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Door Man

February 21, 1999|Janet Kinosian

Los Angeles will boast a landmark set of cathedral doors when the archdiocese dedicates downtown's Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in 2001. Sculptor Robert Graham, perhaps best known for "Olympic Gateway," his headless nude athletes at the Coliseum, will cast the cathedral's "Great Bronze Doors." In his eclectic Venice studio near the home he shares with his wife, actress Anjelica Huston, Graham smoked a Havana cigar as he discussed the doors: a larger set, which will stand 30 feet high with ancient iconography in low relief, and a smaller set with high-relief Madonna icons.

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Q. How do you approach making 30-foot-high bronze doors?

A. The idea of doors in a cathedral is a rather conventional situation. I've been doing historical research, looking at books and such, for close to 60 years, so it's not like I'm surprised at the task.

Q. But the commission must be daunting. Every other major city has its signature cathedral doors--Paris, Milan, New York, London.

A. Daunting is one word. It's also very humbling because it's a tremendous responsibility to make the doors work. It's bronze, but it's also emotion.

Q. Will you incorporate your own faith in the design?

A. Everything the artist does has to have absolute faith and warmth for it to have that essence that makes anything--be it cathedral doors or a postcard--work. It's not a prerequisite to be Catholic to make these doors, even though I am Catholic. You have to have faith to experience these doors and see them, but it doesn't have to be a certain denomination. On the other hand, it's very important that the iconography and the content and the meaning are able to resonate with the Catholic faith.

Q. Some critics say cathedrals tend to be impersonal and theatrical, not intimate spaces. Does that concern you?

A. I've seen large places of worship that work very well, whether it's Islamic, Buddhist or Christian. It's when you don't have faith that you don't understand where you are. And the doors open you into that space.

Q. How much do you think an artist should talk about his or her work?

A. It doesn't really matter, ultimately, what essays, writings, stories, evaluations or explanations say about a piece of art. If it works, it works. People always ask me what I think. Well, it's quite easy. That's what I think. (He points to the replica of the doors.)

Q. Did the archdiocese request the doors be bronze?

A. Yes, the cardinal wants to build a cathedral that will be around for a few hundred years. He wants it to be . . .

Q. Sturdy?

A. This it will be.

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