A larger-than-life figure in the New York art world of the 1930s and 1940s, John Graham exerted considerable influence on the art of his era. Through his painting, writing, and connoisseurship, Graham became a pivotal authority in modern taste as he advocated the avant-garde and promoted such artists as Jackson Pollock. Graham’s eccentricity, individuality and intellect served as catalysts to his many accomplishments as an artist.
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John Graham (né Ivan Gratianovich Dombrowski) was born on January 8, 1886 in Kiev, Russia. Graham often embellished the facts of his own biography, offering various and colorfully exaggerated versions of his early life. Graham claimed, for example, that he had been imprisoned alongside Czar Nicholas II and his family in St. Petersburg; that he had grown up practicing witchcraft with his family; that he was the son of Jupiter and a mortal woman and was forced to live on earth though he was ‘not altogether human.’ Regardless of how fanciful Graham’s stories became, he wielded such an authoritative command of “the particulars” that no one dared to question his stories (Hankin 3).
What is certain about Graham’s life is that he married in 1912, received a law degree in 1913, and served as an officer in the Russian cavalry, earning the Cross of St. George in battle for his military heroism. In 1918, the Bolsheviks imprisoned him on suspicion that he had fought for the counter-revolutionary forces. Graham escaped, however, and in November 1920, he and his wife fled war-torn Russia and made their way to the United States where they settled in New York City. By 1922, Graham had enrolled at the Art Students League. Here, Graham became friends with classmates and fellow artists Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, Alexander Calder and Elinor Gibson, and he studied under the direction of John Sloan.
While at the Art Students League, Graham left his wife and married Elinor Gibson. In 1925, the newlyweds relocated to Baltimore, where Graham met Claribel and Etta Cone, who would eventually become his first patrons. In 1927, he became a citizen of the United States and officially changed his name to “John Graham.” Throughout the 1920s, in addition to exhibiting in Baltimore, Graham also made frequent trips back to Europe, and in Paris, he established himself as both an artist and an art collector. During this time, Graham gained firsthand knowledge of the avant-garde Paris art scene, particularly the innovations of Pablo Picasso. Graham also became acquainted with art critics Andre Salmon and Waldemar Georges, who would both become enthusiastic supporters of his, and he exhibited in a one-man show at the Galerie Zabriskie. Graham lived five minutes away from American modernist Stuart Davis, and together the two artists collaborated on several prints
By 1927, Graham had gained significant renown for someone who claimed to have received no formal art training before enrolling in the Art Students League a mere five years earlier. Back in New York, he began to play a fundamental role in the spreading of modernist ideas. He became close friends with Arshile Gorky, and together they influenced younger artists such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and David Smith. Demand for Graham’s art increasingly grew, and in 1927, collector and patron Duncan Phillips purchased the first of ultimately thirty works by Graham. In 1929, Phillips gave Graham his first one-man museum exhibition.
In 1936, Graham and yet another new wife lived in Brooklyn Heights next to Gottlieb and Smith. During this time, Graham regularly expanded upon the latest advances in the Paris art scene, writing an article entitled “Primitive Art and Picasso.” The article had its roots in Graham’s mounting curiosity about psychoanalytic theory. In 1937, Graham published a book called System and Dialects of Art in which he outlined the source of modern art and forecasted its future: “Art is a creative process of abstracting and modern art has been trying to push this idea to its ultimate, logical destination. In its methods of abstracting, modern art has been using experiences of the past, discoveries of the present and apprehensions of the future.” In his book, Graham also promoted his and other modernist painter’s beliefs that true creativity stems from the unconscious mind, an idea influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud. The book’s publication also confirmed Graham’s position of influence and authority among his peers: “With his European upbringing and the first-hand knowledge of the latest ideas percolating in Paris, and moreover, with an uncanny ability to distinguish between the great and the merely good, Graham became the reigning guru of modern taste” (Hankin 7).
Although Graham’s book explored Freudian philosophy, he eventually moved from following Freud’s theories to those of Carl Jung in the 1940s. Through his exploration of Jungian philosophy, Graham attempted to establish a deeper contact with the subconscious. He started intensive personal therapy and he began keeping a diary. In the mid 1940s, Graham’s journal entries became outlandish if not unintelligible, even as his professional and personal life “remained erratic” (South). In 1943, Graham met and married yet a different female companion, Marianne Strate-Felber, beginning a twelve-year relationship with her. During this time, he invented another persona for himself as Ioannus Magus. Under this guise, Graham believed that his own individual subconscious “was not the great source of art, but rather that the collective unconscious (as per Jung’s writings) contained the eternal mysteries, impulses and beliefs” (Smith).
In January 1942, Graham inspired admiration amongst his followers by organizing a remarkable exhibition entitled “American and French Painting” for New York’s McMillen Gallery. The exhibition combined works by well-known European and American artists, as well as a large group of essentially unknown American artists. European artists in the show included Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Bonnard, Modigliani, Rouault, Derain, de Chirico and Segonzac; the Americans included de Kooning, Pollock, Davis, Burliuk, Walt Kuhn, Lee Krasner, Virginia Diaz, Pat Collins and Graham himself. By exhibiting a combination of European and American artists, Graham went out on a radical limb at a time when Paris was considered the center of art and New York a mere backwater. With this exhibition, de Kooning praised and credited Graham for discovering Pollock. In the mid-1940s, Graham also exhibited a show of his portraits at the Pinacotheca Gallery.
In 1955, Strate-Felber died, leaving Graham deeply distressed. He managed to recover, however, and yet again involved himself in several love affairs with much younger women, including the twenty-two-year-old Isabelle Colin du Fresne. In the later part of his life, Graham was, as described by his biographer Eleanor Greene, “always on an emotional rollercoaster.” His emotions ran from “fragile and dependent to angry and depressed” ( Smith). While he continued to create art, Graham also began to study magic and yoga. Graham’s life remained erratic until the very end, and after a few restless years of travel and ill health, he died in London in 1961.
II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
“I think perhaps that I am probably the best painter in the world.”—John Graham
As one of the fathers of New York’s modern art scene, Graham developed a suitably outsized ego and was never shy about his successes as an artist. He often compared his work to the accomplishments of the Old Masters, stating that “anyone can paint like Matisse or Braque, but not anybody can paint like Raphael or Leonardo. I’m maybe not as good as Raphael, but there is more tension in my canvases” (Hankin 16). Although detractors often criticized his ego, it was Graham’s self-confidence as an artist that allowed him to create such an eclectic and influential oeuvre of art.
From his early years studying art under John Sloan at the Arts Students League until the end of his life, Graham was as capricious in his career as an artist as he was in his romantic relationships—he went from one artistic theme, and one wife, to the next with incredible ease. “Surrealist landscapes gave way to modernist still lifes, which in turn gave way to quasi-abstract compositions, and so on,” and he drew his inspiration from equally wide-ranging sources (Hankin 4). Graham based his art on such disparate themes as the subconscious, invention and the idea of reincarnation. Jungian psychology, mythology, occult literature, yoga and alchemy also played pivotal thematic roles in his art. Graham found inspiration in other artists, moreover, and often incorporated their ideas into his own art. While in art school, Graham often took home drawings left behind by his classmates in hopes of discovering useful ideas to borrow, adopt or copy. Graham’s “stylistic promiscuity caused his early work to resemble that of whomever he was currently painting or preoccupied with,” and much of his early work thus reflects Picasso, Davis, de Kooning and Pollock among other great artists. After many years of emulating other gifted artists, Graham eventually discovered and established his own personal artistic style.
John Sloan inspired Graham’s initial painterly style, teaching him the technique of “combining a muted range of colors with the kaleidoscopic assortment already inherent.” Graham had the gift of understanding both a painting’s surface and its inner linings, and this gift enabled him to become one of the most “hallucinogenic of colorists.” Graham often infused his works with layers of paint that indicate other colors present under the upper layer. Graham’s exploration and mastery of color greatly influenced subsequent New York School painters such as Gorky, de Kooning and Pollock, whose paintings with multiple colors on a single plane echo Graham’s influence (Winkfield).
Along with his mastering of paint and color, Graham also managed to pull off a number of different styles throughout his career. He experimented with Realism and Cubism in the 20s and 30s, meditations on art history, and mystical portraits in the '40s and '50s. Graham’s Cubist works were inspired by Picasso with their “aggressive color and complex patterning.” In Untitled Abstract (1939), for example, Graham painted with swift brushstrokes to create strong chromatic distinctions, providing the work with a linear aspect and a “cubo-surrealist air” (Kalina).
After experimenting with Cubism, Graham ventured toward an unquestionably individualistic “psychologically and historically charged” figuration (Kalina). Graham’s imposing personality commanded his figurations, and in the mid-1940s, he turned to the past for inspiration for his newly begun portraiture. The constrictions of portraiture now created a perfect challenge for Graham’s restless genius, and he began to make use of such artistic styles and techniques from the past as the three-quarter profile portrait, and to implement them in an innovative, tongue-in-cheek and often enigmatic manner. Graham’s portraits were far from mere likenesses, as he “took Renaissance forms, gestures and compositional devices as a starting point. Then he flattened and simplified his images, stylizing forms [and] introducing broad areas of color [to] achiev[e] an almost primitive aura that reflected his interest in tribal art” (Hankin 14). Drawing inspiration from Old Masters such as Ingres, Poussin, Leonardo, and Raphael, Graham cheekily placed his own personal stamp on traditional classics.
Graham’s artistic eminence, however, rests mainly upon his bust-length paintings and drawings of women in which the figures most often have crossed, astray, if not indistinct eyes. His most famous painting, Two Sisters (1944), illustrates Graham’s “virtuoso draftsmanship.” The painting’s lines and forms precisely and gracefully mold the figures, while they simultaneously disengage themselves from representation to project an abstraction of their own. Graham’s surface and technique fluctuated between “the sketchy and open and the fully filled-in and smooth.” For the painting, he utilized a wide assortment of materials—oil, enamel, pencil, charcoal and casein—displaying the work’s formal complexity. In his portraits of women, he eschewed the smooth, polished look of academic art in favor of a more “modern, discontinuous and irregular surface” (Kalina).
Two Sisters and other paintings reveal Graham’s capacity for formal and art historical techniques, but their greatest effect comes from their “psychological charge.” Graham’s paintings are mystifying, erotic, and anomalous, and the strangeness in his work only grew over time. Wounds, scars, piercings and blindness, along with supernatural elements began to arise repeatedly in his work. As Graham became more involved in mysticism and assorted spiritual practices, his art began to reflect these interests.
Graham’s bold individualism and eccentricity played pivotal roles in his artistic genius. As he explored numerous styles throughout his career, Graham found a means of expressing himself and establishing his own signature through his portraits, reflecting his humor, his inner conflicts, his enthrallment with past civilization, and his awareness of the bleak side of human nature. For Graham, the vital heart of art was the depiction of the human being and the mystery of human personality. Graham once stated that “the interesting thing about the artist is not what he produces, but what he is himself.” Who Graham was himself—“renegade, mystic, publicist, prophet, traditionalist, fabulist, and who knows?, offspring of Jupiter—is now the stuff of legend.” In the words of art critic Hilton Kramer, Graham’s legend—“with its extravagant mixture of a romantic past and a shrewd grasp of the present—represents his art more accurately than any of us had supposed” (Hankin).
1886 Born on January 8th in Kiev, Russia
1913 Marries first wife in Russia
1913 Receives law degree
1918 Imprisoned by Bolsheviks
1920 Moves to New York City
1922 Enrolls at Art Students League
1927 Becomes United States citizen and changes name to John Graham
1929 Philip Duncan puts on his first one-man museum exhibition
1937 Publishes Systems and Dialects of Art
1940 Begins his studies of Jungian philosophy
1942 Organizes the exhibition “American and French Painting” for New York’s McMillen Gallery
1943 Maries Marianne Strate-Faber
1961 Dies in London
Addison Gallery of American Art
Amarillo Museum of Art
Art Institute of Chicago
The Baltimore Museum of Art
Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh/Carnegie Institute
Daniel J. Terra Collection
Delaware Art Museum
Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Phillips Collection
Neuberger Museum of Art
New York University Collection/Grey Art Gallery
San Diego Museum of Art
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Society of Independent Artists
Whitney Museum of American Art
Yale University Art Gallery
1925, 1928-30 Society of Independent Artists, NY
1925-36, 1955- 60 West Milford Artists Association, NJ
1926 Societe Anonyme, MD
1928 Philips Gallery, DC
1929-30, 1946 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, PN
1930 Dudensing Gallery, NY
2002 Richard York Gallery, NY
Society of Independent Artists
WPA/Federal Arts Project
- 1. Hankin, Lisa Bush. John Graham (1886-1961): Renaissance and Revolution. New York: Richard York Gallery, 2002.
- 2. Kalina, Richard. “At Cross Purposes.” Art in America.Vol. 93, No.3. March, 2006. pp 138-143.
- 3. South, Will. John Graham: Drawings from the Claribel and Etta Cone Collection. The Weatherspoon Art Museum, June 9-October 13, 2002.
- 4. Winkfield, Trevor. “The Master Paradox.” Modern Painters, Vol. 16, No. 2, pp. 98-103.
VIII. WORKS FOR SALE BY THIS ARTIST