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GODDESS OR GYNECOLOGY?
by Donald Kuspit
 
The nude. . . is just as frequent and necessary today as it was in the life of the ancients. . . but there is a new element -- modern beauty.
-- Charles Baudelaire, "The Salon of 1846"

. . .the poetry of nudity has mounted to Olympus.

-- Edmond and Jules de Goncourt
"The Salon of 1852"

1
Theyíre all present and accounted for: Heather, Cherie, Stephanie, Neith, Lise-Ann, Debbie, Elisa, Lise, Gabrielle, Koreen, Christine, Jennifer, Petra, Becky, Penny, Julie Ann, Elisabeth, to name only a few -- Robert Grahamís parade of nudes, each sensually sublime, earthy and exalted at the same time, indistinguishably physical and ideal, individual yet evocative of the "eternal feminine that draws us on," as Goethe put it in the mystical chorus that concludes Faust. Graham certainly has a mystical, obsessive relationship with his female models (no males in his stable of nudes): heís drawn to the female nude like a hungry fly to honey. But Grahamís nudes arenít exactly sweet, passively waiting to be cannibalized by his overeager eye, the male gaze masticating their flesh into juicy art: no, his sculptures have an odd classical dryness, and his nudes are aloof and inaccessible, high on pedestals, where they await worship, their perfect bodies conveying what Ashley Montagu called womanís natural superiority to man.

Theyíre beyond desire, and beyond Grahamís desire, however desirable they obviously are, if only for their youth -- and theyíre always young, and Grahamís eye always grows young when it looks at them, their intercourse consummated in ageless art. They are not sexually exhibitionistic, but always self-contained however boldly naked. Even when they vigorously exercise, with a spirited intensity that seems an end in itself, they remain peculiarly detached from their own nakedness, and indifferent to the male glance that tries to keep up with their movement, their seemingly inexhaustible energy. Grahamís hand seems to model them as swiftly as they move, but they always seem to escape his touch, much the way Daphne escaped Apolloís grasp, her body abandoning human form to rejoin nature, indicating that she was pure instinct all along -- driven by forces greater than herself, natural forces that lend her their greatness and power, that she embodies in the majestic integrity of her beauty.

For four decades Graham has dedicated himself to the female nude, often rendering the same nude several times, as though to capture every facet of the female body. Itís an impressive oeuvre, an endless display of female presence in drawings and engravings, and especially in sculptures -- a remarkable contribution to the discourse of the nude, more subtly, to the discourse of the lived body, the articulation of it in all its inarticulate immediacy. Graham does not merely represent the nude, he presents the body in all its "hereness," as Max Scheler put it, making our "inner consciousness" of "lived bodiliness" manifest through the female body. Why is it a better symbol of lived bodiliness than the male body? Because unconsciously the female body is felt to be more inwardly -- and thus mysteriously -- alive than the male body. Its curvature evokes the ťlan vital in a way the male body never can.†

Except, of course, in the hands of a Michelangelo, where the male body sometimes twists in convulsive vitality, as in The Dying Slave and The Bound Slave (both 1513-16), a grotesque distortion of the flowing curves of the female body, suggesting that Michelangelo had no feeling for it -- no inner consciousness of it as a living body, only outer consciousness of it as a misshapen object. German has two words for "body," the inorganic KŲrper and the organic Leib, and for Michelangelo the female body was a KŲrper rather than a Leib, as it was for Graham. As has been much noted, Michelangeloís female nudes tend to be male nudes with breasts, as in the female Day on the tomb of Guiliano deí Medici (1519-34). This acknowledges, however unwittingly, the fact that the female body is experienced, unconsciously, as more life-giving -- and thus light-bringing, as Day is -- than the male body, which Michelangelo uses to symbolize Night in the same monument. Nonetheless, as in the Slave sculptures, the convulsive twisting of Dayís female body, suggesting that itís somehow disjointed and absurd, mocks the movement of its curves, confirming not only that Michelangelo has no feeling for it but that he regards it as peculiarly "unnatural" -- a freak of nature compared to the heroic male body.

The difference between the dynamics of Michelangeloís twisting yet passive nudes and Grahamís hyperactive nudes -- the late ones in contrast to the motionless earlier ones -- bespeaks the difference between a negative and positive view of woman as well as between KŲrper and Leib. Michelangelo is insensitive and unresponsive to her body, while Graham is perhaps over-sensitive and over-responsive. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Michelangelo was homosexual and Graham was heterosexual, but it has more to do Grahamís appreciation and acceptance, however unconsciously, of womanís nature-given ability to give birth, that is, her innate, body-based creativity. Michelangelo resists this truth, probably because he believes that artistic creativity is superior to natural creativity -- divine and rare rather than the profane and commonplace -- and unique to man, confirming his superiority to woman.†

His rendering of Godís creation of Adam -- the first human being -- on the Sistine ceiling suggests as much. And suggests that art speaks to and is made for man, not woman, a secondary creation, and with that a second-rate human being. Adam is Godís best work of art, suggesting that making art means breathing life into the beautiful male body. Clearly the "divine" Michelangelo identifies with God, and takes an active, impregnating role -- what else is Godís finger about? -- in response to Adamís passive body, which is not only much more beautiful than Eveís body but seems more alive. Sheís a necessary evil, not the embodiment of artistic goodness.

In sharp contrast, Grahamís art speaks to and is made for woman; it is a tribute to her body and person. Michelangelo pays homage to the male body and person; for him, to be male is to be more authentically human than to be female. And more creative, especially because the male artist creates with his mind -- Michelangeloís hand was an instrument of his mind, a point made by the fact that God the Father and his son Adam have their eyes open, directing their hands (their eyes meet before their hands will) -- not his body, as the female artist, that is, the mother does. She produces the infant -- not exactly a masterpiece -- in the unconscious of her body, as it were, while the father produces the work of art in his consciousness, envisioning it with his mindís eye -- the creative eye of God the Father that fashioned the masterpiece of Adamís mature body. The infant fresh out of the motherís womb is an unfinished work of human art, which the artist finishes and perfects, which is what good fathering does.

Also, the male "mind artist" can make art that will live forever -- great, mature art -- while the female "body artist" produces human beings who are not only in a raw, immature state, but whose bodies have built-in obsolescence: they are all too human because they will die. From Michelangeloís point of view they are poor examples of works of art, indicating the shortcomings of nature, that is, the inadequacy and limits of natural creativity. Art finishes what nature began, bringing it to a new and permanent state of ripeness -- the proverbial "ripeness [that] is all" -- suggesting that art is in effect a "second nature," more particularly, a new masculine paradise to compensate for the expulsion from the paradise of womanís womb that is birth.††

I am arguing that Graham rejects the male figure because it does not and by nature cannot adequately embody and express the creative spirit of life as convincingly as the female body. Michelangelo has the opposite point of view, in part because he thinks the female body is a less successful creation than the male body. That is, God did a better job with the male body -- which is after all the first and primary body (which is why Michelangelo is attracted to it) -- than the female body. It is a second-rate body, a botched afterthought to the male body, and ugly compared to its beauty. But Michelangelo is missing the point of the female body: without its capacity to give birth -- which makes it the site of primary creativity -- there is no life, in nature and in art.

In short, Graham is drawn to the female body not because he finds it sexually exciting but out of deep respect for its inner creativity. He is not a prurient voyeur getting his scopophiliac kicks, but a connoisseur of womanís glorious, subtly made body, contemplating it in recognition of its sacredness by reason of its generative power. He possesses woman artistically rather than sexually, for only by artistically identifying with her can he become as vitally creative as she is by nature, and thus keep his own creativity vital, and with that make art that will be fresh, alive, high-spirited, and young forever -- as his female models seem to be. Graham is not another Pygmalion, busily sculpting an outwardly beautiful woman worthy of his love, but obsessed with womanís inner perfection: the inherent creativity of her body. The capacity to give birth is natural to woman, and to give birth to art the male artist must become a woman in spirit, which is why she is the muse that traditionally inspires the male artistís creativity -- his own dissociated or split-off female and creative side that becomes an integral part of him again when he makes art under her spell. 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.

Michelangelo has a certain point: art can never exist "naturally." It is never spontaneously given by nature, however "artistic" nature seems. However spontaneously or "naturally" art seems to be made there is always something "artificial" about it. But art becomes completely convincing when it seems uncannily attuned to nature -- in harmony with nature, like the best mimetic art, and in recognition that nature is the mother of life, including living art -- so that it seems "second nature." Graham is not a naÔve empiricist, observing and describing womanís body as though its appearance was a seductive end in itself -- however meticulously he seems to (even when he elides its details) -- but a subtle essentialist: for him woman is the essence of life in deceptively empirical form -- deceptive because however matter-of-factly physical her body is mysteriously creative, indeed, the vehicle of the seemingly miraculous fecundity of nature. Just as nature renews and repeats itself, so Graham renews and repeats the female body, each as young and vital as a fresh spring.

More particularly, his modelís inner consciousness of her body and his inner consciousness of it artistically converge, which is why his sculptures seem to be abstract for all their apparent realism. Grahamís female figures have separate identities, as their faces make very clear -- most of his sculptures are portrait nudes rather than anonymous nudes -- but they are aspects of the same female archetype, what Jung called the female principle that exists in the collective or universal unconscious. It is this archetypal quality that gives them an aura of abstract perfection, ensuring their important place in art history, and confirming their profound humanity, and their permanent hold on the male psyche.

2
Grahamís nudes are aristocrats of the body, the picture of perfect health and physical fitness. Some are upright, stationary, and perfectly balanced, others are seated or flat on their backs, sometimes in rapid cinematic motion, sometimes stretching, as though to show off the suppleness of their remarkable bodies. However much she changes position, Grahamís nude is a "constant semiotic" of his male consciousness.(1) Sheís the center of his consciousness, but so centered in herself that she seems indifferent to it. Poised above him on a pedestal or column, she remains out of reach, conveying dignity and independence, self-possession and character, a person inhabiting a body not an anonymous body, the depersonalized plaything of the male psyche.

Moving restlessly from nude to nude, Graham seems in Sisyphean pursuit of the ideal woman. But unlike Apelles, who knew she was a fantasy and myth, but found bits and pieces of ideal beauty in the body parts of real woman, putting them together in a construction of the ideal -- the mirage of perfectly beautiful love goddess -- Graham remains ruthlessly realistic, declaring "Iím trying to make exactly what I see in front of me."(2) Impressed by Grahamís attention to realistic detail, Augustin Arteaga declared that Graham had "the anatomical obsession of a gynecologist."(3)

Paradoxically, his gynecological realism makes the female body more mystifying than it would be if it were vapidly glamorous. Every descriptive detail becomes an emotional nuance, giving her flesh a peculiarly spiritual flavor. Since Rodin, anatomical accuracy and psychological authenticity have become separated, a tendency that some scholars think begins with Matisseís "serpentine" sculptures of the female nude, which sacrifice physical description to expressive fervor. As Albert Elsen writes, Matisse was not interested in "anatomical information,"(4) but in "express[ing] his feelings,"(5) as Matisse himself said -- his feelings, it should be emphasized, not the nudeís feelings, suggesting his emotional domination of his model, who only existed for his creative purposes rather than in and for herself, as Grahamís nudes do. He respects and conveys their feelings, however much their bodies serve his creativity.

In retrospect, the distance from Matisseís figurative expressionism to Pollockís abstract expressionism seems short: in the all-over paintings the expression of feeling no longer depends on the model. There are no human figures in them, only feeling for its own intense sake. If the figure exists, it is buried under an avalanche of expressive gestures, forming a realm unto themselves. Pollock may have begun with the figure, as he said -- an anonymous, genderless, schematic figure, it should be noted -- but he negates it at once, as though asserting his independence, even if such a negation is paradoxically a self-negation, that is, implies his "difficult," negative feelings about himself as well as human relationships, which have their own "difficulty." Pollock doesnít need an Other, as Rodin and Matisse did -- certainly no female nude (apart from the painting of his naked mother, her grotesquely shaped body dominating the surrounding little men, titled Woman [ca. 1939], Pollock never painted one) -- to catalyze his feelings. He is self-stimulating, as it were, as though the sheer expression of raw feeling could generate the strong self he rarely had, as his lifelong mental illness implies. †His feelings pour out, in response to each other, rather than to a figure, thus losing their anchorage in external fact. In Rodin and to a lesser extent in Matisse feelings were tied to human facts -- above all the unmistakable fact of the body -- but in Pollock they appear as autonomous expressions. The expression of feeling is an abstract end in itself rather than associated with the figure, as though feeling had nothing to do with life only art.

In stark contrast, Graham reintegrates what became separated in the course of modern art: the expression of feeling and the reality of the body. Observation and expression -- descriptive clarity and assertive passion -- have never been as esthetically opposed as modernism insisted they were. Graham reconciles them, restoring credibility to realistic description with no sacrifice of expressive purpose. He is a master of "post-modern" mimesis, subtly equilibrating the demands of "inner necessity" and objectivity -- the personal and the public -- in a figurative art that is as cognitively precise as it is emotionally insinuating.

Graham is indebted to the long history of the discourse of the nude, as he acknowledges. He has studied the classical proportions of the Renaissance Venus as well as the voluminous Venus of Willendorf -- the transcendentally realistic nude as well as the prehistoric fertility goddess. Acutely aware of the ratio of the parts to the whole of the body, and of the distribution of mass in its different parts, he in effect re-invents the traditional nude, but gives it a modern twist by rendering its materiality with a scientifically detached realism -- clinical realism.

Just as important and unusual, he conveys his modelís "inner necessity" -- her emotional individuality, as it were -- rather than using her body to communicate his own urgent feelings, in effect exploiting her body for his own emotional purposes. Graham does not project his feelings into her flesh, giving them the form of her body, as 20th century figurative expressionists did, nor does he project them into the flesh of the painterly medium, as 20th century abstract expressionists did, externalizing their urgent necessity as ironically pure art. In a sense, Graham uses sculpture to extricate the female body from the quagmire of the artistís contradictory feelings, implicit in the so-called push and pull of pure painterly painting -- a pushing and pulling of the model into a two-dimensional morass, finally dissolving her into an atmospheric energy. Objectified three-dimensionally -- viewed as an object in its own right, not as a subjective accessory -- the female model cannot be reduced to an unconscious male fantasy -- abused and used by male desire -- which allows her to show her personal feelings. And above all her character, able to withstand the "advances" of the male eye, which gives her an unusual dignity, despite her exposure to the invasive male eye.

3
Grahamís nudes are part of the rebellion against sterile modernist rationality that made controversial headlines when Michael Graves installed -- defiantly and irrationally -- a nude female figure on the rationalist façade of his Portlandia building, giving it a paradoxical air of enchantment it would otherwise lack.(6) Gravesís nude figure is more allegorical than realistic -- it is a symbol of the city of Portland, more generally significant than empirically particular -- in contrast to Grahamís nude, which uses empirical precision to reinforce allegorical purpose, as in Source Figure (1990-91). Just as Graves uses a modernist building as the backdrop for Portlandia, so Graham uses the surrounding architecture to stage his luminous, beautiful Source Figure, who adorns a fountain -- in effect a fountain of life. Indeed, she subtly upstages urban towers that Renzo Piano called "aggressive, arrogant, black" buildings "about money and power" -- Darth Vadar types of death traps -- rather than "beautiful."(7) The small space she inhabits is an oasis in an urban desert -- a personal place in the midst of an impersonal metropolis -- a joy to behold in the midst of an architectural offense against the human soul. Like most of Grahamís sculptures, his fountain figure creates an effect of instant intimacy, no doubt due in part to the fact that it is subtly "miniaturized," that is, smaller than life, and thus more uncanny and precious, a concentration of presence that makes it more spellbinding than it would be if was monumentally large and intimidating.

Numerous artists have "created into" the female nude, to use D.W. Winnicottís felicitous term, a creative "intercourse" that results in beauty. This is true for both modern and traditional artists -- for Maillol and Matisse as well as Titian and Rubens. Graham Beal writes: "Though distinct, recognizable individuals, the women depicted [by Graham] are invariably transformed -- through the bronze medium and reduced scale -- into generic beings: types of beauty."(8) Our age has repeatedly been characterized as one of disbelief,(9) which includes disbelief in beauty. Our society adulates hard vulgar glamour not sublime soft beauty. Graham is a believer. He may have worked in Los Angeles, the center of the Hollywood exploitation and desecration of American life, but the young Virgin Mary, her chaste body innocently naked under her sweeping robe, standing open-armed and welcoming above the Great Doors (installed in 2002) that Graham created for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles -- the cityís first new cathedral in almost a half century -- is the epitome of the gentle tenderness and sacred beauty that Hollywoodís emotionally ugly fake beauties lack. Their cheaply profane bodies are a mockery of the female principle Grahamís Virgin Mary embodies. Grahamís more conspicuously physical nudes may seem less spiritually important at first glance, but as their elevated position indicates, they also initiate us into a higher realm of feeling, trust, and belief.

This is true despite the ultra-realistic -- gynecologically accurate, as Arteaga said -- rendering of their genitals, suggesting a familiar male split in consciousness of the female body: sheís a lower sexual being whose body one lusts for and a higher spiritual being whose soul one loves. Sheís either a "bad woman" because one projects oneís "bad wishes" into her, or a "good woman" because one projects oneís "good wishes" into her. Freud noted that it was emotionally difficult for a man to reconcile the opposites -- to experience the same woman as an object of all-consuming desire and of reverence. Graham venerates woman, but strips the veil of modesty from her genitals, as though to confirm that she is a bad woman -- sexually assertive, brazenly forward. But he is as brazen: he views the female genital without flinching, that is, without experiencing castration anxiety, while confirming that the female body is flawed, that is, lacks a penis. He lifts the taboo against the female genital, exposing it as ruthlessly as Courbet does in The Origin of the World (1866), as Becky, Lying Down (1993) and Lauren 4-21-96 (1996) show. There are many other works in which the female genital is the flagrant center of attention, provocatively drawing our eye to it, even into it, for it seems hypnotically open rather than hermetically closed, a lavish hole rather than a subtle slit. The labia are meticulously detailed, as though they were seductive blemishes, and the female genital becomes dramatically evident when seen in contrast to the perfect, self-contained body to which it belongs.

The female genital is truthfully rendered -- true to nature. How can woman be truthful and beautiful at once, as Graham shows she is? This goes against the modern grain. Barnett Newman said "the impulse of modern art was [the] desire to destroy beauty," more particularly, "to discard Renaissance notions of beauty."(10) "Modern art is abstract, intellectual. . . . Modernism. . . taught that art is an expression of thought, of important truths, not of a sentimental and artificial Ďbeautyí."(11) So much for the beautiful female body, whatever the important truth of its genital. Whatever happened to Keatsís "beauty is truth and truth is beauty and thatís all you need to know?" Clearly modernism doesnít have the whole truth about beauty, and doesnít understand the beauty of truth -- of very visceral truth. Modernism begins with Courbetís realism, which involved "the pursuit of ugliness,"(12) suggesting that Newmanís paintings, for some the climax of modern painting, are absolutely ugly.

Graham breaks away from this whole line of thinking, affirming beauty, to the extent of finding it in the seemingly ugliest part of the female body, at least to the male anxious about it. He does so by re-uniting what Courbet separated: the female genital from the female body. He does something more subtle: he subsumes the female genital in a beautiful female body -- classically beautiful however empirically the case -- so that it becomes endowed with beauty, an attribute of beauty, the proverbially "something strange in the proportions of beauty" that brings it to life, and, more subtly, gives it projective power and animates it. The female genital is the essence of the female body, and Graham further essentializes it by describing it in raw detail, paradoxically giving it esthetic immediacy, so that the female genital is not only experienced as embedded in the female body but as the bizarre essence of female beauty -- an existentialization of beauty, as it were, bringing it down from the abstract heights where it was a pure and remote truth, a seemingly artificial idea rather than a perversely eloquent fact of life, not unlike the seductively intimidating penis pictured by Robert Mapplethorpe in The Man in the Polyester Suit (1986). In 1846, twenty years before Courbetís blatant female genital, Baudelaire remarked that genuine beauty is a dialectic of "the eternal and. . . the transitory †-- of the absolute and of the particular."(13) Courbetís female genital is transitory and particular, and so is Grahamís, but Grahamís female body is absolute and eternal, which is why its genital is, finally, enduringly significant rather than simply momentarily shocking, and more scenic than obscene, like, for that matter, Mapplethorpeís grand male genital.

4
However different, thereís a certain relationship between Grahamís nudes and those of Maillol, not only because of "his lifelong dedication to that most exemplary of classical motifs, the nude human body,"(14) but also because "his individual figures were intended to convey meanings which, although elusive and non-verbal, were symbolic in a private sense."(15) What Andrť Gide said of Maillolís Femme accroupie (1905) (now called Mediterranean), is also true of Grahamís female nude: it is a "simple manifestation of beauty."(16) Like Maillolís "renewed classicism," with its "return to more stable and self-contained forms," Grahamís renewed classicism "replace[s] Rodinís dramatic and agitated figures with the greatest simplicity of gesture and pose."(17) Ironically, it was Rodin who first recognized Maillolís sculptural genius, enthusiastically declaring that he "knew nothing so Ďabsolutely beautiful, absolutely pure, a masterpiece. . . in all modern sculpture."(18)

But there is in fact a Rodinesque streak in Graham -- the elemental Rodin of the Balzac (1898), "the first conspicuous sculptural portrait in modern times in which creative expression took precedence over verisimilitude."(19) Graham oscillates, with relaxed versatility, between Maillol-type classical and Rodin-type expressionist sculptures -- exquisitely beautiful and primordially dynamic figures, with the female genital an expressionistic tidbit in the classically beautiful figures and classical containment bringing the expressionistic figures under esthetic control. If both style and power are necessary to make art -- power under the control of style, style enlivened by power -- then Graham has them both, however much the balance sometimes seems to tilt more to the one rather than the other, making for a certain inconclusiveness that is decidedly modern.

More crucially, he shows his modernism in moving "beyond totality towards a state of fragmentation,"(20) as Rodin and numerous modernists have, even as each fragment of the figure bespeaks the totality of the figure and becomes a totality in itself, as in Grahamís 1990 series of body fragments. In the remarkably visceral fragments made at the beginning of the New Millennium, as though to show that it is still possible to make the body new -- or at least show that while it has had a bad fall from grace in modernism and broken into irreconcilable parts, it can be put back together without denying that it is broken forever (and that its pieces have become puzzling, and no longer seamlessly fit together, suggesting that some have been lost) -- Graham daringly unites manically expressive body parts in a precariously balanced whole that remains uncannily classical. These figure-fragments seem simultaneously self-created and self-destructive -- almost catastrophically formless yet oddly well-formed. The classically whole figures and fragmentary modernist figures -- classically finished figures and figures in interminable process -- are the poles of Grahamís creativity, paradoxically synthesizing in his later expressionistic classicism.

5
There is something of Houdonís Diana (1776) in Grahamís statuesque nudes. Houdon, "the least Classicist" of the neo-classical sculptures of the late 18th century, "did not aim at doctrinaire purity of style" -- "the ideological side of Classicism" -- but introduced a "feeling for naturalness" into its "sublime, solemn element."(21) The same ambiguity is evident in Grahamís Lise I (1977), Heather (1979), Cherie (1980), Stephanie (1981), Lise-Ann and Debbie (both 1988). Posing with their arms at their sides (although not touching them), they stand with natural grace and solemn poise, ready to move at a momentís notice with no loss of dignity. Fountain Figure I (1983) and Gabrielle and Koreen (both 1993), are more obviously "stop-action" figures. They hold their hands above and sometimes also behind their heads -- a difficult position to maintain -- suggesting they are in the midst of movement. The same is true of Lise III (1977) and Elizabeth (1993), whose arms are crossed over their breasts (not hiding them), and Lise II (1977) and Christine (1991), who stand arms akimbo.

As with Houdon, the nudeís pose is telling -- a sort of visual mot juste -- especially the placement of the arms and hands. It makes her beauty dynamic, a "stationary vibration"(22) rather than a static harmony. Stephanie and Spy (1980-81) suggests that Graham views his nudes as a stable of race horses, finely groomed and ready to run, under the control of the artist jockey -- Graham -- who masterfully trains and rides them. Graham is a connoisseur of fillies, female bodies in their youthful prime. It may be a patriarchal attitude, but itís also an appreciative, adoring one, for he has no wish to tamper with the female nude, but rather keep her in fighting trim, as it were. The remarkable series of works devoted to the bodies of Elisa, Jennifer, and Lauren (all 1996), show how capable and fit she is. They stretch to the athletic limit -- several are dancers -- with no loss of composure and elegance. They may seem Dionysian maenads, but they have complete command of their movement, even at its most intense. Grahamís female nudes are erotic masterpieces, but they also show the body ego at its most confident.

Working "from a living model, Graham takes [two] series of photographs, one set being straight-on views of the standing figure from different angles," the other "reference shots" showing "the model going through various mechanical actions."(23) I would say they are organic rather than mechanical; machines arenít as limber as Grahamís athletic nudes. (Theyíre certainly not mechanical fucking machines -- sexual mannequins -- like those of Duchamp, Picabia and Max Ernst in their Dadaist phases.) †But the point is that theyíre "ístop-motioní figures" integrating action and presence -- using "action" photography to heighten female presence. "The best part of beauty cannot [be] expressed," as the philosopher Francis Bacon said, but put into motion, whether subtle or vigorous, beautifully becomes powerfully expressive.

Grahamís late expressionistic nudes are not only in dramatic motion, but have a certain "Baroque agitation"(24) -- and exuberance. As Iíve suggested, they show Grahamís creativity at its most forceful and unrestrained. It is an art historical clichť that an artist tends to repeat himself as he ages and his creative powers have waned or exhausted themselves, or because he is content to rest on the laurels of past successes. But a genuinely creative artist recovers his originality by casting all caution to the winds, making works that reach beyond the self-imposed and cultural limits of his earlier works, refusing to conform to himself or to the expectations of others. By this standard Graham is a truly original artist: his late style expressionism is a triumph of his creativity over the model in which it was initially invested -- the model in which it first came into its own. The model remains, more acrobatic and sometimes more stridently present than ever, but she is now an occasion for a tour de force display of Grahamís creativity rather than its goal.

Not only has Graham broken the inhibiting mold of his own history, moving beyond his total mastery of the nude motif, but he has molded her body to reveal his complete mastery of his medium as well as her movement. No longer conforming to himself or dependent on the model, he has become radically nonconformist and creatively independent -- even more than when he dissented from the abstraction that become de rigueur and conventional by making works that seemed unconventional just because they were unequivocally representational and thus beyond the avant-garde pale. Nonetheless, in the late expressionistic representations the mark of his hands is clearly visible, not usurping descriptive detail but making it emotionally as well as esthetically "avant-garde," if one wants to use that wretched, overused word.

Graham has come a long way from the tableaus that first brought him recognition in the 1960s. Arteaga writes: "Graham produced some boxes which today we would classify as object-art, which recreates the space of a room. Made in acrylic, one can see their contents from every direction. Inside them are small wax figures which recreate scenes of a bedroom with a carefree sensuality or shared eroticism."(25) Arteaga thinks the "exaggerated realism" of Grahamís wax figures initiated "a new vein of ĎPopí," noting that "soft-porn" magazines seem to be their source, although Graham has said that the female figures are as individualized as his later models. They are not stereotypes, as soft-porn nudes tend to be, but observed on the beach in Venice, California, where Graham lived and continued to live until his death. The female bathers wore bikinis and were tanned. There is no doubt a certain voyeuristic realism to the sexually explicit scenes, but the conceptual character of the tableaus is more to their artistic point.

But what is most noteworthy, esthetically, about the boxes is their sensitive use of wax, indicative of Grahamís awareness of the fundamental importance of the physical properties of the medium -- even more important than the physical properties of the female body, as a 1978 series of wax drawings makes clear. The flexibility and gracefulness of the nudeís body is matched by the malleability and softness of the wax. Medoro Rossoís molten wax sculptural portraits come to mind, but Graham does Rosso one esthetic step better: Rossoís portraits are three dimensional, Grahamís wax images are simultaneously two and three dimensional, that is, drawings as well as low reliefs.

Graham has always been interested in the relief -- deceptively flat yet subtly raised surfaces -- as the 1991 series of wood panels and the 1992 untitled reliefs indicate. The nudes in his untitled 1990 freepoints -- they melt into ephemeral elusiveness compared to the bodies in the tableaus -- seem to be drawn in relief. It is impossible to distinguish between flatness and roundness in them. The tension generated by the interplay of two and three dimensions is virtually a theme in itself in the 1978 Dance Door. It climaxes in the dramatic difference between the reliefs of the Virgin Mary, in her various traditional roles, on the Great Bronze Doors of the Los Angeles Cathedral, and the three dimensional rendering of a contemporary Virgin Mary on the portal above the doors. Her statue, surrounded by an auratic golden sky, with its complex amorphous geometry, contrasts sharply with the comparatively dark doors, in their simple geometrical setting.

The textural differences of their surfaces adds to the tension between lower and higher realms. Similarly, in the Dance Door, the portal ornament is relatively coarse grained and raised while the dancers are smooth and flat. Graham is a virtuoso of mediums; he can carve in wood, model in clay, plaster, and wax, and cast in bronze and copper. The results are equally impressive: the material medium becomes as inwardly alive as the nudes. Perhaps nowhere is Grahamís mastery of the medium and dexterity more evident than in the series of drawings he made in 1989. In some, for example, Lise-Ann, a few deft lines convey the nudeís body in a manner worthy of Matisse. Like Matisse, Graham leaves most of the white paper unmarked, turning it into a plane of pure light, always a sign of mastery of surface and space. Informed by the open space, the figure becomes peculiarly full-bodied, even as its outline transcends its flesh. In other drawings, for example, Erika, the figure is subtly shadowed, as though drawn in relief, giving it a density of presence that sets it apart from the paper, as though it had the power to levitate in pure space -- an ascension of the virgin, as it were. Surface tension is also crucial to the emotional effectiveness of the late expressionist nudes, the blending of roughness and smoothness in their skins awakening us to the plasticity of their bodies.

Grahamís identity as an artist is at stake in the late nudes -- it invariably becomes an issue as the artist ages and self-doubt arises, especially if the gatekeepers of the art world doubt oneís creativity because oneís art is not trendy and "advanced," at least according to their thinking -- not the identity of this or that nude. The female nude is no longer a glorious end in herself but the occasion for a final explosion of sculptural practice. Her body is no longer a sublime whole but an aggregation of amorphous masses -- a bizarre material to be shaped with all the creative license that Graham can muster. Grahamís late expressionistic nude is as sturdy and fit as his earlier classical nude, but her body seems less carefully observed, its details often blurring into her flesh, giving her a certain capricious presence. When she balances on her head, however supported by her hands, she loses classical propriety and dignity, becoming more absurd than beautiful, however beautiful she remains, if beauty involves balance.

There is something reckless and mad about the late expressionistic nudes; they are no longer self-possessed but self-dramatizing. Some of them have a Bellmer-like bizarreness, verging on the grotesque, and all of them seem blindly impulsiveópossessed by uncensored instincts, and so no longer in control of their bodies. Graham has come a long creative way from the monumental Olympic Torso I (1984), an emblem of female omnipotence. His late expressionistic nudes are fallen creatures, as it were, for they have succumbed to narcissistic self-absorption, fueled by instinctive energy, making them more peculiarly forbidding and dangerous than the earlier heroines of the noble body. One keeps a worshipful distance from the upright, aloof, self-conscious nudes, but one keeps an anxious distance from the wildly expressive bodies of the fallen nudes -- nudes who have fallen from the emotional heights into the unconscious depths, where they have no individual identity, being all body and no self. Her expressionistic body now has no secrets, while her classical body had a secret self, which is why it could not be touched and violated by the male hand, in contrast to the expressionistic body, which is manhandled into compliance with the male will to power over woman.

6
Two of Grahamís most intriguing, not to say unexpected works -- in part because of their social activist aspect and in part because of their construction -- are his memorial public monuments to Joe Louis (1986) and Duke Ellington (1997). Both were creative forces to be reckoned with, leaders in their profession, Louis in the realm of boxing, Ellington in the realm of music. And both are black men -- great black men, as the huge size and startling blackness of their memorials makes clear. The blackness conveys death and mourning and the monumentality evokes the grandeur of their ambition. I donít know any other works in which Graham deals with death; his nudes, classical or expressionistic, are all about life -- the tension between ego and instinct that drives it -- the compromise between them necessary to endure it. However successful, Louis and Ellington were outsiders in white American society, and I think Graham identifies with them because he also was a non-white outsider -- a brown-skinned Mexican. The art deck and social deck were also stacked against him; like them, he had to struggle to become successful, to achieve his place in the sun. Louis and Ellington are Grahamís heroes, his ego ideals, as the psychoanalysts call the figures who set the standards by which we measure ourselves, symbolize the values to which we aspire. Louis and Ellington were artists in their fields, making them all the more important for Graham. They were creative originales, not simply everyday practitioners of their specialities. The Louis and Ellington sculptures are allegories of creative power -- its awe-inspiring ability to make itself felt and triumph in an alien, resisting world.

All one has to do is compare Grahamís Louis and Ellington monuments to his Source Figure -- another public monument, radically different in kind -- to get the point. Symbolizing the water of life, the Source Figure stands alone in the center of the fountain, high on a pedestal exquisitely ornamented with crawling life that has emerged from the water. It quietly recedes into itself rather than vigorously projects into space, as the Louis and Ellington monuments do. The nudeís cupped hands are provocative and engaging: the water of life ceremonially pours from them, and the cup shape is analogous to the female genital just below the hands. It is another portal of the origin of life, as Grahamís Spanish title, Figura de Origen, makes clear; it can be read as an allusion to Courbetís The Origin of the World. The huge gesturing claws of the (male?) crabs at the base of the fountain ironically and aggressively echo the cup shape. But however much Grahamís "wet," "original" fountain figure seems to challenge the "dry," "unoriginal" buildings that surround it, as noted, it in fact hardly stands up to them, and barely impacts the urban passerby as much they do. The fountain figure may be a magical breath of fresh emotional air in the glamorously stale world of downtown Los Angeles, but to the passerby it is probably more an object of curiosity -- perhaps charged with transient sexual meaning, by reason of its nudity -- rather than permanently charged with sacred meaning.

In contrast, the Louis and Ellington figures belong to their surroundings. Louis clearly belongs in Detroit, and Ellington clearly belongs in Harlem. It is not clear that the fountain figure belongs in Los Angeles; it could be placed in any urban desert and would have the same limited edifying effect. The Louis and Ellington figures epitomize their environment, which is why they are profoundly edifying. Louisís fist and muscular arm symbolize his fame and glory and black power. His powerful punch made him a champion -- a giant among men. He was unbeatable, and his monument is hard to beat for emotional and cognitive impact. Graham suspends the fist and arm in an open pyramid -- a symbol of immortality -- much the way the pharaohs were preserved forever in pyramids. The pyramid is at once a tomb and a temple. The fist and arm are metonymic devices conveying the greatness and gracefulness of Louisís powerful body as a whole. They are true to life and classically beautiful -- as lifelike and beautiful as a Roman sculpture of a powerful emperor or Hercules. They epitomize masculine beauty and strength -- the beauty of strength, the strength contained by beauty -- like Grahamís Olympian Torso II. Monumentalization is not simply a matter of making gigantic sculptures, but of refining reality until it seems inevitable. Louisís power was god-given, which is why he has become a god in death. Grahamís sculpture deifies him, the way Roman sculptors deified emperors -- even while they were alive. There is indeed Roman character and strength in Grahamís allegorical fist.

The confident strength of the upright Ellington and his piano, the instrument of his creativity -- its lid is open, as though he was ready to sit down at it and play some new composition, or else standing in acknowledgement of the applause after his performance -- also convey his god-like presence and permanent greatness. Mounted like a victorious hero on a platform supported by the sturdy caryatids that are Grahamís typical subject matter -- the structure alludes to the Erechtheum on the Acropolis in Athens, indicating Grahamís awareness of classical tradition -- Ellington, like Louis, is a giant among men and artists. Grahamís memorial monuments -- a kind of architectural sculpture, and alternative to modernismís geometrically pure architecture and constructivist abstract sculpture (however abstractly expressive the fragments and geometrical the pedestals) -- make it clear that Louis and Ellington are mythical figures in the pantheon of the American collective consciousness, not only in black cultural consciousness.

To reiterate: Louis and Ellington deserve to have their statues in the forum of American culture, just as the statues of the emperor gods had a commanding place in the Roman forum, commanding respect and blessing American society from the heights, just as Grahamís Virgin Mary -- a Christian goddess in contrast to the pagan goddesses Graham usually represents -- does from the heights of the new Los Angeles Cathedral.
Louis and Ellington serve as models for black youth, and above all for future artists, just as Grahamís Virgin Mary serves as an enduring model of female modesty and tranquil beauty -- beauty more than skin deep, the soulís untainted beauty. I regard her glorious, natural, pure presence as a critique of the garishly artificial whoreish beauty of the mass produced Hollywood sex goddesses of the more popular and profane Los Angeles. Grahamís compassionate Virgin Mary reminds us that art can still be full of grace and a saving grace -- that faith, hope, and charity can still exist in a harsh world that seems beyond redemption, like the Pop culture that infests it.


DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.


Notes
(1) Peter Brooks, Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1993), 83

†(2) Quoted in Graham W. J. Beal, "Noli Me Tangere," Robert Graham: Statues (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1981; exhibition catalogue), 24†† †

(3) Augustin Arteaga, "Robert Graham: Sculptor," Robert Graham (Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, 1997; exhibition catalogue), 24

(4) Albert E. Elsen, The Sculpture of Henri Matisse (New York: Abrams, 1972), 15

(5) Henri Matisse, "Notes of a Painter" (1908), Matisse on Art, ed. Jack D. Flam (New York: Dutton, 1978), 36

(6) Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (New York: Rizzoli, 1984; 4th ed.), 7 notes that Gravesís allegorical sculpture of "íPortlandia,í the woman used to personify the civic virtues and trade of the citizens, in the nineteenth century" -- "he transformed this classical maiden into a dynamic athlete, flying over the front door of the public entrance" (like Grahamís Virgin Mary) -- disturbed the "Modernists," who "demanded that she be banished." But the public loved her, and she was installed on "the bland, technocratic façade" of the building. Like Portlandia, Grahamís nudes are publicly appealing, however personally forbidding, yet charged with expressive meaning and unconscious power, and self-consciously traditional. Graham wants to make an art that is public and symbolic, and at the same emotionally intimate and intense.

(7) Renzo Piano interviewed by Peter Aspden, Financial Times, July 8-9, 2006, W3

(8) Beal, 28

(9) Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1976), 28-29 writes: "The real problem of modernity is the problem of belief. To use an unfashionable term, it is a spiritual crisis, since the new anchorages have proved illusory and the old ones have become submerged." †Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (New York: Knopf, 1951), 170-71 adds: "in an age in which disbelief is so profoundly prevalent, or, if not disbelief indifference to questions of belief. . . the arts in general, are, in their measure, a compensation for what has been lost."

(10) Quoted in Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 552

(11) Barnett Newman, Selected Writings and Interviews (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 67

(12) …tienne Delťcluze, "The Salon of 1850-51," quoted in Elizabeth Gilmore Holt, ed., The Art of All Nations 1850-73: The Emerging Role of Exhibitions and Critics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), 12

(13) Charles Baudelaire, "The Salon of 1846," The Mirror of Art, ed. Jonathan Mayne (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956), 127

(14) George Heard Hamilton, Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1880-1940 (Baltimore: Penguin, 1967), 95-96

(15) Ibid., 97

(16) Quoted in ibid., 96

(17) Ibid.

(18) Ibid.

(19) Ibid., 36

(20) T. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 212

(21) Fritz Novotny, Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1780-1880 (Baltimore: Penguin, 1960), 210

(22) T. E. Hulme, "Mana Aboda," Speculations (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1954), 266

(23) Quoted in Beal, 12

(24) Novotny, 211

(24) Arteaga, 21