remember and he never got any, he never got too much love. But, uh, anyway, he was one of the people. What about Vesuvius (sp)? What can you remember about Vesuvius?

MN: Hmmm. Well, in the early days it was kinda of the meeting place to go have a beer. And, uh, I don’t know, just a good place. Good place to go get arrested (laughing).

CV: (laughing) Right, right.
O: The sponsor was Demetri Grockus (sp)…

CV: Demetri. Remember him?

MN: Sure, I remember the name. Yes.

CV: What do you remember about Pete? Do you have any stories about you and Pete?

MN: As I told you, I started out with him as a fellow student. He came down from Montana and he was working on his Masters there at, uh, The Art Institute, and we became very close. I think maybe he took me on as a close friend maybe because my name is Manuel and he had a brother named Manuel.

CV: He had a Manuel, a brother named Manuel

MN: (chuckling)

CV: Well, I’m sure it was a little more than that.

MN: But, afterwards, you know, um, at the end, you know that first year, at the end of the year, beginning of that summer. He was going back to Montana to start that Art Your Break Foundation. In fact he went back, then wrote me and said, “Come visit.” So, I went there and I helped him kinda put that thing together

CV: Oh, wow.

MN: That was great. It was a great time there.

CV: What was the Art Your Break Foundation? It brought in…

MN: In Helena, Montana, just outside of town, you know.

CV: Young artists would come there and do work?

MN: Not yet. A few. A very few.

CV: Uh huh.

MN: But, uh, it became a real important ceramics center. A then a few years later, Pete was invited to go teach in L.A. and start that ceramics sort of thing over there, so…and then his career really took off at that point.

CV: Yeah, yeah. Wow. It was, there definitely was a Ceramics Mafia at the time.

MN: Oh, yes. Oh, yeah.

CV: You know, you’d have Henry Takamoto…

MN: And Mrs. Netherby or what was her name?

CV: Oh, Mrs. Netherby! Now she should have a show!

MN: (nodding) They should really present her.

CV: Her glazes were…

MN: Unbelievable.

CV: Her glazes were amazing.

MN: And you know, she really brought to this country that whole craft from the Japanese, which was unbelievable. She had it.

CV: When you were there at CCAC, did you do any calligraphy? Or did you

MN: No.

CV: Did you take?

MN: No, but there was, I met a Japanese calligrapher, I forget his name of course. He was great, really great. I didn’t study with him but I used to go sit in his class and he would talk.

CV: Bruce Magoa (sp) used to talk about him…

MN: Right.

CV: A whole, a whole lot. Hashigawa?

MN: Yes, yes.

CV: Hashigawa.

MN: And, he was terrific.

CV: I heard stories and maybe you heard stories too. I heard Franz Klein had heard about him and came and sat in and uh, but then, you know, he started talking about Japanese calligraphy when he went back East and he got put down by, uh, by Clemen Greenburg (sp) cuz Clemen Greenburg thought that Oriental calligraphy and Asian art was a feat.

MN: Wrong, I think for that whole thing that was happening in New York, I think it was an important connection…to that whole world from Japan. Um…

CV: It was underestimated.

MN: Mmhmm.

CV: It was underestimated and I mean and…

MN: Yes. Look at Pollock, look at DeCuni (sp), you know.

CV: I know. Yeah!

MN: It’s all there!

CV: And uh, there was stuff that Naguchi was doin’ and you know, for some reason, he was put on the side. I though Naguchi was amazing!

MN: Terrific. Yes.

CV: Amazing! I mean, I go to that museum and what? This was John, when? He was like in this vacuum. He was like in this vacuum. Kinda funny. Um, jeez, um. Thinking about the, uh, all like uh, there was a great article in the uh, in one of the art magazines, I think, or Art News. I forgot what it was, but it was all about…remembering you had a problem with models and that you could, Maria Elena was…is that the one?

MN: Mary Julia.

CV: Mary Julia! Was you know, like, for whatever reason there was…