The death of sculptor Robert Graham brings to mind one of the most controversial public sculptures in our fair city, the Duke Ellington Memorial at Fifth Avenue and 110th Street on Central Park. When it debuted in 1997, bien pensants denounced it as sexist, because of the nine Nubian muses balancing Duke and his piano on their heads. But there was more: the rigidity of the piece seemed to deny the effortless smoothness with which Edward Kennedy Ellington passed into a white culture with the beige signifiera of A trains and satin dolls. Should Duke really be depicted, in the arch patois of Graham, as what my friend the African art collector Tim Hunt used to characterize as something you pick up at the airport in Kenya?
There is a tension in African kitsch, a tension which Graham exploited to the max and which might make us regret that he did not live to reify Barack Obama. The Ellington Memorial is a gigantic fetish, which evokes dark goddesses bearing their Man on their heads, the reduction of everything to an ebony phallus and the silence which must come, even, to the subtlest master of music. For Ellington was the maximum embodiment of that well-worn cliché, the iron fist in the velvet glove, lord of a band which reverse-migrated through the segregated South in a school bus without cots or toilets. The Duke dominated the weaknesses of his band members, indulging Cootie Williams, nodding out from dope on the bandstand (you can see it on YouTube!), firing Charles Mingus for taking part in knife fight, raising up the shy, gay genius Billy Strayhorn, floating into the ether with alto magus Johnny Hodges.
None of these nuances are even hinted at in the Graham rendition. Instead we see the black man as exalted ruler, a transcendent fantasy worthy of Israelites in Babylonian exile. Our new king Barack is already chafing under the pressures of the white press, desperate to escape the 24-hour detail to buy his daughters an ice cream cone. Do not submit, Mr. President. Tell them tough and tell them smooth, just like the Duke. These rules were not made for you. Please break them, OK?, until another Robert Graham, many years from now, can cast you in stone.
Robert Graham died from an undisclosed illness in Santa Monica on Dec. 27, 2008. He was 70 years old. For more on Graham and his work, see his Artnet Works Catalogue as well as "Unstable Nudity" and "L.A. Confidential".
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).