Robert Graham

Dorothy Rosenthal Gallery

In the 1960s, Robert Graham arranged five-inch wax models in plexiglass perspex boxes, reminiscent of Muybridge’s and Eakins’s studies of a nude woman from many angles. Obviously, the painted specifics of nipples, pubic hair, and pretty faces were of more interest to the artist than the definition of light and space or the relationships between the forms in the box. By 1971, Graham removed this narrative element from his work, concentrating on form. The small-scale models now were bronze cast, and the body parts showed not sensuality, but a potential for limitless, complex positions. This movement toward form, in the molds, and away from artificial “realism,” in the models, had broader results: Graham was showing the relativity of form.

Graham’s latest work, still mostly small-scale, with finger-sized, female-figure molds, negates the idea of the whole in favor of changeable combinations of parts. In a single piece, all the figure parts and views are made from one mold and are either impressed into a porcelain or bronze background or cast and projecting from it. Positions shown and mold parts used seem interchangeable, important to, but essentially independent from the whole. This transformation potential also carries into the background shapes: hollow cylinders, rounded façades, each a fragment suggesting a larger source.

This work creates a visual rendition of the “structuralism” that is recognized as a potential for order in the social and physical sciences. Graham’s arrangements of interrelated forms intimate a visual system that could transform endlessly, the elements recomposing within certain bounds. Random parts of the same mold may progressively turn farther toward the background, and create an order, while the shapes, textures, and light reflections produce mysteriously complex visual incidents. Fine marker lines incised in the backgrounds may connect various planes, while a little logic governs the number of mold parts within the resulting units. Torsos, full figures, and faces may be uniformly severed at the angle of a continuous marker line, regardless of where it hits, yet the line gives order to the disparate parts. This development of variations is comparable to a kinetic “stop-start” cycle, in which elements unpredictably form new combinations, although the set course of the work implies an order. The transformations are limitless, the elements are finite.

In Graham’s perspex boxes, frozen models simulated Cubist and Futurist concerns with simultaneity, but these new pieces go beyond formalism and incorporate the viewer’s tendency to “know” parts for a whole. Yet the pieces never take on social or psychological overtones, as Giacometti’s figures in isolated space. What Graham shows is varieties of a moment, a vital approach to representation, with the meaning of each part formulating the nature of the whole. It is in this same way that real-world events occur, inform each other, and make up new complexes, the varieties limitless, the actors finite.

C. L. Morrison