Spring 2018 Director’s Letter

“The end depends on the beginning.” This is a phrase translated from the Latin finis origine pendet, and it has long held special meaning in my life.

It comes to mind again as I prepare to end 20 years of service to the Yale University Art Gallery and reflect on the privilege of helping steward and conserve the Gallery’s beautiful buildings and remarkable art collection, while also providing visual pleasure and knowledge to active learners of all ages. To be able to undertake so many endeavors in close partnership with a legion of talented curators, educators, artists, staff members, donors, and volunteers has been truly gratifying.

I have chosen to link my “ending” here at Yale to the “beginning” I enjoyed as an M.F.A. student at the University of California, Davis, where in 1972 I was invited to be the teaching assistant to Manuel Neri, a brilliant young sculptor from whom I quickly learned a great deal. He taught me not only how to use all manner of tools and materials, but also how to become more keenly present and observant while working vigorously on whatever creative project engaged his imagination and energies—and those of the students he instructed. In other words, Neri became a formative exemplar. I cotaught an undergraduate studio course alongside him that met once per week for a full semester, in which we challenged our students to represent the human figure in plaster from a live model within three-hour sessions. The students were asked first to look closely at the live model holding different poses, drawing each one very swiftly, and then to behold the model for a long pose, from which they were to render a figure in three dimensions using plaster as their medium—one of the most versatile materials sculptors have used throughout the history of art. Neri was himself a master at such work, and during our semester together he made a point of inviting me to his own studio, where I could readily observe how the class we were teaching was directly inspired by his creative practice. Neri worked prodigiously and quickly. First, he would create a stable armature to hold a basic figurative pose that he had arranged with his model. Next, he would begin to realize a full-scale figure, working first with wet plaster, then setting plaster, and finally dry plaster, knowing expertly that within each condition this material could be formed and handled in different ways and with different tools, and could even be layered with pigments and paint. His way of working was remarkably performative, and it enthralled me.

One doesn’t often gain such proximity to the creative process of a great artist, and hence I never forgot Neri once I left UC Davis to begin my career as an artist and teacher in San Francisco. In 1975 I helped to cofound 80 Langton Street, one of a number of “alternative artists’ spaces” being established in San Francisco at that time, directed by artists to help support each other across multiple creative disciplines. When it was my turn to organize an exhibition just one year later, I decided to invite Neri to create a sculptural figure in plaster every day for little more than a week, an installation that came to be titled The Remaking of Mary Julia: Sculpture in Progress. I knew that Neri would ask Mary Julia, his great muse, to serve as the live model for such an endeavor, and I simply wanted to tip my hat to both of them and enable my peers to see what a remarkable body of work my mentor and his muse would surely produce within such a short burst of time.

Neri did exactly what I expected of him, brilliantly so, and now, some 40 years later, he and Anne Kohs, who stewards The Manuel Neri Trust, recently astounded me by very generously donating a large trove of Neri artworks to this teaching museum. Thus, I have chosen to end my directorship by curating yet another Neri exhibition, this one titled Manuel Neri: The Human Figure in Plaster and on Paper. It opens on March 2, and it serves as a wonderfully circular ending that hearkens back to my beginnings as an artist and makes evident the lifelong bond that often exists when a great teacher profoundly influences a student—something I have had the pleasure to witness here at Yale on so many occasions over the last 20 years.


Jock Reynolds

The Henry J. Heinz II Director

Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II Director



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