"April 29, 1992...L.A. was going up in flames. Robert Graham had an idea, born of the horrifying sight of the City of Angels burning, it lit a flame which now burned in his heart. Robert Graham wanted to a make a difference...a small difference...but a difference. He decided to gather a group of the toughest hard core gang members from Los Angeles and make artisans of them."
—Steven Valdivia, Former Executive Director of Community Youth Gang Services
Part of the Solution
A MOCA Torso from the Collection of Steven Valdivia
Robert Graham met Steven Valdivia when the sculptor decided he wanted to make a commission from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles a truly public endeavor. In the wake of the brutal beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers, Graham reached out to actor and activist Edward James Olmos for direction. Olmos, in turn, connected Graham to Valdivia, who served as the Executive Director of Community Youth Gang Services. With Valdivia's guidance, Graham was able to employ and collaborate with seven former L.A. gang members, ranging in age from 19 to 35 years old, to create the editioned MOCA Torso. The seven artist-apprentices — Robin Barreno, John Cota, James Dilworth, Mario Garcia, Juan Carlos Munoz, Rey Anthony Oropeza, and Augustin Gonzalez — learned the process of lost-wax casting, producing the 3500 sculptures that would be sold at the MOCA gift shop for $250 a piece. The funds were allocated to the institution's community outreach program, then called First Visit and Beyond. "I’m passing down my responsibility as an artist," Graham said of his relationship to his collaborators, "and they have accepted this."
What an artist does is in the gift realm, it’s beyond commerce.
Born in Mexico in 1938 and raised in Mexico City and San Jose, California, Robert Graham became widely celebrated for his bronze sculpture and his ability to seamlessly transition between monumental and intimate scales. Growing up in Mexico City, Graham visited public monuments, pyramids, murals, and churches, introducing him to the potential of large-scale art and architectural works outside of the confines of the museum.
On the personal level, Graham dedicated himself to the female nude — intimate, immediate, endless renditions of strong and confident female forms in drawings, engravings, and sculpture created over the course of four decades. Melding realism with expression force, Graham’s female sculptures are powerful and muscular forms, not romanticized or generalized, but naturalistic. According to Graham’s peer Tony Berlant “if you look at them, you see individual personalities…They are portraits — not generic.”
Graham’s renderings of the female form in bronze informed his unique MOCA Torso project. Spurred by the LA Riots of 1992, Graham trained young Angelenos and former gang members in bronze casting to create a collaborative edition of 3,500 sculptures over the course of three years, sold to benefit the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
As Graham’s skill and reputation grew, he became an in-demand creator of bronze public monuments celebrating admirable Americans. Monument to Joe Louis (1986) suspends a 24-foot long, 8,000-pound bronze rendering of the boxer’s arm and fist above a major downtown intersection in Detroit. In 1997, the City of New York was gifted Graham’s cast bronze and gold leaf Duke Ellington Memorial, in which the figure of Ellington and his piano stand 30 feet high atop three columns of Muses holding him aloft.
Graham’s adopted hometown of Los Angeles is home to several of his public works, including at the modern Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. A massive project, Graham worked for nearly five years with some 150 artists to create the church's bronze doors, which the cathedral proudly identifies as different than any other entrance to a Christian place of worship. Instead of using typical Old and New Testament biblical stories as images, Graham chose to create scenes that are “culturally recognizable.” In addition to the serene 8-foot angel on top of the doors, there are ten Virgin mothers of varying ethnic origins depicted, including the Andean Pomata, Mexican Guadalupe, and Peruvian Belén, continuing Graham’s legacy of monumentalizing women in a plurality of forms.
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