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John Graham: Son of Jove

A master of invention and reinvention, John Graham was American modernism’s Renaissance man.

John D. Graham, White Still Life, 1930

John D. Graham, White Still Life, 1930, oil and mixed media on canvas, 21 x 29 in.;

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Not long before his death in 1961, John D. Graham wrote in his diary, “I brought culture to the U.S. and didn’t even have a social security card. The irony of it now.” Graham, a painter, art critic, art dealer, impresario, former lawyer, one-time Czarist cavalry officer, and self-reinvented aristocrat in the New World, died obscure and today is hardly well known. But he was not wrong in what he wrote. Graham was instrumental in making Americans aware of the developments in modern art that were going on in Paris in the 1920s; effectively championed and promoted such artists as Arshile Gorky, David Smith, and Jackson Pollock; and wrote a book of art theory that became a sort of secret bible for artists, even as it was largely ignored by the critics. But most of all, Graham brought culture in his own person, as an immensely talented painter who created work in two completely different styles, and as a living embodiment of European sophistication and American originality.

Graham is going to be getting renewed attention, because the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, N.Y., is mounting a comprehensive retrospective of his career, accompanied by a catalogue which gives his full biography (or at least as full as is currently possible, given Graham’s tendency to self-mythologize and alter details of his past) and a critical reassessment of his achievements. “John Graham: Maverick Modernist,” which opened on May 7 and runs through July 30, features 66 paintings loaned from museums as well as many private collections, which together make it possible to understand this artist’s aesthetic trajectory and level of skill.

That skill, the mastery of execution which is clearly visible in everything Graham did, is all the more surprising given that he didn’t even put brush to canvas or pencil to paper until he was 36 years old. But he was a late-blooming prodigy who almost right from the moment he enrolled in John Sloan’s class at the Art Students League in New York in 1923 distinguished himself by the boldness of both his ambition and his draftsmanship. Alexander Calder, then a fellow student, remembered that Graham “first attracted my attention by drawing a nude with two pencils, one red and one black, and starting with the feet and running right up.” By 1926, Graham was exhibiting his work in galleries, and by 1929 he had a one-man show.

His work from this period and through the 1930s is basically synthetic Cubism, strongly influenced by Picasso, Braque, and Gris but with a distinctively vibrant color palette and a particularly bold kind of drawing. Unsurprisingly, the still life—Cubism’s central subject—is heavily represented in Graham’s oeuvre and in the Parrish show. Still Life With Fruit and Blue and White Pitcher (1926) features the typical Cubist compressed space, fruit, a bottle, a saw, and the pitcher, with the added twist of a mirror on the table that shows a slightly dimmed reflection of part of the pitcher and a piece of fruit. The mirror effect adds to the sense of disturbed, disorienting space. Still Life, from the same year, also depicts objects from the classic vocabulary, including a bottle of wine and a playing card, arrayed on a table, but with a Surrealist touch in the form of a disembodied hand holding a lemon.

Architectural themes were also appealing to Graham: Interior (circa 1928) is a de Chiricoesque study in perspective, an imaginary space in pink, purple, and brown with doors and windows opening onto a blank-looking exterior. Two figures, one flesh and blood and the other spectral, are about to confront each other. Rue Brea (1928) is a colorful Cubist cityscape, an angled streetcorner made to look impossibly jumbled, with a doorway opening up in the middle of a tree trunk to match the one leading into an adjacent building. Some of Graham’s paintings from the pre-World War II period get very close to full abstraction while remaining within the confines of Cubism; among these are White Still Life (1930), Abstract Still Life With Bird (1935), and Embrace (1932). In the latter, the two hugging figures are hardly human, more like biomorphic and mechanomorphic abstractions. In Red Square (1934) and Abstract Composition (1941), the artist achieves total abstraction.

In the mid-’40s, though, Graham shifted gears, giving up Cubism and abstraction in favor of representational painting that emulated Old Master styles and dwelt obsessively on a few recurring themes—images of women with crossed eyes portrayed from the bust up, mythic self-portraits, soldiers, and horses. During this phase of his career, which lasted until his death, Graham grouchily denounced modernism and distanced himself from some of his friends and colleagues, even breaking off longstanding relationships. Nonetheless, his work continued to be highly energetic, bold in its expression, and technically virtuosic. And while it raised eyebrows at the time and still seems odd in many ways, the late work of Graham is actually his most distinctive and best. In this period, a sui generis man became a truly unique artist, not just another worthy contributor to the cause of the avant-garde. Also, it is far more obvious today than it was then that Graham had, in fact, by no means abandoned modernism in his late work.

More than with most artists, Graham’s life and work can’t be separated or understood apart from each other. Admittedly, the question, “Who was John D. Graham?” is difficult to answer precisely. Graham’s own voluminous writings shed a flickering and eerie light on the matter. In 1960–61, in a document titled Autoportrait, he described himself as a semi-divine foundling: “I was born to power and trained to rule. My adoptive parents gave me the name of John = Ionnus = Jovanus (Son of Jove)…Sum qui sum, I am who I am.” Of more help are the mundane documents excavated from archives by scholars including Alicia Longwell, curator of this exhibition and a specialist on Graham. These show that the artist was born Ivan Gratianovich Dombrowski in 1886 in Kiev, then a part of the Russian Empire, to parents who were members of the Polish minor nobility. Following his father’s example, he studied law in Kiev and became a practicing attorney and, briefly, a government official. When World War I broke out, Dombrowski joined the cavalry and soon found himself assigned to command a regiment of hussars composed of Muslim Circassians. A photo of the future artist taken at the time shows him with a shaven head, clad in an astrakhan coat crossed with bandoliers; the word “dashing” seems the only one that reasonably applies. For valor in combat on the Romanian front, Dombrowski received the Cross of Saint George.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 caused Dombrowski to be reassigned to Moscow, where he was joined by his wife and son. He would soon divorce her, abandon their child, and marry another woman, the first in a long series of domestic rearrangements that would mark his entire life. In the Civil War that followed the Revolution he sided with the Whites, which soon made it imperative for him to flee Russia. As a Polish citizen he was able to settle in Warsaw, where he slightly altered his name to Jan Dabrowski. But after less than two years there, he and his wife, Vera, decided to emigrate to the United States, landing in New York in 1920.

In New York, he took on odd jobs, eventually teaching horseback riding to the sons of a family in suburban Westchester, N.Y., while Vera tutored them in music and French. To fit in better, he Anglicized his name to John Dabrowsky Graham, Graham being freely adapted from his middle name, Gratianovich. Now came the life-changing decision to pursue art. Graham had never practiced art before, but he had been exposed to it in Moscow, when he visited Sergei Shchukin at the Trubetskoy Palace and saw the legendary collector’s modernist masterpieces, works by Matisse, Picasso, Degas, Derain, and many more. Now, in New York, his creative impulses crystallized.

After his studies at the Art Students League and the astonishingly rapid progress he made, Graham was ready to invade the art world with Russian-cavalry vigor. He was already making some of the right friends. Sloan introduced him to Stuart Davis and to Frank Crowninshield, the editor of Vanity Fair and a major collector of modern and tribal art. Since his new American wife, Elinor, was from Baltimore, Graham was spending a lot of time there and was invited to the salon of the Cone sisters, noted collectors of modernism in an almost Shchukin-like vein. Soon Graham made an even more important friend, Duncan Phillips, the Washington, D.C.-based painter, critic, and collector. Phillips aggressively patronized Graham, sending him generous stipends so he could devote himself to his painting and critiquing and even manipulating his work. Phillips may have been a pain but he was often spot-on in his advice. In one case, he told Graham to take the upper left-hand corner of a painting—a patch of beach, ocean, and sky seen through an open window—and turn it into an entire painting unto itself. This Graham duly did, and the result was indeed astonishingly good, far better than the original, somewhat cluttered, composition.

In the mid-’20s Graham began traveling regularly to Paris. The so-called School of Paris was then flourishing, and Graham’s facility with the language and natural boldness enabled him to insert himself into the scene with ease. He started receiving critical acclaim, even having a short book written about him by the influential critic Waldemar George. He also launched a side career as a dealer of African art, which he bought low in Paris and sold high in New York, especially to Crowninshield. These deals ended up financing many of Graham’s artistic ventures and were an important source of income after he and Phillips fell out and the stipends ceased.

To New York from Paris Graham brought not only African art objects but vital news of of the School of Paris, which American artists generally knew only from articles and black and white reproductions in the journal Cahiers d’Art. Among the young artists whom he wowed with his tales and teachings were the American Midwesterner David Smith, the Armenian refugee Arshile Gorky, and, in the 1930s, the very young Jackson Pollock, then a disciple of the regionalist Thomas Hart Benton. Graham did more than talk; he actively promoted their work and fostered their careers. He and Pollock had a very close bond. Pollock was obsessed with an article Graham had published in 1937 in The Magazine of Art titled “Primitive Art and Picasso,” which he kept folded up in his wallet and reread constantly.

This article, and many others, constituted yet another vital mode of creative expression for Graham. A fluent writer in English, French, and Russian alike, he was both a polemicist and an aesthetic philosopher. His writing career culminated in a book, System and Dialectics of Art, published in 1939. The text is decidedly quirky, full of technical terms invented by Graham and expressed with dogmatic force. Among its pronouncements: “Abstract painting is argument drawn to a conclusion.” “A legitimate abstract work of art can be produced only on the basis of profound knowledge of nature.” “Objectively considered, form is a consequential mode or modus, by means of which, artist authoritatively separates a phenomenon from the setting.” While fellow critics remained for the most part indifferent to Graham’s manifesto, it found great favor among young artists who felt it gave them a vocabulary with which to talk about the experiments they were engaged in.

After World War II, Graham’s star began to set, and his life became more and more constricted by poverty (although he remained dashing and socially active; one of his lovers in the ’50s was future Warhol superstar Ultra Violet, then known as Isabelle Collin Dufresne). He painted with undiminished vigor, though, and while one might be tempted to see in his late work a contrarian desire to bait critics (whom he outraged with statements like saying that his former idol Picasso’s art was “a hoax”), a close look at the works themselves shows that they are sincere and come from sources deep within. In many ways they are a return to origins—the horses and soldiers recall his cavalry days, the self-portraits show him as an almost medieval-looking warrior, and as for the women, there is something there that we can hardly get access to. One clue is a remark by Graham that women’s eyes often cross in a moment of sexual ecstasy. In one self-portrait, Graham gives himself the same crossed eyes. The whole effect of Graham’s second body of work is akin to that of the late de Chirico, with its self-mythologizing, nostalgia for the Renaissance and earlier times, and even the equine themes. But while de Chirico’s work has a strain of irony and even deliberate mischief, Graham, the self-styled “son of Jove,” appears to have been playing it perfectly straight.

In any case, there is a definite continuity between the first body of work and the second. For one thing, the horses, cavalrymen, and nudes appear as early as the 1920s, and for another, the late paintings are still very modernist, even if they no longer trade in overt Cubist gestures. And maybe Graham, despite his earlier statements in praise of progress and the future, had had his eyes on the past all along, not the historical past but a primordial past that he considered identical to the unconscious sources of life and creativity. In his archives, held in the Smithsonian, there is a copy of a book in French, by the Romanian writer Matila Ghyka, titled The Golden Number: Pythagorean Rites and Rhythms in the Development of Western Civilization (occult studies were a longtime passion of Graham’s). On a blank page in that book, Graham wrote, “Scientists invent new things in reality to get in touch with the old knowledge. No human imagination can imagine something which has not existed before, consequently all modern inventions are nothing else but reaching back into the primordial past’s memories; and by clever rearrangements pretend that the scientists have invented something ‘new’. How laughable!”

By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: April 2017

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