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ART REVIEW : A Goddess for L.A.? : New Graham Sculpture a Welcoming Figure

TIMES ART CRITIC

She stands serenely nude contemplating waterfalls that tumble down L.A.'s Bunker Hill Steps. She is Robert Graham’s bronze “Source Figure.” If there is any aesthetic justice, it will become as much a landmark for this town as Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ gilded “Diana” once was for Manhattan.

The steps and plaza were designed by Lawrence Halprin, patriarch of contemporary landscape architecture. They connect the glossy plazas of Bunker Hill to classic L.A.--5th Street, Bertram Goodhue’s great Central Library, the Biltmore Hotel, Pershing Square. Halprin hopes the steps will become as lively an urban scene as Rome’s legendary Spanish Steps.

The steps on 5th Street between Grand and Flower breach an architectural barrier that caused critics like Mike Davis to accuse the corporate community on the hill of physically excluding poor minorities that populate the shoddy, colorful bazaar of Broadway. The link makes the hill practically, if not psychologically, accessible. Graham’s figure may go some distance to rendering the space spiritually welcoming. Art can only do so much.

Dedicated in late June, “Source Figure” rests atop a three-tiered, 10-foot column in the center of a circular pond. The base bears three large-clawed crabs. Water flows sparkling from a green patinated drum. The nubbly shaft also suggests liquid and dramatizes a figure whose metal skin is so smooth it makes you tingle from 10 yards away.

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She is precisely the kind of image one wants to contemplate in a town recently racked by riot and earthquake. The model was an African-American woman of sobering beauty. The effect of the work with its golden copper patina is like that of traditional Indian temple goddesses, both fecund and serene. She is slightly bandy-legged, causing a general aura of idealism to blend with the particular, the real and the idiosyncratic.

Technically it is Graham’s finest work, emotionally his most moving. It was commissioned by Maguire Thomas Partners, developers of the flanking First Interstate Bank World Center. The statue’s 40-inch height is dwarfed by the neighboring monoliths that loom nearby. But the work has its own power. Exquisite workmanship speaks of caring. Cupped hands both welcome and nurture.

A sculpture can become a city’s logotype. There is the “Eros” figure atop the fountain on London’s Picadilly Circus, Copenhagen’s “Little Mermaid,” Brussels’ “Manneken-Pis.” They are mostly lovable kitsch. Graham’s piece is a premier work of 20th-Century sculpture. It bears comparison to such historic masterpieces as Donatello’s “David” in Florence.

“Source Figure” is the latest in a series of civic monuments that have made the Venice sculptor the best-known and most widely praised figurative artist of his generation. In some ways that is less interesting than the fact that all his large commissions have dealt thematically with the democratic triumph of the individual against tough odds. Most of their subjects have been minority athletes or artists.

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Graham’s 1984 “Olympic Gateway” in Exposition Park addresses the victory of disciplined physical courage as does his 1986 Joe Louis Memorial in Detroit. Graham’s Duke Ellington Memorial, completed in 1988, speaks of artistic greatness overcoming prejudice. That work still awaits installation in Manhattan’s Central Park.

Still in progress is a Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial that Graham has had on his books nearly 20 years. To be installed among the august monuments of Washington, it’s a collaboration with Halprin, sculptors George Segal, Leonard Baskin and Neil Estrin. Graham’s section addresses Roosevelt’s landmark contribution to American art during the Works Progress Administration era. It may shift Graham’s image from that of a maker of haunting contemporary nudes to a sculptor of the American Dream.


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