L.A.'s sculptor

Though every artist’s death diminishes us, Robert Graham’s loss impoverishes Los Angeles in a deep and particular way.

Graham, who died last Saturday at the age of 70 after a serious illness, was not simply the city’s premier public artist, he was a sculptor whose works reflected the subtle spirit of Los Angeles itself. Washington may have his magnificent contributions to the Roosevelt Memorial, New York his towering tribute to Duke Ellington, Detroit his starkly powerful Joe Louis fist and Kansas City its massive bust of Charlie Parker -- but Graham and his art belong in an intimate and specific way to Los Angeles.

Here, generations will contemplate his monumental bronze doors and exquisite Madonna at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, his “Olympic Gateway” outside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, his “dancers” at Wells Fargo Plaza, the “Source Figure” and fountain atop the downtown library steps and his heroic torsos in Venice and Beverly Hills.

Graham’s work is of this city in a way only those who are themselves fully at home here can read. If you’re attuned to the moods of this place, you know that there are four seasons for those who can see them: You know the wildflowers that follow the winter rains and signal the spring that comes early and passes quickly into summer. You understand how autumn piles the sycamore leaves in dusty briers and burnishes the afternoon light into butterscotch tones.


You also know that Los Angeles, alone among the world’s great cities, is predominantly a place of private rather than public lives. Part of Graham’s genius was an intuitive grasp of that aspect of our civic personality, and the fact that he found a way to translate it into works of public art is one of the things that give his pieces a particular kind of Angeleno authenticity.

Even when his figures are presented without heads or fully articulated limbs -- as are the “Olympic Gateway” figures or the Venice and Beverly Hills torsos -- each is the product of careful work from a single living model. As such, each has the specificity of a unique individual. They may be beautiful and fit, but they are never idealized generalities. He subtly placed the individual at the center of public consideration and, in so doing, affirmed the dignity of every other individual.

No other artist of his generation lavished the female nude with such skillful and close attention. In fact, it feels more full-bloodedly accurate to say that most of his women were not nude but naked. They were also, whatever their particular shape, beautiful.

Graham and I were friends for more than 30 years. In the 1980s, when Bob first began taking -- even competing for -- public commissions, it seemed an eccentric, almost perverse, move for an artist who moved so effortlessly through the international stratosphere of high-end galleries and elite museums. “A Graham” already was one of those must-haves among savvy contemporary collectors -- or those with ambitions to be thought of as one. Everything about the process of making public art was antithetical to the art world’s prevailing ethos, where the only people allowed into the studio’s creative solitude were the quiet and utterly obliging assistants who were one of the trophies of success.

Public art is ... well, public. It involves approvals from commissions of officials who don’t know Mannerism from Minimalism -- and don’t care -- as well as reactions from ... well, people. You know, the public comment thing. Why would any serious artist want to subject himself and his work to that? Contemporary art, after all, spoke a language accessible to the deserving -- the affluent and the discerning.

Some of his peers speculated that Graham wanted to exert his characteristic controlling mastery on public art -- behavior that in a less considerate and exquisitely mannered man would have been overbearing. He’d already shown he could navigate the art world largely on his own terms, so maybe the swamp of public aesthetics was simply another challenge. Others thought it was just a sculptor’s natural desire to test his aesthetic at monumental scale.

But something else was stirring in Graham. “There’s got to be more to this game,” he said one night over dinner, “than just making more exquisite objects to decorate more white rooms in rich people’s houses.”

He read John Ruskin’s “The Stones of Venice,” and that 19th century paean to a vanished world in which art, society and work were one seemed to give him a new vocabulary of conscience and concern. He spoke more frequently of his boyhood in Mexico City and of how his mother and aunts had taken him to see the works of the great muralists, which had remained with him ever since.

One remarkable public work after another followed. Many will consider the Roosevelt Memorial the masterpiece of that sequence, but I will always hold out for the cathedral’s bronze doors and -- without hesitation -- for the Madonna above them. Just as Bob envisioned in the long years he labored over those doors, immigrants from all over the world now come to the church and search the panels for the representation of Mary special to their own culture. They gaze at the Madonna with rapt attention that, from afar, looks like discovery.

It is the greatest piece of religious art made in the late 20th century. This Mary is no pre-Raphaelite fantasy of flowing hair and draperies; nor is she the imposing Theotokos -- “God-Bearer” -- of the early church. This is a simple and recognizable teenage girl, her arms spread wide -- in what? Acceptance of her fate? Welcome? Loving embrace? She is as complex and ambiguous as any real teenage girl, a proper queen not only of angels but for the City of the Angels.

We can’t ask more of our public art or of our public artists.