Portrait of the Artist

Robert Graham's Illustrious Friends Remember the Man and His Work

<i>“The King of Venice,” as Anjelica Huston called her late husband Robert Graham, was also every bit the monarch of his beachside municipality. In the nexus of local artists that included Graham’s late friend Dennis Hopper, Bob was a unique and galvanizing figure, and a complete original. His black torso out on the Windward Circle, once site of the Adriatic-inspired lagoon built by developer Abbot Kinney, is emblematic of Bob’s neo-classical naturalism, and a perfect example of why he is a Venice icon. But it may be the studio/living compound nearer the sand, built in two installments a generation apart, that fully represents Bob’s presence in the town. Every King must have a castle, and this one is truly majestic. In commemoration of the inspirational sculptor, we asked a few of Bob’s close friends, stalwarts in the Venice art community, to celebrate their colleague and neighbor.
Artist Peter Alexander, who came out of the Angeleno “Light and Space” movement, creates succinct and sumptuous minimalist abstractions. Bob trusted his taste and feedback so much that they worked together on shows.

The first time I met Bob was in the 60s. He was doing boxes of nudes, wax figures, and I was astounded by their eroticism—the flesh, everything about them, they were like shrunken women, but perfect. I was so impressed that it has been with me ever since. I never knew anybody in the art world who had style that was equal to his. I think the studio is an example of that. The place is magnificent. And Anjelica is completely consistent with that. That somebody here in the art world would marry Anjelica, who is an absolute dream, it would have to be Bob. 
Venice-based artist Tony Berlant is known for his multi-layer metal collage-style works. He was a dear friend of Bob’s.

I first got to know Bob well when he was living in London with his [first] wife Joey [Malnaa] and their son Steven [around 1973]. The main thing about Bob is he was self-taught. Maybe in the history of the world he made the most directly naturalistic sculptures ever made. I remember the Met showed a reproduction of one of Bob’s standing female figures and said that, in the whole history of sculpture, very little was truly an un-idealized naturalistic body, but here it was. Bob was just an awful lot of fun and will always be present in all the lives of all the people who were close to him, most particularly his artist colleagues. He gave us permission to insist on doing just what we wanted to do. You can always survive, was his approach. Do it first, and then figure out how you are going pay for it. He was a unique voice in every way.

Pop art legend Ed Ruscha represented the US in the 2005 Venice Biennale, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001. In 2009 he was the subject of a retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London. He and Bob were friends and colleagues for more than 40 years.

I met Bob in 1966. He had just come down from San Jose. I met him through the artist Joe Goode, who was probably his first friend in Los Angeles. Maybe two years later he went to live in London and, passing through, my [then wife Danna Knego] and I stayed with him where he [and Joey and Steven] were living in David Hockney’s flat. Over the years we had a good friendship. I always felt like he was a real original person, and an original artist. He didn’t seem to be corrupted by present-day styles or movements or anything. I feel like we’ve been robbed of something—[just before his death] he’d begun this new direction, delving into the more abstract vision of what the human body is all about. If it had gone much further, where would he have taken us then? We lost somebody pretty special.
Painter Ed Moses is the great elder statesman of Los Angeles art. He was the subject of a grand retrospective at MoCA in 1996, and in 1980 was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. He and Bob were very close.

In the 70s I was doing some lithographs in London with [artist] Bernie Jacobson and someway or another I met Bob. He had this really fast Morris Mini-Minor and we went zipping around all over town one night. Through that meeting we became lifelong friends. He was one of the few people, beside Ken Price, I could really talk with about abstract and real thoughts and communicating about what we both did. I loved what he did, I thought he was a great artist. Bob had a great level of intelligence as a sculptor, and as a human being. I had the good fortune of knowing him and being able to carry on. We spent hours talking about his work and my work. It was one of the biggest losses of my life, losing Bob. He was a mental soulmate. I really loved the man.


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