At the symbolic center of Detroit, near its origins along the Detroit River, are three figurative sculptures in a relatively tight triangulated cluster and visible to and from each other.
They are The Spirit of Detroit (Marshall Fredericks, 1958), Passo di Danza (Giacomo Manzu, 1961), and Monument to Joe Louis (Robert Graham, 1987). The death yesterday of Robert Graham made me go back to a couple of stories about these monuments.
Graham’s (gloveless) sculpture has been controversial. Commemorating Joe Louis, it is culturally celebratory. Placed at the symbolic center of the city, it has been culturally divisive. From its origins, funded principally by Sports Illustrated, it evoked challenges about racial messaging that have been at the core of the city’s collapse for the past generation or more.
I cannot remember where, in what privileged context, I had a view of a maquette, Graham’s small scale study model, of the monument. I was struck by the positioning of the fist. The finished sculpture is a powerful punch, and a horizontal leveling of a salute. The maquette had the fist vertical, rotated 90 degrees, akin to a typical fighter’s stance and evocative of the classic Joe Louis photos.
I found that slight rotation—from the vertical fist to the horizontal fist—to be surprisingly powerful in its evocation of emotion and message, and perhaps at the heart of what others felt. I’d be interested to know if Graham spoke of this difference, and if others, with access to the studies, commented on it.
Graham’s sculpture came late in the reign of Coleman Young, mayor of the city from 1974 to 1993. His election message referencing the 8 Mile Road northern border of the city seemed to be a catalyst for the miserable 20-year history of progressive segregation of the city. In this regard, the fist seemed also to represent the combative nature of the mayor.
More recently, and I suppose inevitably, a couple of vandals white-washed the black-bronze fist, bringing forward inappropriately derived but, in places, apparently perceived as authentic resentments.
This legacy, standing at the point of welcome to the city, was in contrast to the representation, individually and collectively, of the other two figures in the composition.
The Spirit of Detroit stood at the entrance to the city hall, or what had initially been built as the City-County Building. The name represented a more regional approach to governance in its day, not to be revived, and then only feebly, until Dennis Archer succeeded Coleman Young.
The Passo di Danza stands at the entrance to a building designed by Minoru Yamasaki, initially for the Michigan Consolidated Gas Company. Its a representation of a step in a basllerina’s dance, an elegant, almost classic, study of form and subject.
I remember the surprise, and delight, of the city on an early Spring morning, maybe April Fool’s Day. Someone had expressed what we all might have suppressed. Using paint to simulate the probable marks of an animated bronze figure, he stenciled green footprints in the street from the male Spirit of Detroit across Woodward Avenue to the female Passo di Danza and back again!
Imagine that midnight tryst!
Two marks, two generations, two spirits.