Robert Graham, a Los Angeles sculptor with a towering public presence who designed major civic monuments across the nation, died Saturday at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, his friend Roy Doumani said. Graham, who had been ill for about six months, was 70.
An elegant, gentlemanly artist who maintained a large studio in Venice, Graham was enormously productive throughout his career. A fiercely independent perfectionist with high-tech skills and an enduring fascination with the female figure, he explored almost every conceivable position and attitude of the female nude in his personal work, often working in an intimate scale.
But he is best known for large public commissions that pay homage to historical figures or symbolize big ideas in prominent locations.
His legacy, Doumani said, “is all over the city. He brought a lot of beauty and a vision of what art should be. . . . Bob was special to this city and, fortunately, his work will remain here and elsewhere, and he’s certainly not going to be forgotten.”
In Los Angeles, Graham designed a set of free-standing bronze doors for the Music Center in 1978 and a sculpture of two headless figures known as the “Olympic Gateway” at the Memorial Coliseum for the 1984 Olympics. His largest and most prominent public work in the city is the “Great Bronze Doors,” a huge entryway topped by an angel, made for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in 2002.
Graham, whose work was also in demand in many other cities, also created a memorial to Joe Louis in Detroit, a monument to Duke Ellington in New York and a sculptural remembrance of Charlie “Bird” Parker in Kansas City, Mo.
But among his tributes to beloved public figures, his proudest achievement was probably the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. The complex commission, executed in 1997, includes a life-size figure of the president in his wheelchair, a bas-relief depicting a newsreel of his first inauguration and a series of panels illustrating 54 programs initiated by FDR under the New Deal.
Although Graham never followed the art world’s trends, preferring to work as a relatively old-fashioned statue-maker, he showed his work in many galleries and museums, including Ace Gallery in Beverly Hills, Imago Galleries in Palm Desert and Gagosian Gallery in New York. His work is in the collections of such institutions as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Dallas Museum of Fine Art, Detroit Institute of Arts and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.
Artist Tony Berlant, who met Graham in London in 1973, said he had great early success “within the established vanguard, here and in New York and in Europe. His own muse led him to making work that was very independent . . . He demanded to do things on his own terms and did them with incredible excellence. And he had everyone’s respect for it.”
Berlant said women were “the obsessive focus of his work.” And he said that Graham was sometimes criticized for those sculptures, which often depicted women in the nude and headless. But those figures, Berlant said, “were incredibly naturalistic. . . . People sometimes saw them as being more icons of sexuality. But if you look at them, you see individual personalities, I think. They are portraits -- not generic.”
Artist Laddie John Dill, who had known Graham since the early 1970s, called him “a class act all the way.”
“As an artist, he was always on the cutting edge,” Dill said. “He would always push what he was doing further and further. He started with plexiglass boxes, with those incredible scenes, and then going to bronze and monumental bronze, and he was starting to work with concrete and glass. His head was obviously way ahead of his hands. And the tragedy is that Bob was just getting started. As accomplished as he was, he had just gotten this new studio that his son designed, and he was ready for the next chapter. It’s just a tragedy.”
Dill said with the new studio and a sculpture that was recently installed in the middle of a traffic circle in Venice, “it all seemed so transitional. And you knew other things were coming. All of a sudden, to have it cut short like that, it was a shocker. I think that I was very fortunate in knowing him personally, and being able to spend some time with him, one on one, especially in the early days.”
The artist was born in Mexico City on Aug. 19, 1938, to Adeline Graham and Roberto Pena, but he never really knew his father, who died when he was 6. He was raised by his grandmother Ana, his aunt Mercedes and his mother.
In an interview with The Times some time ago, Graham recalled Adeline taking him by the hand to visit Mexico’s magnificent public monuments, such as Chapultepec Castle and the pyramids, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros’ murals and the cathedrals and churches nationwide.
“I don’t remember ever going to a gallery,” he said. “The things that were important were those murals and what people saw all the time. They were my history books. You could see what the Aztecs looked like, what [Hernando] Cortes looked like. I never looked at it as art -- it was part of your experience as a Mexican.”
At age 11, Graham and his three “mothers” moved to San Jose and he was educated at San Jose State and the San Francisco Art Institute. He lived in London for a few years with his first wife, Joey, and their son, Steven, then moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s.
In 1990, long after his first marriage had ended, Graham met his second wife, actress Anjelica Huston, at a dinner party. They soon became a couple and were married in 1992.
On Dec. 15, Graham was inducted into the California Hall of Fame.
In addition to his wife and son, Graham leaves a group of artist friends including painter Ed Moses, who called him “a golden man” and “a great artist.”
“He was just one of these impeccable human beings that I love greatly and all of his friends did too,” Moses said. “He will make a mark historically as a sculptor . . . the museums don’t understand this yet, but they will. He was an independent, and never played according to the rules. He did it the way he wanted, and he didn’t play ball with museums or dealers. He was a real independent force and powerful force.”
Times staff writers Diane Haithman and Mike Boehm contributed to this report.