Ways to support us
About The Art Story a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Org
John Graham Photo

John Graham - Biography and Legacy

Ukranian-American Painter

Born: August 7, 1881 (Disputed, may be 1886-88) - Kiev, Ukraine
Died: 1961 - London, UK
Movements and Styles:
Abstract Expressionism

Biography of John Graham

Early Life

John 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 immigrated to the United States with his wife and child.

Early Training

When 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 Kazimir Malevich and Wassily 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 Ashcan 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 Paul 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 the Society of Independent Artists, Dudensing Gallery, and other venues in New York and in Paris. His paintings were also included in the inaugural Whitney Biennial in 1932.

Mature Period

Graham 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 Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, and the biomorphic forms and dreamlike imagery of Surrealists like Max Ernst and Giorgio 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, create new meaning, and 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 Death

Graham 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.

The Legacy of John Graham

Graham'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.

Do more

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"John Graham Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Available from:
First published on 05 Jan 2014. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]