The city of Detroit may be known to many people as Motown, but we like to think we've helped rename it "Joe-town," the home of the great world heavyweight champion, Joe Louis.
Last week a gift from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED to The Detroit Institute of Arts, its Founders Society and the people of Detroit was unveiled at the intersection of Jefferson and Woodward avenues on the occasion of the museum's centennial. It is a sculpture called Monument to Joe Louis and it opened to mixed reviews.
The bronze arm and fist, 8,000 pounds, 24 feet long and suspended from a pyramidal support of bronze poles above pedestrian and vehicular traffic, elicited some verbal left hooks and right uppercuts from downtown Detroit office workers. Some wanted to know where the rest of the sculpture was. Others worried that it looked too much like a Black Power salute. Still others asked, "Where's the glove?"
It was four years ago that Zach Morfogen, Time Inc.'s Director of Corporate Cultural Affairs, and Phil Howlett, then SI Publisher, got the idea of commissioning a sculpture honoring the Brown Bomber as SI's gift to Detroit. "To the best of my knowledge," says Morfogen, "no magazine had ever commissioned a major work of art."
Both Howlett and Morfogen agreed that Californian Robert Graham should be the artist to execute it. His works are in the Whitney Museum, and he had been commissioned to do the Olympic Gateway at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Graham, working in the foundry adjacent to his Venice studio and using the ancient process of lost-wax casting, divided the full-size model into eight segments. After casting, the sections were reassembled and the seams fitted, welded and smoothed. Finally, the surface was polished and treated to allow for the natural process of weathering.
Before Graham started on his magnum opus, he submitted a maquette, a two-foot-high model of the larger work, for approval. By that time, Howlett had been promoted to senior vice president of magazines, and Bob Miller had taken over as publisher of SI. Miller was impressed with the maquette. "I thought it was sensational," he says.
Miller then came up with the idea of creating an award dedicated to the memory of Joe Louis. Of the statue and the award, Miller, who is now a Time Inc. group publisher, says, " Detroit as a community had supported us over the years through advertising revenues and the people who subscribe to the magazine. It was our way of saying thank you." Starting in April 1987, the Joe Louis Award will be presented annually to the individual associated with the city's sports community who best exemplifies the spirit of the great boxer. The award is a miniature reproduction of Monument to Joe Louis and will be hand-cast by Graham.
As to the various verbal body blows his sculpture has received, Graham remains quite serene. "The reaction has nothing to do with art," says Graham. "It's how people respond to a lot of complex issues, and Black Power is just one of them. The work has these real loaded issues around it because it's Joe Louis, it's Detroit and it's public. It's about how do people react to this monument, in this city, at this time."
As far as we're concerned, it's a knockout.