by Orville O. Clarke, Jr.


(Peter Blake Gallery, Orange County) This current assemblage of Robert Graham's sculpture, examining his output over the past four years, gives us the opportunity to reevaluate our response to this gifted artist's work. One of the most common of human conditions is to not fully appreciate that which is familiar or seems easily accessible. Whether it is a sunset, the smell of fresh brewed coffee, or the smile of our child, we tend to shrug it off as insignificant, until it is gone--then we can fully appreciate the overpowering uniqueness of that moment.

Graham's sculpture falls into that category. As I was preparing for this review, I took the time to examine his work over the past three decades and was reminded how extraordinarily talented an artist he is. Because Graham has been a fixture on the Southern California art scene for so many years we have grown to take his art for granted.

Regular visitors to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art are greeted by his towering cast bronze Retrospective Column [1981] which is populated by his exquisite nudes. Of course, those of us who were fortunate enough to see the 1984 Olympic Games could never forget his Olympic Gateway [1984], which celebrates the potential perfection of the human form.

More recently other major American cities have been beautified by his sculptures. The Duke Ellington Memorial [1997] in New York City's Central Park is a soaring monument to the power of music; while his five subtle panels and corresponding cylinders for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial [1996-97] in Washington, D.C. show the permanent imprint that the President's New Deal Programs have left on the fabric of our country.

As can be seen in this exhibition, Graham classicizes the human form, especially the female, and strips it of its eroticism, presenting it in a clinical format that allows the viewer to appreciate the form for its pure beauty. The Greeks had figured this out centuries ago--look at the mathematical based purity of the Kouros from Anavysos or elegance of the Riace Warriors. The Greeks understood the separation of eros and intellect and the old battle of reason (Apollo) and passion (Dionysus).

"Elisa," cast bronze, 60 x 16 x 16", 1993.

"Jennifer," cast bronze, 11 x 8 x 8", 1996.

"Bronze Drawing - Penny," cast bronze,
9 x 3.5 x 8.25", 1996.

"Lauren," cast bronze, 11.5 x 8 x 8", 1996.

Graham is able to give us this. His statues are not based on the mathematical perfection that the Greeks employed; instead he looks to the differences that each body possesses. While every body is unique, each possesses elements of perfection within. Like Rodin before him, Graham examines the figure in a variety of sizes from minute to monumental--no chance of body casting here! And like Rodin and the Greeks, his statues are cast in bronze.

Elisa stares at us, with her arms behind her back, while Gabrielle stands defiant, with her arms above her head. Nothing to shield or hide the body, and with none of the shame that segments of our society attach to nudity. His statues stare at us, acknowledging our view, but it is not the "male view" with the sexual overtones that has dominated much of Western art. It is simply a celebration of the human body and the spirit of freedom and power that comes with the ability to shed our fears.

Take the time to be reintroduced to an old friend. Graham's work is that of a master and one that we should take the time to appreciate and savor. Besides, Laguna is lovely this time of year.