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On Putting Public Art on a Pedestal : Graham

Robert Graham’s sculpture isn’t often seen in gallery or museum these days, so the County Museum of Art’s current display is noteworthy. The matter is a monument to Duke Ellington scheduled to be unveiled next spring in Manhattan’s Central Park. The substance poses the sculptural question, “Is the art world going to sit bolt upright in bed one night suddenly wondering why it was ever so fascinated by Graham’s art?”

Sometimes you get this creepy suspicion that Graham will appear to the future the way Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier looks to us. Meissonier was a 19th-Century Frenchman who painted Napoleon’s army tramping through the snow, complete down to the fur trim on a hussar’s kepi, panoramic scenes on small canvases rendered by using toys for models and salt as snow. Hugely popular in his day, he is now regarded as a pure oddity--the museum version of guys who inscribe the New Testament on pinheads.

Well, you can do worse than being a compelling oddity.

Graham is an artist who by his own understated admission can only do one thing. He models nude female figures with a surgical objectivity whose accuracy turns hallucinatory. They have grown from 8-inch waxes to 30-inch bronzes over the years, but the premise is the same. They face us straight on, legs slightly apart, arms just away from the body. Precision notwithstanding, their hands and feet always look a trifle too large.

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For more than two decades now I have suspected that Graham was about to run out of gas and that my own enchantment with his work was less an aesthetic response than a simple extension of normal fascination with the undraped female. Yet long after Playboy palled and the Body Shop bored, Graham’s strange harem continued to bewitch. There has to be more to this than simple eroticism, even if there is nothing wrong with that.

At the most obvious level, Graham has done an astonishing job of parlaying his alleged one-shot art into a remarkably varied and successful career. He has extended the space around the figures into real architecture, designing a legendary private house in Venice in Minimalist Art Deco style. He moved a miniaturist’s sensibility out of the antiseptic confines of gallery and museum into the real world where he created the Olympic Gateway in Exposition Park and a monument to Joe Louis’ fist in downtown Detroit. Anybody who thought his work would die of refinement in the everyday world had another think coming. If anything, the work confronts the public with tough, even angry ideas.

Considerations of career and material success are too much abroad in the art world these days. Worse than irrelevant, they are downright distracting from considerations of art’s essential endeavor. Graham’s secular success is only interesting in what it tells us about a sensibility that, far from being closeted, specialized and confined to the Pop era from which it emerged, is broadly adaptive and has traveled through time picking up radical ideas as it moved along.

In the ‘70s, Conceptualism rebeled against the commercial gallery system and looked for ways to produce non-collectible art, earthworks and art made of pure ideas. In the ‘80s that rebellion evolved into a revolt against the artificial membranes separating art from architecture, architecture from design, theater, movies, TV or whatever, and the whole thing from accessibility to the citizen in the street. Thus emerged the notion of public art and the spectacular, entertaining, hybrid pan-arts style of Post-Modernism.

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Anyone with a populist sensibility and a monkish reverence for art can be instantly forgiven for finding the application of such notions to Graham’s art to contain a large dollop of sophistry. After all, here is an artist who designed a snazzy private residence and has statues in restaurants where a snack costs a week’s pay. Sounds pretty elitist.

Radical chic.

Art, viewed too literally, is ever dogged by irony and paradox.

We live at present in a Neo-Baroque era of grandiose, sensational art. That’s just the way it is. Applying standards of primitive Christianity to it just won’t work or make it go away. The risk for the artist today is not that he will wax rich or famous. Rubens and Picasso were rich and famous. The risk is that in all the hurly-burly opportunities for corruption abound and they are draining the soul out of the largest fraction of present art.

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Bringing us, finally, to the Ellington Memorial.

Finished, it will rise 25 feet in Central Park at Milbank Frawley Circle at 110th St where 5th Avenue reaches Harlem. An 8-foot figure of Ellington will stand next to his open piano on a pedestal supported by three trefoil columns, each supported by a tripled nude female muse holding the pedestal on their heads like the caryatids of the Erechtheum in Athens.

The work is as straightforward a public memorial as Augustus St. Gaudens’ familiar General Sherman, which anchors the park’s South end. Dignified and sophisticated, the Ellington memorial seems unlikely to raise the public ruckus of Graham’s other large public commissions. Admirers of the Duke should find it soothing. It brings out the inherent classicism of Ellington music playing in the galleries.

But if the monument is harmonious with “Mood Indigo” or “Sophisticated Lady,” how does it gee up with Ellington’s raucous side, the Duke of “East St. Louis Toodle-O” or “Take the A-Train”? The main figure is almost stiff in stance. Viewed symmetrically, the work has almost too much classical gravitas for jazz.

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Graham has an angle. He usually does. At close quarters the structure has to be viewed obliquely. The Duke figure should soar seen from ground level. A lively frieze made from small versions of the muse figures should provide visual syncopation around a celestial gold dome hovering under the pedestal of the slate-black monument. Perhaps best of all the piano turns into an abstract sculpture.

For artniks, the great pleasure of the work is the way it quietly brings most of modern art history and more to bear on the neo-traditionalist work. Duke’s head situates itself somewhere between an African Benin bronze and a Chinese Buddha. The muse figures bracket time and distance between votive tribal fetishes and surrealism.

Pity some sort of pavilion can’t be erected next to the final version in Central Park to house the present exhibition (to Oct. 23). The process it reveals is fascinating, from the original figures to a section showing how Graham adapted computer technology to develop an absolute breakthrough in sculptural technique.

For most people the monument will be about Duke Ellington and that is as it should be. For those interested in Graham’s art there is another level of revelation.

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In the recent past, Graham seemed headed for a dead-end. He could not manage to introduce any fluidity into the figures and his casts seemed to have an angry deadness. The three new figures here are right back on track. All are racially ambiguous but exotic by Caucasian standards. One could be an American Indian, another a Balinese dancer, the third a temperamental, drop-dead international Eurasian beauty.

As a racial allusion, it is a nice comment on the real, sumptuous variety among people we call black . Artistically it is an astonishing revelation about the symbiosis between Graham and his models. What was “wrong” with that other work was the selection of models with odd, scolding Gothic figures.

Surely, the really compelling thing about the figures is that they seem to function magically as soul-traps. Whether the vibes that come across are transferred into them by the mood of the artist or the model is selected because they are already there is a conundrum too hard for mortals to unravel, but the fact is, they have personalities and can be unnerving.

Look at the series of some 18 variations Graham computer-miniaturized from the large muses. Talk about solving the fluidity problem. They stand about, hips saucily curved, ankles crossed and knees cocked--a sea of adolescent goddesses lounging on some paradisiacal high-school campus. They are as insouciantly graceful as Degases, magical as Mexican votive figures, unapproachable as Giacomettis.

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When you try to view these amazing presences up close, they fall apart. Noses seem too harsh and shoulders about to detach. They need distance and atmosphere to exist.

They say that Duke Ellington was aristocratic and somewhat distant. Graham’s ever-enticing, ever-illusive art seems to have found a soul-brother in the great musician.


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