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Robert Graham

EARLY WORK 1963-1973

An interview with Hans Neuendorf
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The earliest works of the late artist Robert Graham (1938-2008) are more legend that reality, so little have they been seen. Miniature figures of naked women, modeled from flesh-colored beeswax, occupy flat rectangular spaces of clear plastic, as if taken from a virtual realm derived from the post-war moderne esthetic of magazines like Life and Look.

It's easy to see the change that comes over Graham's work in the early period between 1963 and 73. The earliest tableaux are scenes of lively California hedonism, erotic and beachy. These give way to a kind of dreamy, sexy surrealism, with nude figures reclining in empty space, like a whispered hallucination. In the later works, Graham's observation has become more straightforward, and the narrative has shifted, now expressed in terms of the physical body, its movement, musculature and ennobled human spirit. 

In his early years, Graham cut an unconventional figure that might be called Mexican-American hippie motley. His mature look was equally imposing, with his leonine white hair, neatly trimmed moustache and beard, and a cigar at the ready. He appeared briefly in Wes Anderson's 2004 movie The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, dressed all in all white at the rail of a yacht, a figure of ghostly elegance.

The German art dealer Hans Neuendorf, who started up Artnet more than two decades ago, had a long working relationship with Graham. They were friends and collaborators; Neuendorf helped produce the artist's work, and championed it with exhibitions and catalogues and more. Now he has lent his collection of Graham's earliest works to a new exhibition at David Zwirner.

"Robert Graham: Early Work 1963-1973," which is on view Nov. 7-Dec. 10, 2011, includes almost 20 sculptures in the first presentation of these works since 1969. The gallery has published a good-looking catalogue on the occasion of the show, including illustrations as well as an essay by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, an interview with the artist himself, and a moving afterword by Graham's wife, the actress Angelica Huston. The sculptures are priced between $120,000 and $350,000, and have aroused the interest of collectors.

To add a bit more to the public record, Artnet Magazine editor Walter Robinson sat down with Neuendorf and asked him a few questions.

What was your first impression of Robert Graham?

I saw a tiny photo of one of the early pieces in a German art magazine. How it got there I don't know. I couldn't find out more, so I got on a plane and flew to California for the first time. I found the gallery that was showing him -- it was Nicholas Wilder, now legendary -- and he put me up in the Chateau Marmont, where the Rolling Stones were staying. Then he showed me all the artists' studios in Venice and Los Angeles, including Robert Graham's. That was in 1967 and '68.

Bob was living in a little house, with a front lawn and a kitchen, with his wife and little baby, Steven, and he had a tiny room with a small table, and that was where he made his pieces. And I bought one and took it home-- I had a gallery in Hamburg, and later one in Cologne as well.

He wanted to go to London and I invited him to do prints for me -- I was in the printmaking business then, with Editions Alecto in London, who worked with Jim Dine, Allen Jones, Richard Hamilton, like that. Bob wanted to do a set of etchings, and he came over to London and brought his family with him, and he made two portfolios, some of which are included in the Zwirner Gallery show.

He was my closest friend for over 40 years, and I don't know why. We lived a world apart.

So Graham was working in London?

He made the Plexiglas pieces there that we showed in Cologne and also Hamburg. Actually, people had a lot of interest in his work right at that moment, his small environments were on the edge. Then Ileana Sonnabend saw them and liked them and wanted to show them in Paris. You know, she was always into the trendsetting things.

It was a big success, but they were still not easy to sell. Peter Ludwig bought one and Wolfgang Hahn, the big collectors, but basically I ended up keeping  the pieces because I couldn't sell them. Bob and I would take these Plexiglas boxes and pack them into my Volvo station wagon and drive from London and take the ferry. That's how the pieces came to Germany, and they stayed there ever since.

How long was he in Europe?

Graham returned to Los Angeles after two years or so, but he came back and forth, and we visited Italy. But after he went home, he started working in bronze, which is less fragile, easier to ship and offers the potential for much more detail. There was no such thing as bronze casting in Los Angeles. He made a group of five bronzes, which I sold to several dealers, including Felicity Samuels in London and Rudolf Zwirner in Cologne -- David's father. After that, he lost interest in the wax pieces, didn't pay attention to them, and these pieces were forgotten. That was around 1974.

What about these artworks?

You can find a lot in the interview from 2005 that is in the catalogue for the Zwirner Gallery exhibition. They started out being about sex, that was the initial driver and motive. He had made small figures since he was a child. Then he got more involved with the figure itself and the logic of it.

Each sculpture is a portrait. For instance, the large one on the wall in the gallery [Untitled, 1963], that is a portrait of his wife Joey and himself. He was always interested in the people. Later, when he did bronzes, even the torsos were portraits, the personality of the sitter would come through.

He really loved women and was in awe of women. Look at his sculptures of nudes and they are forbidding and powerful figures, with the posture of a goddess. He admired them, and they tortured him, in a way, with their presence. He would work on a sculpture every day, being harassed by it, and then sometimes take it and smash it, and incorporate the fragments into some of the boxes, as if exhibiting the aggression he felt towards his models.

The early ones are like magical fetishes, with these dreamy nudes and abstract sections and fragments that look like psychograms.

He did a horse, he did men, but he was fascinated only by women, that's what drove him. He believed that if you have a woman for a model you don't really need anything else. He was highly specialized and highly accomplished.

And now?

I'm very happy that these works are again on view in New York, they haven't been seen here in some time, and such a large number of them together has never been done before. They look so contemporary!

"Robert Graham: Early Work 1963-1973," Nov. 7-Dec. 10, 2011, at David Zwirner, New York

HANS NEUENDORF, the founder and CEO of Artnet, is an art dealer and collector. The exhibition of Robert Graham works at David Zwirner comes from his collection.