In Beverly Hills, artist Robert Graham draws a good crowd. Last week's opening of an extensive survey of his works at Ace Gallery was notably star-studded. The handsome, silver-haired Graham, who had his first show in L.A. in 1966 with legendary dealer Nicholas Wilder and who has kept a studio in Venice since 1972, welcomed his wife, Angelica Huston, as well as Owen Wilson, her costar in Wes Anderson's recent film, The Life Aquatic. Also in attendance were Kirk Douglas, kidding with Don Rickles, Jack Nicholson (relatively unprepossessing in a navy blazer), Gina Gershon with Tom Ford (definitely the glam couple of the night), Kelly Lynch (very feminine in a feather boa, in contrast to her L Word role as Ivan the Drag King), Diane Lane (in a leather mini and fishnets), plus Brooke Shields, Tommy Chong, Edward James Olmos, Paul Mazursky and Ed Begley, Jr., among others.
Graham's art is similarly Olympian, his female figures classicizing yet hyper-realistic, tumescent and formidable, even angry. Whether drawn or modeled, they seem uncannily skillful in their making. "Everything I do is right there on the surface," he says, disingenuously, since what is visible is a rare gift.
The opening was followed by a pig roast in tented parking lot out back, accompanied by a salsa band playing boleros, meringues, bachatas, cumbias and other Latin music -- a preview of the Oscar parties that came a few days later. The bar was serving not one but two top-shelf Tequilas, Patron and Chinaco, made from biologically pure Agave (thus better for your health). Kudos to Ace Gallery chief Doug Chrismas.
Titled "The Female Form," the show spans four decades and fills nine galleries of varying sizes on two floors. Up front are several works from the 1960s, including a sculpture in painted wax of two miniature nude girls posing on a Lucite table inside a plastic dome, plus a suite of four blurry black-and-white photographs taken with a cheap camera from similar models, a work that anticipates Postmodernist photographers like James Casebere and Thomas Demand.
In general, Graham's work remains outside art-world categories, despite his being a fixture on the L.A. scene. Were you thinking about Pop art and Minimalism back in the 1960s, he was asked. "I was thinking about girls," he said. Although the work involves sexual desire, it is not without nuance. "It's about a certain kind of attraction," he said, but "I'm not sure about desire' -- by the time you finish, the attraction is exhaustion."
Graham's nudes are in fact portraits of individual models. "Once I realized they were portraits," he said, "I didn't need a narrative, I could simply focus on the person, the model." He says that his work isn't about an academic approach to anatomy, or some dogmatic approach to realism. "It's not real at all, it's just an illusion," he said. "It's just looking."
The most important thing, Graham noted, is the generosity of his models. "I get the benefit," he says. One of his more amazing models, Gina Clark, who has worked with Graham for ten years, was at the opening (and the contrast between her accessorized, fashionable real-life appearance and her stripped-down image as an artist's model was unnerving, among other things). "It's hard work! We fight and argue!" she said. "We're like a married couple -- but no sex!"
Among the surprises in the exhibition is a group of videotapes of several models, languorously posing for the camera, often watching themselves in an off-screen monitor. One woman is posing with her horse. Graham has been making the tapes all along, not for exhibition but to help him get a sense of his subjects. Upstairs is another tape loop, this one made by a model and dancer named Klara, who is performing a remarkable topless dance with a hula-hoop, a performance that she developed for Graham as a gift.
The large second-floor gallery is filled with portrait busts, also remarkable, of Diandra Douglas, Bai Ling, Angelica Huston, Brooke Shields, Tara Subkoff. "Portraits, usually you get them in a week," Graham said. "If it takes any longer, it starts getting stale."
The works range in price from about $7,500 for an utterly charming charcoal drawing of a vulnerably alluring Sofia Coppola, posing nude and pigeon-toed in flip-flops -- I urged Los Angeles County Museum of Art curator Stephanie Barron to buy it for the museum -- to $425,000 for an almost gothic pair of white-patinaed bronze "angels" originally made (but never used) for the doors of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles.
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Los Angeles was graced by two other major gallery openings that weekend. L.A. Louver in Venice opened a show of watercolors by David Hockney titled "Hand Eye Heart: Watercolors of the East Yorkshire Landscape," a set of pictures of his boyhood home that was occasioned by the death of his mother. "I've known this landscape for 45 years," he said. "It's hardly changed. There's no one there."
Soft and bright despite an overcast sky, with lots of green, the paintings are enchanting -- village rooftops, verdant gardens and fields, a stoplight in the rain, a country road. Hockney certainly doesn't fuss -- quite the contrary, he barely seems to take pains at all. The brushstrokes and swaths of color all look so simple, but the effect is naturalistic.
The artist was on hand in the gallery prior to the opening, and was pleased to explain that he had carefully selected a mustardy beige color for the walls -- "white walls are the enemy!" -- and framed the watercolors without white mattes or white borders, all the better to bring out properly the colors of the watercolor, including the white of the paper.
Hockney made watercolor studies on the spot, often sitting in his car, and worked up the final paintings in his studio. It's his first major painting show at the gallery since 1998. The 20 works are much in demand, and are priced at about $150,000-$300,000. The gallery has also produced a handsome 140-page hardcover catalogue, featuring an essay by New Yorker writer Lawrence Weschler, director of NYU's New York Institute for the Humanities.
At Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, Richard Prince opened an exhibition of "Check Paintings," a new series of works into which the artist has collaged his personal checks. The checks are all but illegible in several mural-sized black or orange monochromatic "joke paintings" (one chestnut tells of the psychiatrist who makes a "Freudian Slip" while having lunch with his mother, meaning to ask her to "please pass the butter" but instead saying "you fucking bitch you ruined my life").
But in smaller paintings -- casually deft gestural abstractions in black and ochre -- the checks can be easily read. For instance, one check from 2003 is made out to Cologne dealer Rafael Jablonka in the impressive sum of $125,000 -- buying a Warhol? But don't artists usually barter their own works in such cases? Another canvas features a series of $200 checks, one a month for several months in 1992, made out to Louis and Virginia Prince. Now, what could that be about?
The series is a brilliant way for Prince, the prototypically reticent postmodernist, to add some personal biography to his oeuvre. Like Bruce Nauman with his videos of mice scampering through his studio at night, Prince now has license to make the slightest thing into art, including the worthless stuff that we all have in our files. The guy kills, as they say in the business. The paintings are priced at about $150,000-$600,000.
In the back room are some smaller "graphic" works, including a copy of the Rolling Stones 1971 Sticky Fingers album signed by Andy Warhol, framed along with the $1,500 check that Prince used to buy the collectible item from the Andy Warhol Foundation. Someone has drawn a little picture of SpongeBob SquarePants on the record cover, matching the pattern on the check. At the opening, Prince said that he made the drawing -- but I think now that it must have been done by one of his kids.* * *
Elsewhere in Los Angeles, much is on view. At the Bergamot Station Art Center, in a show at Patrick Painter titled "Outer Limits," Kenny Scharf has revisited his Jetson-inspired imagery of 1981 in a new group of paintings, several with custom gold-painted decorative frames that weigh 250 pounds, the gallery warns. Many of the 16 new works, including Judy on the Beach (Newer, Bigger, Better) (2004), are marked sold; they range in price from $20,000 to $200,000.
The prize for the most dramatic installation goes to California astronomical artist Russell Crotty, who has suspended a pair of six-foot-tall celestial globes in the large clean space of the Shoshana Wayne Gallery. The two spheres are each covered with a detailed line drawing of the sky, made from Crotty's own Pacific Coast observatory. Titled Double Cluster in Perseus and Looking for Baade's Window, the sculptures are priced at $50,000; one had already been marked sold.
At Robert Berman Gallery is a set of four charming Photo Realist paintings by New York artist Ron English of a young boy in Kiss makeup, put on view on the occasion of the Oscars, since English did the artworks for Morgan Spurlock's anti-McDonald's documentary, Super Size Me (2004). . . . Berman, by the way, is merging with fellow Bergamot Station dealer William Turner to form Berman-Turner Projects, opening with a show of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders photographs from his XXX project on Apr. 1, 2005. Meanwhile, Berman's Santa Monica Auctions spring sale is set for Mar. 20 (see www.smauctions.com).
Everyone loves veteran dealer Patricia Faure and her new partner, Kimberly Light. On view at Faure & Light Gallery are bright resin monochromes by veteran California colorist Maxwell Hendler (b. 1938) and a series by painter Salomn Huerta of small, Matissean color photographs of a model surrounded by patterned fabrics. Called "Portrait of a Friend," the snaps were made in connection with some new watercolors, due to be exhibited this month. The photos are $750 -- the two that have both a dog and a bare breast were first to sell, said Patty. Meanwhile, Faure's own photographs from the 1960s go on view at Margo Leavin Gallery.
And still more -- at Richard Heller Gallery, amusing watercolors by Kevin Christy playing turns on the Hollywood sign, with phrases like "I live in the Valley" and "Why are you leaving me," moving fast at $400 each. . . . At Bobbie Greenfield Gallery, new editions from Gemini G.E.L., including several Person with Guitar screenprints by John Baldessari, with the instrument cut out and replaced with a flat plane of color, for about $4,400 framed (edition of 45).
At Regen Projects on North Almont Drive, two new suites of photographs by James Welling, both in glorious color. Photograms of flowers, blue, red or yellow on white, are $12,500, while larger golden-hued abstractions, made by taking a picture through a window screen on the developer, are $25,000-$35,000. . . . At Paul Kopeikin Gallery, a large Ultrachome color photograph of an industrial-size pile of sawdust by Chris Jordan is $4,500-$6,500, depending on where the work is in the edition of nine.
At 1305PE, two sculptures for writers and editors -- a couple of 1,800-point "full stops," otherwise known as periods, by Fiona Banner. The white sphere is in Times, the end-table-sized box is in a typeface called Avant Garde. Both are made of polystyrene, and $8,500 each. . . . At ACME, colorful storybook-style paintings of American history by Aaron Morse are moving fast at $5,800-$12,000. . . . At Kontainer Gallery on Wilshire Boulevard, a vaguely biomorphic installation of multicolored oozing silicone rubber by London artist Neal Rock. Dealer Mihai Nicodim opened the gallery in 2003.
Coming up at Anna Helwing Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard is a show of large Photo Realist drawings by Karl Haendel, including a mural-sized depiction of a Cadillac Escalade that is priced at the same level as the car itself -- something over $56,000. Collectors are lining up. The Brooklyn native (b. 1976) is participating in the Artists Trust Fund, which requires the donation of two works per year.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.