SynopsisJohn Graham was a Russian-born painter whose work as an organizer and writer helped bring widespread recognition to the New York School. His style was influenced by his acquaintances among the European avant-garde. He also embraced Surrealism, especially the dreamlike mystery and strange juxtaposition of objects characteristic of Giorgio de Chirico, and later the flattened forms and multiple vantage points of Cubism, drawing most heavily from the compositions of Picasso. Graham did not develop a signature style until he rejected modernism in the early 1940s; for the remaining twenty years of his career, Graham drew inspiration from Renaissance art and became devoted to painting realistic - though highly expressive - portraits of women. However, Graham's legacy within the New York School extends beyond his work as a painter. His lasting influence was in transmitting progressive ideas to younger artists in his circle and in his close friendship and role as mentor to painters like . As an early proponent of Surrealist techniques, like automatic writing, and his use of analytic Cubism's reduction of images to two-dimensional forms, his influence laid the groundwork for the development of .
Early LifeJohn Graham was born Ivan Gratianovich Dombrowsky in Kiev, Ukraine, to parents of minor Polish nobility. The date of his birth is disputed, though usually cited as anywhere between 1886 and 1888. After studying law, he became a cavalry officer during the First World War, winning a St. George's Cross for bravery. After the war, he supported the tsarist White Army and was consequently imprisoned by the victorious Reds. Upon his release in 1920, he emigrated to the United States with his wife and child.
Early TrainingWhen Graham arrived in New York in 1920, he adopted the anglicized first name John, and legally changed his full name in 1927 when he became a U.S. citizen, later explaining that "Graham" resembled his mother's name in Cyrillic. Graham had moved in artistic circles in tsarist Russia; he had seen the major collections of modern art assembled by fellow aristocrats, and was therefore familiar with painters like Malevich and Kandinsky. With this background, Graham quickly became involved in the New York art world shortly after his arrival. Graham combined his outgoing personality and the noble swagger of a cavalry officer with a proclivity for exaggeration, and he easily made friends and found followers. He studied under Ash Can painter John Sloan at the Art Students League, where Graham befriended classmates and future Abstract Expressionists Adolph Gottlieb, Alexander Calder and David Smith. Graham divorced and remarried in the mid-1920s, and for a time lived in Baltimore. At this point in his career, he was still influenced by Cézanne, as revealed in his muted palette and concentration on still life arrangements. Nevertheless, Graham was consciously moving away from realism. In response to Cubist conceptions of geometrically defined composition, Graham began to attenuate and flatten his objects within the space of the canvas. He also began to use larger areas of single colors and to extend the foreground of the composition to the very edge of the picture plane, eliminating the illusion of depth.
Graham began to exhibit frequently in the second half of the 1920s, with shows at Society of Independent Artists, Dudensing Gallery and others in New York, and also in Paris. His paintings were also included in the inaugural Whitney Biennial in 1932.
Mature PeriodGraham traveled frequently between Europe and the U.S., and his meetings with artists and intellectuals in Paris established him as a vital stateside conduit for the progressive theories of the European avant-garde. Assimilating the styles he observed in Europe into his work -most importantly the Cubist constructions of Picasso and Braque, and the biomorphic forms and dreamlike imagery of Surrealists like Ernst and de Chirico - Graham became a central figure in the development of the New York School. His firm grasp of European modernism is evident in his paintings from the late 1920s, which show mysterious settings characteristic of de Chirico. Later, Graham became interested in the analytic Cubism of Picasso, as he began to flatten his own compositional space into arrangements of interlocking geometric shapes. In the early 1930s, Graham initiated friendships with Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, to whom he communicated his own theories on the techniques and concepts of abstraction.
Graham divorced again in 1934 and married for a third time in 1936. Due to dire financial circumstances at the end of the 1930s, he spent some time living in Mexico. Graham supplemented his income as a Paris buyer of African art - primarily sculpture - on behalf of New York dealers, in the process becoming fascinated with this genre and its relationship to modernism. Like many contemporary thinkers, he saw an affinity between the sharp, abstract edges of African sculpture and the shapes of Cubism, an observation that became the basis for his widely read paper, "Primitive Art and Picasso," (1937) in which he championed the ability of Picasso to reveal the inner truth of objects with the same facility as "primitive" artists. That same year Graham also published the volume System and Dialectics of Art, which helped to define the nature of abstract painting and proved enormously influential during the following decade. In it, Graham praised abstraction for its ability to transform objects and create new meaning and to express the unconscious. It also established painting as a creative process, or journey, an idea that became the foundation for Harold Rosenberg's concept of action painting.
While his own painting continued to garner critical attention, Graham became more influential as an organizer who brought the work of the New York School artists to a wider audience of connoisseurs and critics. He curated a show at McMillen Gallery in 1942 called French and American Painters that presented the work of artists like Picasso and Braque alongside the work of younger American painters, providing a stamp of legitimacy for newcomers like Pollock and de Kooning. In fact, the exhibition was the first ever for Pollock, and only the second for de Kooning. This exposure was a pivotal point both for them and for American painting as a whole. Graham continued to organize significant New York School exhibitions during the 1940s.
In his own work, in the 1940s Graham made a radical reversion to realism, and devoted the remainder of his career to portraits of women. The reasons for this were not external, though Graham was involved in a painful divorce at the time. His decision was a conscious break from the mainstream and coincident with an increased interest in Renaissance painting and mysticism; around this time he began signing his works "Ioannus Magus" and "Ioannus San Germanus" after the supposedly immortal occult figure Count St. Germain. These actions can be considered a final part of his deliberate development of a personal legend since moving to America decades before. These works, traditional in comparison to the abstractions of his friends, occupied him for the remainder of his life. Graham's move towards realism was not critically popular, and was seen as a repudiation of his former position. Consequently, his work fell out of fashion. Graham also explicitly turned his back on Picasso during this period, calling him repetitive and one-dimensional in his cantankerous essay "The Case of Mr. Picasso" (1946).
Late years and DeathGraham divorced for a third time and later lived with Marianne Strate. (Strate's daughter, Ileana Sonnabend, became a major New York art dealer and wife of Leo Castelli.) Graham never fully recovered after Strate's death in 1955. With his career as a prolific painter largely at an end, Graham moved to Paris in 1959, never to return to the United States, and died in London in 1961.
LegacyGraham's considerable impact on Abstract Expressionism was due largely to his role as intercessor between the European avant-garde and the budding American art scene. His writing on art theory proved influential on not only the New York School, but also to later movements like Minimalism.
Below are John Graham's major influences, and the people and ideas that he influenced in turn.
Giorgio De Chirico
Years Worked: 1921 - 1961
QuotesAbstract painting is the highest and most difficult form of painting because it requires of the artist the ability to take full stock of reality and the ability to make a departure from it. (System and Dialectics of Art, 1937)
"Graham was very important and he discovered Pollock. I make that very clear. It wasn't anybody else, you know." (Willem de Kooning on Graham; De Kooning on Pollock, An Interview)
WHERE TO SEE WORKS:
Museum of Modern Artwww.MoMA.org
Metropolitan Museum of Artwww.METmuseum.org
BiographyJohn Graham, artist and avatar
By Eleanor Green
The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning
By Dore Ashton
Written by ArtistText of Graham's essay "The Case of Mr. Picasso."
PaintingsJohn Graham: Sum Qui Sum
By Harry Rand
John Graham: Sum Qui at Allan Stone Gallery
The Brooklyn Rail
By James Kalm
A Charismatic Artist Who Was Known for Talk
December 2, 2005
The New York Times
By Carter Ratcliff
Gallery View: An Artist Finds New Favor
November 11, 1984
The New York Times
By Grace Glueck
John Graham: A Brilliant Scoundrel
July 3, 1987
The New York Times
By Viven Raynor
Websites about artist
Collection of Graham papers at the Smithsonian
Includes his writings, correspondence, and business documents
|Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
ArtStory: Willem De Kooning Page
|A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and 1950s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraces the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the post-war mood of anxiety and trauma.
ArtStory: Abstract Expressionism Page
|André Derain, co-founder of Fauvism with Henri Matisse, was a French artist whose paintings exhibit the writhing energetic lines and bright colors characteristic of the movement.
|Paul Cézanne was an influential French Post-Impressionist painter whose depictions of the natural world, based on internal geometric planes, paved the way for Cubism and later modern art movements.
ArtStory: Paul Cézanne Page
|Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting, and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
ArtStory: Pablo Picasso Page
|Georges Braque was a modern French painter who, along with Pablo Picasso, developed analytic Cubism and Cubist collage in the early twentieth century.
ArtStory: Georges Braque Page
|Giorgio de Chirico was a Greek-Italian painter and sculptor commonly associated with Surrealism. Initially discovered by Picasso and Apollinaire in France, de Chirico's best-known Surrealist paintings incorporated metaphysical subject matter and sculptural still-life. Instead of land- or cityscapes, de Chirico's art is more emblematic of a dreamscape.
ArtStory: Giorgio De Chirico Page
|John Sloan was a 20th-century American realist painter and teacher. He was a founding member of The Eight and the Ashcan School of realist painting. Beginning in 1914, Sloan was also an influential art teacher at The Art Students League of New York.
|Stuart Davis was an American artist who played a key role in the development of Abstract Expressionism. Davis' "Jazz Art" (because it was considered a visual manifestation of jazz music) was highly experimental. He was one of the youngest artists represented at the 1913 Armory Show and for years taught at the Art Students League of New York.
|Arshile Gorky was an Armenian-born American painter and was a major influence on the development of Abstract Expressionism. In his own art he fused elements of Cubism, Surrealism and Expressionism, and was close with key figures central to New York's burgeoning abstrct art scene, such as John Graham, Stuart Davis and Willem de Kooning.
ArtStory: Arshile Gorky Page
|Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
ArtStory: Surrealism Page
|Fauvism was an early twentieth-century art movement founded by Henri Matisse and André Derain. Labeled "les fauves" or "wild beasts" by critic Louis Vauxcelles, the artists favored vibrant colors and winding gestural strokes across the canvas.
ArtStory: Fauvism Page
|Nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists in the West were greatly influenced by art they deemed 'primitive,', or 'naive', made by tribal or non-Western cultures. Such art, ranging from African and Native American to "naive" depictions of the French peasantry, was thought to be less civilized and thus closer to raw aesthetic and spiritual experience.
|Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
ArtStory: Cubism Page
|Adolph Gottlieb was an Abstract Expressionist painter who commonly used grids, pictographs, and primitive symbols in his work.
ArtStory: Adolph Gottlieb Page
|Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
ArtStory: Jackson Pollock Page
|John Currin is an American figurative painter best known for his provacative subject matter and technical precision. Currin is often considered a satirical artist. Due to some of his blatantly pornographic figure paintings, Currin has been attacked for being sexist; accusations he doesn't altogether deny.
|Harold Rosenberg was a critic, art historian, and curator who published important works on modern art and culture. He was a leading exponent of Abstract Expressionism, and coined the term "Action Painting."
ArtStory: Harold Rosenberg Page
|David Smith was an American artist who combined Surrealism and formal abstraction in his sculptures. His early works, small and with a craft-like aesthetic, give way later on to giant constructions of welded and burnished steel.
ArtStory: David Smith Page
|Minimalism emerged as a movement in New York in the 1960s, its leading figures creating objects which blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasizing cool anonymity over the hot expressivism of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.
ArtStory: Minimalism Page