- John Graham, artist and avatarBy Eleanor Green
- The New York School: A Cultural ReckoningBy Dore Ashton
Important Art by John Graham
This painting was produced only a few years after Graham arrived in New York and began studying under John Sloan at the Art Students League. While Graham was already familiar with the work of artists like Kandinsky, Malevich and Picasso, this canvas is still representational and shows the influence of the still life work of painters like Cézanne, especially in the treatment of the folds of the tablecloth. The tablecloth, like the other objects, is arranged deliberately rather than naturally to provide an opportunity to foreground the transitions between light and shodow. Graham extends the table to the extreme lower edge of the picture plane, which flattens the composition into a series of geometric shapes, and consequently negates realistic depiction of pictorial space. As Graham's frequent transatlantic travels exposed him to the European avant-garde, his style grew significantly more abstract, and by the end of the decade his paintings strongly resembled those of Picasso.
Iron Horse clearly reflects Graham's interest in Surrealism, in particular the work of Giorgio de Chirico. Graham aggressively incorporated the styles of the European avant-gardes whom he met on frequent trips to Paris. Here, Graham placed a horse, suggestive of a sculpture or a carousel, in a deserted streetscape of nondescript geometric buildings cast in shadows under eerie, threatening skies. Though not present in this work, Graham often arranged additional objects around the central figure that seem discordant with the setting and contribute to the surreal, dreamlike mood of the image. Graham's absorption of European trends was hardly limited to de Chirico, and though Surrealist imagery continued to influence him for decades, within a year of Iron Horse his work began to reflect a growing obsession with Picasso.
During the 1920s, Graham traveled frequently to Paris and absorbed the styles of its most progressive painters, turning eagerly from de Chirico to Picasso. Though Picasso had developed cubism almost twenty years earlier, Graham began his emulation of Picasso's Blue and Rose Periods, of which the Harlequin was a major figure. For Picasso, the Harlequin was a kind of alter-ego whom he painted numerous times between 1901 and 1905, and periodically for the rest of his career. In Graham's Harlequin in Gray, the artist clearly adopted the subject matter of Picasso but additionally employed some of the distinctive techniques that would characterize his own portraiture of the 1940s and 1950s. The heavily shadowed face of the Harlequin is more abstract than the Picasso characters who inspired it, for example, and Graham set the Harlequin against a sparse, almost monochromatic background interrupted by a single geometric shape, a feature common in his later work.