Artist Robert Graham was inspired by the formal possibilities of human anatomy. Almost all of his works were based on the human figure. Because his creations were figurative, Graham, who died in 2008, described them not as sculptures but as statues.
Graham was enormously productive during his career, and UCLA is fortunate to have a number of his works on North Campus, all gifts from Carol and Roy Doumani ’57. Dance Columns I and II are in the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden. Graham patterned the figures on top of the columns after a model who worked for him in the 1970s.
In front of Schoenberg Hall is a study (three-quarter scale) for the Duke Ellington Memorial, in New York’s Central Park. Ellington and his grand piano are atop a circular platform held up by nine female figures that represent the Muses. In the courtyard behind Rolfe Hall are a number of other Graham works, including Stephanie and Spy, a sculpture of a girl and her horse.
Graham, whom the Los Angeles Times said had “a towering public presence,” was best known for large public commissions that honored historical figures or big ideas in prominent places. He first came to the attention of many Angelenos in 1984, when he created sculptures for the ceremonial Olympic Gateway at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. That work — his first major monumental commission — featured two bronze torsos, male and female.
In 2002, he created the Great Bronze Doors for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown L.A. In 1978, Graham had designed a freestanding bronze door, commissioned by art collector Frederick Weisman, who donated the piece to the Music Center downtown in 1982. In 1997, Graham executed a life-size statue of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Washington, D.C.
As early as 1964, Graham’s work was the subject of solo exhibitions at prominent contemporary art galleries in California, New York City and several European cities. The Dallas Museum of Art mounted his first solo museum exhibition in 1972.
Born in Mexico City in 1938, Graham told the Los Angeles Times that he recalled having his mother take him to visit the great public monuments in Mexico, such as the pyramids and Rivera and Siqueiros murals, as well as cathedrals and churches. “They were my history books,” he said.
When Graham was 9, the family moved to San Jose, California. He went on to study at San Jose State University and the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 1965 he moved to Los Angeles. When Graham created his first bronze sculpture, he found that few foundries could provide the precision his work required, so eventually he set up his own foundry in his studio.
“He demanded to do things on his own terms, and did them with incredible excellence,” fellow artist Tony Berlant ’62, M.A. ’63, M.F.A. ’64 told the Los Angeles Times. “And he had everyone’s respect for it.”