While the nude is by no means the whole-object prototype, it can provide imaginative translation of that prototype. . . . We cannot discover in our own bodies the nude entirety. Narcissistic sensitivity obscures contemplation. Sex-organs often continue to be viewed as part-objects unintegrated with the tenor of the body. . . . But if the nude in this sense is a somewhat rarefied conception, it remains an immense power. The human body thus conceived is a promise of sanity.
Modeling is a much more "free" activity than carving. The modeled shape is not uncovered but created. This gives rise to a freer treatment, free in the sense that it is a treatment unrestricted by so deep an imaginative communion with the significance of the material itself. . . . The mind that is intent on plasticity often expresses in sculpture the sense of rhythm, the mental pulse. Plastic objects, though they are objects, often betray a tempo. Carving conception, on the other hand, causes its object, the solid bit of space, to be more spatial still. Temporal significance instead of being incorporated in space is here turned into space and is thus shown in immediate form, deprived of rhythm.
Robert Graham has outdone himself, broken the mold of his own history, adventured beyond his own mastery. Known for his self-contained, somewhat aloof female nudes, cast in bronze and sometimes painted, with every least physical detail of their bodies seemingly carved in refined flesh, often statically balanced on column-like perches like goddesses expecting to be worshipped, Graham now gives us fallen idols, literally made of the earth on which they sprawl, their bodies often exploded into dramatic incoherence, their mortality implicit in their liquescence, anonymous, faceless creatures that have lost their individuality and identity, unlike the earlier portrait nudes, which have inner as well as physical presence, character as well as beauty.
Some of Graham’s new nudes stand in positions reminiscent of Degas’ ballet dancers, others have the suave awkwardness of Matisse’s early nudes, but all have a boundary-breaking expressionistic energy and disjointedness, their flesh stretched to its limits by some inner urgency, its seemingly infinite malleability informed by ruthless passion, its outer restlessness evidence of inner wildness. Indeed, Graham has gone wild, even more than he has in certain earlier works. All his nudes are erotically exhibitionistic, but these flaunt their flesh with Dionysian abandon. These feverish, frenzied females have lost all pretense to Apollonian statuesqueness: Come too close to them, they will tear you apart, as they seem torn apart by some inner upheaval. Indeed, many have lost their heads, as though, having fallen from narcissistic heaven to instinctive hell, they have no need of mind: The alluring femme fatale has become grotesquely engulfing, a kind of quicksand of desire in which the male gaze sinks and disappears.
What are we to make of these dynamic nudes, these unexpected nudes that sometimes verge on a formlessness and instability -- certainly compared to the earlier "heroic" nudes -- that makes them seem fresh with a life that will never fade and die? They are, indeed, full of "spring," literally and figuratively -- cavorting acrobats displaying their skill at complex movement, full of the resilience of irresistible vitality.
First, they signal Graham’s entry into late style. It has been said that after reaching maturity, achieving his or her "look" and with that esthetic identity, an artist either replicates it ad nauseum, with whatever slight nuance, as though to mark his place in history the way a dog marks its territory, or else breaks loose, abandoning the conventions whose line he toed to achieve acceptance, facing death with no creative holds barred and in indifference to critical opinion -- a new efflorescence of instinctive power indifferent to the proprieties of the past and unconcerned with future recognition. We see this nonconformist primordiality in Graham’s new sculptures. Their violent primordiality uses woman’s flesh as its expressive instrument -- woman’s body is no longer the end it was, the perfect thing in itself it was, in the earlier sculpture, but now the means to a creative end.
The issue is no longer the inner mystery implicit in woman’s outer beauty -- which is why many of Graham’s earlier nudes have an insidious grace -- but rather the mystery of Graham’s own creativity. Ironically, the hyperplasticity -- not to say titanic explosiveness -- of the new sculptures signals a return of the creativity repressed by its investment in woman’s body. In other words, the new sculptures are not a new celebratory appreciation of woman’s body and beauty, but a celebratory release of Graham’s pent-up creative power -- a truth underlined by the fact that the new sculptures do not attend to woman’s body with the same studious attention as the old sculptures, indicating that woman’s body is now an occasion for the sculptural practice of creativity rather than a glorious end in itself. The point is underscored by the fact that the new sculptures are not portraits but amorphous masses of material -- and by the fact that woman’s body is no longer a whole-object but an aggregation of part-objects linked together, almost whimsically and often abruptly, by Graham in a display of creative freedom.
It is the freshness of this freedom – Graham’s fresh surge of creativity, evident in the freedom with which he molds the body -- that makes the female body seem fresh, not the youthfulness of the bodies themselves. Creativity is everlasting, at least in the unconscious, but woman’s body will decay, despite Graham’s efforts to hold onto its youth, as though doing so will keep him young, which is perhaps the unconscious point of his earlier nudes, suggesting that they are idealized portraits of his own anima.
In short, Graham has broken the familiar mold of female beauty to re-mold her body so that it resonates with his creative energy -- his passion not for woman’s body but for making art, indeed, making art fresh. For years Graham has poured his creative energy into the mold of woman’s body, which is in effect to make it conform to the conventional idea that woman is inherently creative because of her womb, implying that male creativity is a secondary phenomenon, even derivative from and a homage to woman’s primary creativity, that is, her natural power to give birth (perhaps one reason for the many nudes in the history of male art, and the myth of Pygmalion, who created woman from the inside out). Her God-given creativity makes her more of a whole-object -- and thus more sacred -- than man. The male artist tries to grasp it by depicting and idealizing – sanctifying -- the outside of the body in which her creative womb is mysteriously embedded -- a hard task because of his fascination with the part-objects that are her sex-organs, a distracting fascination that keeps him on the outside of her inner beauty.
But entering his 60s, Graham has unconsciously realized that the issue of his art is not woman’s body but his own creativity: He has in effect broken away from -- and broken up -- the female model to recover and express the raw creativity and expressive plasticity he lost trying to fathom and articulate her appearance. One might say that in the new nudes, with their creative nakedness, Graham has recovered the madness of art by giving up the sanity and conformity represented by the idealized female body -- the body mystified into beautiful wholeness with no loss of empirical accuracy in Graham’s early portrait nudes.
Second, Graham’s new sculptures emphasize the medium at the expense of the figure, however obviously figurative his sculptures are. Like the return to primordial creativity, this also is a return to basics: The plasticity of the medium is more fundamental than the plasticity of the female body. Power over the medium is more important than power over the nude. It also involves a gain in emotional intensity: The visceral density of the new figures makes them more emotionally intense than the physically suave earlier figures. Identifying with his clay medium rather than with female flesh, Graham in effect de-transcendentalizes the nude, the loss in ideality compensated by the new emotional realism. We no longer contemplate the nude from the distance -- she is no longer unapproachable, a higher being than her male worshipper -- but handle her body with a deft quickness that comes of long intimacy with it.
Graham’s nude is no longer the eternal feminine that leads us onward and upward, as Goethe called woman, but rather made of the same vulnerable stuff as man is. Graham has in effect punctured his own illusion about the superiority of woman and his own creative inferiority to her. Her new primitive appearance confirms that she is as emotionally primitive as man.
Identifying with his medium rather than with her, she becomes as primitive as the medium. His newfound concrete thinking -- active thinking in terms of the medium not in terms of the passive female body -- has re-created her in the image of his own elemental creativity, a truly Pygmalion achievement.
It is a timely achievement for Graham -- saving his art from decadence -- and for the nude, which has been Hollywoodized into pornographic sterility, the form its decadence invariably takes.
Robert Graham, "New Works," Feb. 23-Apr. 29, 2006, at 27 Market Street, Venice, Ca. For further info, contact (310) 399-5374
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.