New York

Robert Graham, Untitled, 1970, mixed media, 11 3/8 x 28 x 20".

Robert Graham, Untitled, 1970, mixed media, 11 3/8 x 28 x 20".

Robert Graham

David Zwirner | 525 & 533 West 19th Street

Robert Graham, Untitled, 1970, mixed media, 11 3/8 x 28 x 20".

“Imagine a bevy of beach bummerettes,” wrote Robert Pincus-Witten in these pages in 1968, “in sunbleached tresses and wet T-shirts [who] had stumbled into Giacometti’s The Palace at 4 A.M. [1932].” He is describing tabletop sculptures by the Californian artist Robert Graham (1938–2008). Graham’s dioramas, made between 1965 and 1971, are populated by hyperrealist wax figurines, nearly all female and mostly scaled at one inch to one foot. They are housed in Plexiglas boxes reminiscent of Richard Neutra bungalows as decorated by a slapdash Richard Diebenkorn, with interlocking rectilinear daubs of white, pea-green, and ocher pigment, and ruglike squares of pinkish-brown craft paper. The Giacometti angle comes in via the dolls’ eroticized interactions with abstracted “furniture”—twists of wire, scatalogical lumps, some phallic twigs. There are, in fact, no T-shirts, wet or dry; most of the tiny sylphs wear only tanlines and enigmatic expressions. Some of Graham’s scenes present a figure isolated in glass-house privacy, others lesbianic pairings. A few are unpopulated, like sets waiting for models to arrive. In still others, clonelike multiples of one toy starlet enact “multiple exposure” movements—sitting, standing, walking, crawling, lying down. Mirrors may double a pose, or make a figure seem to disappear, or cause two figures to appear to fuck. Some of the statuettes are exquisitely polychromed in lifelike tones, with red or blond fiber hairdos. Others are cast in uninflected brown, pale or dark, as if molded from caramel or chocolate.

Perhaps, in 1968, Graham’s gleeful Pop obscured from Pincus-Witten the works’ obvious affinities to task-based dance as practiced by Joan Jonas, Yvonne Rainer, or Robert Morris. In any case, Pincus-Witten doesn’t comment on the dance, though the critic’s sense of Surrealist play fused with the Finish Fetish world of Los Angeles’s post-Minimalism—his feeling, that is, for Graham’s adventurously improper glomming-together of stylistic vocabularies—remains spot-on. Sleek yet skeevy, these seldom-shown sculptures do arouse perverse and therefore intriguing comparisons. Giacometti-Neutra-Diebenkorn-Jonas is just one possible constellation, and not the weirdest. Imagine Dan Graham–Duchamp–Vanessa Beecroft. Or Laurie Simmons–Paul Thek–Hugh Hefner. Remember the scene in Bride of Frankenstein when cuckoo Dr. Pretorius showcases the perfect little humans he’s grown in bell jars in his lab? Transpose to the set of Barbarella, and voilà.

Which is to say that Graham’s mix of flawless craft and infantile mess, his feeling for the sadistic and voyeuristic pleasures of the dollhouse, are quite fascinating. At the same time, the serene assurance with which he explores his fantasies of women as playthings—the unselfconscious clarity with which he assumes godlike control of his wee “bummerettes”—turned the show into a time capsule of another sort. Two of the earlier sculptures exhibited (there were seventeen in all, plus seven drawings) do include men. But these figures’ scale is larger and their execution clunkier; they lack entirely the eerie exhibitionism that animates the girl-only groups. Graham worked with live models, first making photographs and, later, videos. According to critic Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, he “perfected a way of making a master wax mold of a figure. Copies could be dipped in hot water and then twisted or turned.” Or, as Graham himself put it more ingenuously: “I could bend those figures around and make them do anything I wanted.” The fact that the wax bodies of the Caucasian figurines are tinted with preternatural exactitude, while the monochrome figures suggest black and brown women homogenized into ciphers, only deepens the wackiness. Or, to be more precise: Graham’s unreconstructed scopophilia introduces into these genuinely wacky explorations of desire and spatiality a tedium that almost negates his project. I longed for someone—Warhol, say, assisted by Dr. Pretorius?—to fashion a bevy of mini Tab Hunters and introduce them into the modernist Habitrails. Maybe some could be intersexed, or have silver flesh . . . ? Instead, Graham went on to sculpt his females at life-size, in bronze.

Frances Richard