New York

Robert Graham

Gagosian Gallery (21)

At least Robert Graham’s eight statues of naked young women, each in a different pose—Elizabeth, Sasha, Christine, Koreen, Julie Ann, Elisa, Petra, Gabrielle (all 1993)—are not Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave, 1847. Though these works may seem like revivals of the academic model, the sheer number of them, the variety of colors (all soft-toned), and the slightly but noticeably different heights of the pedestals (as well as the bases) on which they are placed, all suggest that Graham is using the figure of woman as a formal device. For Graham, the figures—beneath their predictable prettiness or at least handsomeness—become modular units in a peculiarly stark Minimalist “construction.” There’s a subtle three-way conflict between the conspicuous sexuality of the figure (which Graham himself acknowledges), its presentation as an abstract if familiar form, and the seemingly infinite configurations.

Graham seems to be cutting a path between John Louis de Andrea and George Segal, with a touch of Alfred Leslie thrown in. These figures look like life casts that have become phantoms hovering between Hades and a wet dream. They’ve got instant appeal (but don’t dare caress the statue; remember Ovid’s story of the king who fell in love with a statue of Venus) tempered by a certain detachment. In what seems to be an ongoing game, Graham plays Pygmalion, capturing a beauty that lies somewhere between art and life. Clearly, he’s fascinated by femininity, but doesn’t know what to do with it except put it on a pedestal, and a very artful one at that.

Graham struggles with the figure’s fall from grace. He is trying to be historical without being traditional, but his abstract mode of arrangement—his neo-clutter—is also historical. This leaves us with only a sense of déjà vu, which is after all the post-Modern call to arms. Graham clearly means his arrangement of figures as a tour de force, but the whole thing has a kind of forced sublimity. The narcissism and defiant expressions of these figures suggest that Graham still believes haughty exhibitionism is a form of social defiance—a highly debatable proposition these overexhibitionistic days.

Donald Kuspit