A Tribute to Robert Graham (19382008)by Kait Kurs
The noise has stopped
but the police remain on the street
where the Japanese women
Two greyhound boys
stashed their packs
in the shadows
of the parking lot.
That was outside.
Inside, the same light illuminates,
books, drawings, pads, beer bottle opener,
right angle on a drawing board,
the postcard—69 Windward,
Cholula hot sauce,
an empty glass, an empty Pacifico
There is music
Pottery sherds collect
Ashes of marijuana
As the telephone rings
I have forgotten the knife.
Robert without a knife?
Without his suitcase
full of passports and cash.
The knife completes the poem.
Sculptor Robert Graham, who died last month, leaves behind a legacy in bronze. His monuments, from the Roosevelt Memorial in D.C. to the Duke Ellington Memorial in Harlem, to the Great Bronze Doors on the side of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in his home state of California, engage the landscape in perpetual dialogue. And will continue to do so for generations.
Graham started his career focusing on imagery of women, what he has called his “adolescent interest, and adolescent work.” Even once his work moved into site-specific public monuments, his respect and understanding of the human form provided an instant, organic connection to his audience. This audience, at once unimagined and yet always present, eluded Graham. He claimed, “there is no real audience,” but even if he believed this, he wasn’t able to fully acknowledge it, or operate under its assumption. “You make that object to show it to somebody…otherwise you wouldn’t make it, but the tyranny of that object is that it really doesn’t have an audience.
Thus, Graham’s art is aimed at anybody, at nobody. His role as artist was always an act of faith. “What an artist does is in the gift realm, it’s beyond commerce,” Graham told David Novros, a fellow artist and friend. “It’s a gift realm where it’s worthless and priceless at the same time. It’s given without question, freely.” In return for this generosity, Graham imagined a situation in which his gift was absorbed and then given back. “You get it and you have to pass it on.” This idealized back and forth was never ending, always in motion; Graham’s art was meant to inspire, to encourage further creation; according to Graham, “it’s a continuum, a continuation of that joy you feel for that particular thing.”
Born in Mexico City in 1938, Graham’s work was heavily influenced by the works of the great muralists and often defined by Catholic commissions. His last civic monument, the “Great Bronze Doors,” on the southeast side of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, a 30’ x 30’ imagery-laden sculpture, was conceived of by Graham as both an invention and an ancient object. The symbols, recontextualized, were another leap of faith, temporarily stripped of their iconic meanings. In this way, Graham’s doors are themselves a kind of prayer, a prayer that someone will come along to recognize, identify, and imbue them with meaning and restore to the work its original intentions.
This prayer has since been answered in prayer. Thousands of people kneel at Graham’s “Great Bronze Doors” every week. According to Graham, “…this is a very daunting kind of thing, that you actually made the thing, and I don’t feel like I made it, you know? I don’t want to think about that part. People pray to anything, right? You know, birds and a piece of toast. Who knows, you know, if I’m deluding myself thinking I made the thing pray-able…”
The power of Graham’s work is forever tied to its accessibility. Public art is, of course, both for the public and in public (spaces). His monuments, designed to interact with their environments, can be touched; designed for individual discourse, they define their future audiences. The work itself is not about artist or even object, but about the context in which it is presented, the audience it will attract. If the act of creation is always an act of faith, for Robert Graham, it was about making something, letting it go, and praying that, in the end, it would find its way back. On behalf of the Brooklyn Rail, we send our deep condolences to his wife Anjelica Huston, his son, Stephen Graham, and the rest of the extended family.
Note: Quotes are taken from an unpublished conversation between the artist and the painter David Novros from October 2008.