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On Putting Public Art on a Pedestal : Graham

September 18, 1988|WILLIAM WILSON

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.

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.

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.

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.

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