During the 1984 Olympics, I came upon two bronze sculptures of nude and headless male and female athletes installed just outside the Los Angeles Coliseum. Even though they stood above me, I was speechless. Sometimes I'm struck dumb coming across beauty when I least expect it--much as I am when going to my car at sunset and noticing the sky is an orange and white parfait, and I just have to stop and stare.
At the time, there was controversy about whom the artist, Robert Graham, had sculpted. He wouldn't reveal who had posed for him, and for my Christmas card that year, to end the debate, I stuck my head on the male athlete and my wife's head on the female one. Once receiving the card, my father called to say we'd been brave to pose nearly nude. "Dad, didn't you notice that the bodies are black and our faces are not?"
"I thought you're just wearing revealing body stockings." To this day, I'm glad my father thought I looked that good.
In 1988, I happened to be at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when I came across miniature statues of nude women, but they seemed amazingly real. The detailing awed me, and as I moved into the exhibit, there were larger statues, and then one of Duke Ellington at his piano, held up on the heads of many nude women. It was called the "The Duke Ellington Memorial in Progress." Man, who did this? Incredible. It was Robert Graham.
When I'd spent much of 1975 going to school in Copenhagen, I'd become of huge fan of the modern art museum Louisiana, where I met Keith Harring painting a mural in a hallway--a very affable person who had chatted with me. I'd also come to witness the super-realism of sculptor Duane Hanson, who made his artworks life size, with what appeared to real skin and wearing real clothes. You'd turn a corner and see someone leaning against a wall, shooting heroin, and then think the person might be dead because he wasn't moving, and then you noticed a sunburned woman on a chaise lounge and a man reading a newspaper to learn these were statues.
And Robert Graham's work looked just as real to me, even though his were nude and in bronze. I'd also come across Graham's work in the Louisiana Museum, but I didn't know it at the time: tiny nude women running inside a Plexiglas box.
While Hanson worked by using moldings from real human bodies, Graham sculpted using beeswax or clay. That is, he observed, then re-created, and it's this ability that has fascinated me. He could "see" and translate what he saw into art, which is really what I try to do in words.
In an interview with KPCC's Kitty Felde a few years ago, upon her questioning why he sculpted women so often, he said he liked how the sensuality and eroticism lets the viewer see the world through a single figure. He said, "They're not fantasy women, they're individual portraits. The difference between even twins is tremendous, you know. You have to observe it and that observation, that focus is what allows you to get into that other door. It's like a very individual shape. If you look at this model and you look at this, and there's two different worlds there."
I came to see and love Graham's work all over Los Angeles. At the Music Center, there's a doorway made with the images of women. The sculpture garden at UCLA has many of his pieces. There's a nice big work, a woman's torso, in Venice. I was having lunch one day in the Wells Fargo Building downtown, and I saw in the fountain a piece by Graham. In fact, if you live in L.A., click here for a map of places to see his work: http://www.laobserved.com/intell/2008/12/robert_graham_in_la.php
The artist was born in Mexico City in 1938 to Adeline Graham and Roberto Peña. His father died when he was six, and young Bob was raised by his grandmother, Ana, his Aunt Mercedes, and his mother. His three "mothers" moved him to San Jose when he was eleven, and he discovered he loved making art in high school, where he was known as Bob Peña. He later changed his last name to his mother's maiden name. After a stint in the Air Force, he studied at San Jose State College, then enrolled as a painting student at the San Francisco Institute of Art.
This takes me to my very first English class I taught at Santa Monica College in 1998, and a woman in red sat in front, and she was unlike any of the other students. First, she was in her thirties, unlike the teenagers and early twenty-somethings of the rest of the class. Second, she dressed well-not the T-shirts and jeans or cargo shorts that many of the other students wore, but she had a stylish red dress. Third, she seemed serious and asked a lot of questions. Fourth, she had an unusual first name: Neith.
One day I'd mentioned in class that I taught at CalArts, too, and she came up to me after class to ask if in applying to CalArts one needed to take the SATs or otherwise pass a math test. I told her no, and she looked happy. "I'm having the hardest time in math, and I want to go to a school that doesn't require math."
I told her she needed to be good in art, though, and that one needed recommendations. She smiled and said that Eli Broad, perhaps the biggest name in art philanthropy, would write her a recommendation, as would sculptor Robert Graham. "You know Robert Graham?" I asked.
She nodded and said, "I used to be his model." I didn't quite believe that she knew Broad or Graham, but some months later, I came across a bunch of Graham sculpture at UCLA's sculpture garden, and there was Neith in bronze. The plaque beneath her said, "Study for Duke Ellington Memorial, Column 1 (Neith)." Graham also has a statue of a horse there-he could do animals as brilliantly as people.
Shortly thereafter, I learned she'd been accepted into CalArts in the art school's photography program. My friend Ken Young, director of admissions at CalArts, said that indeed Neith had recommendations from Eli Broad and Robert Graham, and Ken had been charmed by her personal statement, too. Neith was a good writer, he said, which I'd also seen in my class.
Neith later told me she had lived with Graham before he'd met actress Anjelica Huston, whom he married in 1992. Neith came to take my writing class at CalArts just after she'd given birth to her daughter, fathered by a fellow art student. Neith breastfed in class, which everyone seemed to enjoy. Her baby was happy, the students were happy, and Neith could talk seriously while her child nursed. Talk about multitasking.
One day in 2000, Neith asked if I'd like to meet Robert Graham. "Are you kidding?" I said.
"I remember you said you're a fan of his work, and I'd be happy to arrange a tour, if you like."
"I can't afford any of his stuff. What would he want with me?"
"He likes interesting people. I'm sure he'll like you."
"I'd love to go," I said, but still wondered what we'd talk about. I'd interviewed many well-known artists for the articles I wrote for CalArts, people including Tim Burton, Werner Herzog, Don Cheadle, John Lasseter, Alexander Mackendrick, Charlie Haden, Carolyn Forche, and others in the fields of art, music, dance, theatre, film, and writing--but this wouldn't be an interview.
In May, we came to Graham's studio door in Venice, not far from Main Street, a place I'd probably passed many times. His studio was here? Neith rang the bell, and the door opened. A smiling Robert Graham in a white pressed shirt, dark pants, and a stunning head of white hair and a white beard held out his hand, and we shook. He had a cigar in his other hand. I learned later, he typically dressed this way: the gentleman sculptor.
We went into one room of his studio, which was filled with his work on the walls and on the tables. I could see he could draw and paint just as well as sculpt. On one table was a model of FDR in a wheelchair.
"This is one of the things I finished a few years ago," he said. "FDR has never been portrayed in a wheelchair, but I think it's important. Even though he couldn't walk, he could lead the country well, and that should be celebrated."
The time went quickly, but he seemed to be taken with my many questions. He took me into another room, a bigger room, where against a wall, he was creating what would be the doors for the Cathedral downtown. The door had panels, and some of the panels, he said, tied into the Indian heritage of California. He wasn't going for just Catholic imagery, but imagery that connected to the people who first found this land. I was thinking to myself at the time that a man best known for his nude women really could not be categorized easily.
He put me so much at ease that he encouraged my curiosity. He said that Neith had been a wonderful model, and said, "I think I still have some of the modeling pieces of Neith around here somewhere. He dug and came up with two head-and-shoulder moldings in blue wax of Neith, and then a larger head. It was Neith of fifteen years earlier.
In Kitty Felde's interview, he talked about how the right pose reveals personality: "That is the beauty of a kind of pose that somehow conveys personality, the kind of look of a person is really the thing that takes them through their whole life, how they look, how people perceive 'em, you know."
That day, just part of a day of his life and part of one in mine, he revealed his own personality. He never boasted about his work, but rather explained what he did as a process. He seemed amazed that the magic of the process kept working for him. Each piece was a challenge, but he always found a way through it.
Not once did he look at his watch or make me feel the day was squeezing him. After an hour, I started feeling guilty, and I said we should go. We left within a half hour. He didn't rush us out.
The time he spent with me has meant a lot. I'm saddened to learn he died last week, but the ripples of his work and his personality linger around us, to be appreciated for years.
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