Robert Graham: Early Works at Kayne Griffin Corcoran

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The headless bronze torsos created by the late sculptor Robert Graham are familiar to those who follow contemporary art in LA but they have a reach outside of that insulated realm. One stands poised on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills while another, commissioned for the 1984 Olympics, stands outside the Coliseums. By 2002, Graham's work in bronze had evolved to the point that he made the great doors for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

But how did this well-known work develop? That is the subject of an important exhibition at Kayne Griffin Corcoran through March 8.

In part, this show is the result of Graham's relationship Hans Neuendorf, a German art dealer who was an early supporter of LA artists working in the 1960's. Many of Graham's early works remained in his collection and are being re-introduced to the public in this show. (There was a show of similar pieces in 2011 at David Zwirner Gallery in New York and I wrote the essay for their catalog.)


Robert Graham, "Untitled" (#23), 1966
Wax, wood, foil, plastic, plexiglass and mixed media
13 x 24 x 24 inches (diameter)
© 2014 Robert Graham; courtesy of Kayne Griffin Corcoran, Los Angeles

Much of the show consists of pedestal supported Plexiglas boxes holding tiny figures of nude women, perfectly modeled by the artist in wax down to their individual fingers and toes. A few are erotic such as a 1966 piece depicting two women, one with her leg raised to display her sex. Housed under a Plexiglas dome like specimens in a Petri dish, they force viewers to become voyeurs.

In later works, around 1971, the little nude women lie on the floor or may be separated by mirrors or walls, architectural details that reinforce the impression of the boxes as rooms, spaces where the figures can move or perform. Graham took photographs of models in motion and his figures appear to be captured as they stand or squat or bend. In this show, the ladies are not exactly at leisure as they are in earlier, more frankly erotic work. They are frozen in time. In addition, the show includes a number of Plexiglas boxes as small, transparent environments without figures but divided by thin wires, sheets of crumpled paper or painted walls.


Robert Graham, "Untitled," 1971
Wax, paint, mirror, plexiglass and mixed media
10 3/4 x 27 x 27 inches
© 2014 Robert Graham; courtesy of Kayne Griffin Corcoran, Los Angeles

As an adolescent, Graham was moved with his mother from his native Mexico City to San Jose, California after his father died. He studied art the San Francisco Art Institute where making small figurative sculpture was at odds with the prevailing ideas of teachers like Clyfford Still, who made giant abstract expressionist paintings, yet he did not waver in his interest in the human form.

When he came to LA in 1965, he showed with Nicolas Wilder Gallery and became friends with fellow gallery artists David Hockney and Joe Goode. It was there that he was contacted by Neuendorf who brought him to London to do prints for his company, Alecto Editions.

Graham moved to London in 1967 with his first wife, Joey Malnaa, and son, Steven. Over the next four years, he perfected the tiny wax figures isolated in their big Plexiglas rooms and received much critical acclaim including a 1970 show at Whitechapel Gallery. He showed with Neuendorf in Germany and Sonnebend in Paris but sold little, which is why the present show is possible.


Robert Graham, "Eight Heads," 1973
Cast bronze, 41 1/2 x 33 x 33 inches
© 2014 Robert Graham; courtesy of Kayne Griffin Corcoran, Los Angeles

It was the experience of being in London, a city with major museums, art collections and public sculpture, that came to have a lasting effect on the direction of Graham's later work in bronze, which he pursued in earnest after moving back go LA in 1971. That is the work that established his reputation and remains the great legacy. Early bronzes from 1973 and 1974 are included in the show.

Having divorced his first wife, he married twice more, the last time to actress Angelica Huston, and maintained a prepossessing studio in Venice, assisted by his son, Steven Graham. Many in LA know this last aspect of Graham's life and art but now they can learn, as they say, the rest of the story.

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Robert Graham, Untitled, 1971; Wax, paint, mirror, plexiglass and mixed media; © 2014 Robert Graham; courtesy of Kayne Griffin Corcoran, Los Angeles