Is It Thumbs Down for ‘Fist’ in Detroit?

Times Staff Writer

“I know money is tight, but you would think the city could have afforded a whole statue,” says a bewildered Barbara Johnson.

“It’s terrible. I don’t see the symbolism in it at all,” echoes Renee Leblanc.

Complaints like those are already pouring in here over a stark, abstract memorial to Joe Louis, the late heavyweight champion, which is to be officially unveiled today.


Already dubbed the “fist” by disgruntled downtown office workers, it is just that--a 24-foot, 8,000-pound clenched black fist and forearm, horizontally suspended in midair beneath a pyramidical steel A-frame in the middle of downtown Detroit’s busiest intersection.

Exudes Brutal Force

Produced by acclaimed sculptor Robert Graham, who stirred up Los Angeles in 1984 with his sculptures of headless torsos for the Olympics, it seems to jut through the cityscape with the same kind of brutal force Louis used to knock out Max Schmeling.

In a city that conjures up images of vacant buildings, unemployment lines and gray skies, the fist also seems to accentuate the toughness of Detroit’s past and present.

But for many in Detroit, it isn’t enough. Joe Louis, who grew up here and held the heavyweight boxing crown longer than anyone in history, was perhaps Detroit’s greatest hero; the city’s largest and most modern civic arena already bears his name. Both before and after his death in 1981, black Americans have lionized Louis for being among the first major black figures to smash through racial barriers in the pre-World War II era.

Local Reaction Swift

So some here were surprised and a little disappointed that the city wasn’t getting a more traditional Louis monument. And even though the bronze sculpture, just installed last week, was visible for only one day before it was covered with a tent in preparation for its official unveiling, local reaction has been swift and generally negative.

“I can’t say anything negative about Joe Louis, but I think most of us would rather have a whole statue,” says one city employee.

Other downtown workers say they think that the work looked too much like a symbol for militant black power and worried about the impact that kind of symbolism might have in a city still deeply divided along racial lines.

“It is billed as a tribute to Joe Louis, but it looks like a black power fist,” notes one. “If it is a monument to Joe Louis, why isn’t there a boxing glove on it?”

Even some in the local art community are less than enthusiastic. “I think it works all right, but while it can be seen showing strength and determination, a clenched fist can also be seen as being aggressive. It depends on how you view it,” noted one official at the Detroit Institute of Art, which commissioned Graham through a $350,000 grant from Sports Illustrated magazine.

Graham Likes Reaction

But despite the criticism, Graham seems pleased that his Louis memorial, which he describes as only his second major public work, is already evoking such strong reactions among Detroiters.

Certainly the controversy surrounding his first, the Olympic Gateway at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, gave his anatomically distinct headless torsos greater visibility and publicity than they might have otherwise received. Now, he is at work on still more highly public projects--a Duke Ellington memorial in New York and a Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial in Washington.

Detroit city officials, who have dedicated an island at the intersection of downtown’s two busiest thoroughfares--Jefferson and Woodward--to Graham’s work, claim to be happy that Detroiters are talking about the fist even before the official unveiling. “It would have been too bad if people yawned and walked on by,” says Carol Campbell, Mayor Coleman A. Young’s liaison on the project.

Indeed, one of the people who should care the most, the only son of Joe Louis, is quite thrilled by Graham’s work. “This is a monument to my father, versus a statue of my father,” says Joe Louis Barrow Jr., now a Denver businessman. “That’s the key. The sculptor is saying this is a monument to symbolize what my father stood for. If you realize that, then you can let your imagination go.”