Four Women: Robert Graham and the Female Form

April 28, 2015

Robert Graham loved women. He was raised by three “mothers”–his grandmother Ana, his aunt Mercedes, and his mother Adeline first in Mexico City, then in San Jose, California. Born in Mexico in 1938, he grew up visiting public monuments, pyramids, murals, and churches; great works outside the confines of a museum.

Famously Graham was an in-demand sculptor of bronze public monuments, celebrating admirable Americans. In Monument to Joe Louis (1986), the boxer’s 24-foot long arm and fist, weighing approximately 8,000 pounds, is suspended and supported above a major downtown intersection in Detroit. The City of New York (in Harlem) was gifted his cast bronze and gold leaf Duke Ellington Memorial (1997) composed of the figure of Ellington, a piano, three columns, and nine muses that together stand 30 feet high.

Dedicated on June 1, 1984, Olympic Gateway was commissioned by the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee to commemorate the 23rd Summer Olympics, and is installed in front of the entrance to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Rising 25 feet above the ground, the 20,000-pound post-and lintel structure is surmounted by the muscular bronze torsos of a male and a female–athletes who competed in the Olympics.

Lot 27, Robert Graham,  Julie 8-96, 1996

Lot 27, Robert Graham,  Julie 8-96, 1996
May 17, 2015 Modern Art & Design Auction

On a personal scale Graham dedicated himself to the female nude–intimate, immediate, endless renditions of strong and confident female forms in drawings, engravings, and sculpture–over the course of four decades. Art historian and professor Donald Kuspit says in his 2009 Artnet magazine feature article that Graham contributes to the ancient discourse of the nude and the lived body in all its “hereness.” Unlike Michelangelo, Graham concentrated on female figures likely because he wanted to study and emulate woman’s inner creativity. “Graham wants to become one with the female muse to unite with his better self, as it were, and to assure himself that he will be perpetually creative,” argues Kuspit.

Lot 26 Robert Graham, Elisa '96, Cast 2007

Lot 26, Robert Graham, Elisa ’96, Cast 2007
May 17, 2015 Modern Art & Design Auction

Graham’s many female sculptures are powerful and muscular forms, not romanticized or generalized, but naturalistic. According to artist Tony Berlant “if you look at them, you see individual personalities, I think. They are portraits–not generic.” Gina modeled for Graham from 1997 to his death in 2008. In April 2015 she discussed with LAMA her experience as a model and how Lot 25, GINA 5-17-97, a gift from the artist and sculpture in her own collection, came to be. Having been an international fashion model since she was 17, and a dancer in ballet and jazz companies, her agency set up a meeting with the artist. He then invited Gina to be a model in his studio. At first she declined since she wasn’t interested in modeling completely nude. But she changed her mind after reading the 1996 Architectural Digest “Hollywood At Home” article highlighting Graham’s and his wife Anjelica Huston’s Venice “fortress.” She read how prolific he was and found his work beautiful, impressed by the Duke Ellington and Joe Louis public commissions.


Lot 25 Robert Graham, GINA 5-17-97, 1997

Lot 25 ,Robert Graham, GINA 5-17-97, 1997
May 17, 2015 Modern Art & Design Auction

What followed was a convivial artist and muse collaboration. Gina fondly recalls the sessions–to a soundtrack of jazz, Graham’s dogs roamed free in the studio, and lunch was delivered from Gina’s favorite Beverly Hills restaurants. (A foodie, she later went to culinary school and is now a chef.) Together they would decide on the medium and pose spontaneously. The studio session for one sculpture would last a few days, and Graham recorded Gina on video so that he could continue to work afterward. Her dance background informed her poses–she choreographed her own positions. “I was so energetic, I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t do a seated pose.” Thus she claims having inspired Graham with her movement. His early sculptures were of women in static positions, but Graham’s later work was more dynamic, according to Kuspit, with women moving “hyperactively.”

Gina the muse chose to receive her sculptures rather than be paid. GINA 5-17-97 is among the first pieces from her collaboration with Graham. She admired the man as an artist and friend. “He was like a father figure to me. He was truly one of the most special people I knew.”

Lot 28 Robert Graham, MOCA Torso, 1992-1994

Lot 28, Robert Graham, MOCA Torso, 1992-1994
May 17, 2015 Modern Art & Design Auction

Los Angeles is home to several of Robert Graham’s public sculptures. You can see the Venice Torso (1997) at the Windward Circle in Venice, California, for which Gina was also the model. After the LA Coliseum in Exposition Park, you can visit the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and behold the Bronze Doors and the statue of Our Lady of the Angels, dedicated in 2002. A massive project, Graham worked nearly five years on it with some 150 artists. The cathedral proudly calls these doors different to those of any other Christian place of worship. Instead of using typical Old and New Testament biblical stories as images, Graham chose to create scenes that are “culturally recognizable.” In addition to the 8-foot angel on top of the doors, there are ten Virgin mothers depicted, with various ethnic origins, including Pomata, from the Andes, Guadalupe, from Mexico, and Belén, from Peru. Again, Graham immortalizes women in multiple forms.

Heilpern, John. “Out To Lunch: Guardian Anjelica Anjelica Huston Remembers Her Late Husband, the Renowned Sculptor Robert Graham, with Love and Champagne.” Vanity Fair. Condé Nast, 10 Feb. 2010. Web.
Kuspit, Donald. “Goddess Or Gynecology?” Artnet. Artnet Worldwide Corporation, 10 July 2009. Web. 22 April 2015.
Muchnic, Suzanne, and Cara Mia Dimassa. “Robert Graham, L.A. Sculptor, Dies at 70.” LA Times.  Los Angeles Times, 28 Dec. 2008. Web. 22 April 2015.


Lot Information:

Lot 25
Robert Graham
GINA 5-17-97
Patinated bronze
#5 of 6
Signed and dated “GINA/ 5-17-97″ with edition stamp
14.5″ x 5.5″ x 5”
Provenance: Private Collection, Malibu, California (gifted directly by the artist)
Estimate: $15,000 – $20,000

Lot 26
Robert Graham
Elisa ’96
Cast 2007
Patinated bronze on composite base
From the edition of 250
Signed in ink “R. Graham” at base; incised “Elisa 8- . . . RG 07″ sculpture verso
3.5″ x 2.25″ x 2.5” (not including base)
Estimate: $2,000 – $3,000

Lot 27
Robert Graham
Julie 8-96
Patinated bronze
#2 of 10
Incised “Julie 8-96 RG” sculpture verso; edition stamped
3.75″ x 3″ x 4.75″
Estimate: $2,000 – $3,000

Lot 28
Robert Graham
MOCA Torso
Patinated bronze
From the edition of 3,500
Published by MOCA Editions
Bears the inscriptions “Cyclone” and “Smiley”
11″ x 4.5″ diameter at base
Estimate: $2,000 – $3,000

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