Sculptor Robert Graham, master of the bronze monument, died Saturday at age 70 following an illness. Graham’s monuments captured and honored many noteworthy Americans, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to jazz greats Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker and boxing champ Joe Louis.
Like the best monuments, Graham’s works told stories about the lives of the people they honored. In Washington, D.C., the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial shows the 54 social programs of the New Deal in bronze panels, a bas-relief of a newsreel at his first inauguration and a life-size Roosevelt in his wheelchair at the entrance. In New York’s Central Park, a 30-foot memorial to Duke Ellington included the man, his piano and three columns supported by the muses. In Kansas City, Mo., Graham’s 18-foot visage of Charlie Parker memorializes Parker’s nickname “Bird Lives,” etched beneath. In downtown Detroit, Joe Louis’s larger-than-life persona and power are captured with a bronze fist and forearm set within a pyramid frame standing 24 feet tall and 24 feet wide.
Many of Graham’s works decorate the city of Los Angeles, where he lived and worked, including the Olympic Gateway at the Memorial Coliseum and his bronze doors and angel for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
Graham was born in Mexico City in 1938 to a Mexican mother and an American father, who died when Graham was 6 years old. Raised by his mother, grandmother and aunt, Graham was largely influenced by public art works and monuments in Mexico. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Graham recalled his mother taking him to visit Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros’s murals, churches, cathedrals, the pyramids and Chapultepec Castle.
“They were my history books,” he told the Times. “I never looked at it as art — it was part of your experience as a Mexican.”
Graham moved to San Jose, Calif., at age 11. He went to school at San Jose State College and the San Francisco Art Institute. He later lived in London with his first wife and his son, and moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, where his emotional and cultural home would largely remain.
“Robert was an amazing sculptor who forever shaped the presence of sculpture art throughout California and the world. His work was truly influential and he will forever remain an icon in this state,” California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement.
Graham passed away with his family at his side in a Santa Monica hospital. He is survived by his wife of 16 years, actress Angelica Huston, and a son, Steven, from a previous marriage.