“An abstract painting is an argument drawn to conclusion.”
John D. Graham
“My paintings have more tension than Raphael,” wrote John D. Graham, “but, then, I live in a more tense age.”
A key figure in the New York art world in the mid-20th century, Graham—an artist, writer, collector, and advocate—was born Ivan Gratianovich Dombrowski in 1886 to an aristocratic family in Kiev. There, he studied law and then served as a cavalry officer under Czar Nicholas II during World War I. Briefly imprisoned after the Russian Revolution, he fled to Warsaw upon his release and later joined the counter-revolutionaries in Crimea. When the resistance efforts collapsed there, he obtained a passport for the United States, arriving in New York with his second wife in 1920. Graham began his first formal art training at the Art Students League in Manhattan. There he studied with John Sloan, a figurative painter associated with the Ashcan School, and quickly gained attention for his paintings after leaving art school in 1924; during a brief stint in Baltimore shortly thereafter, he became acquainted with the collector Duncan Phillips, who gave him his first American solo exhibition at his Washington, DC, gallery in 1929. He officially adopted the name John D. Graham upon becoming a United States citizen in 1927.
Throughout the 1930s, Graham painted in a primarily abstract Cubist style and also worked as a curator, helping to develop a collection of African art for Vanity Fair magazine editor Frank Crowinshield. (Graham would go on to collect traditional African art himself, eventually developing a portion of his studio at 57 Greenwich Avenue into what he called the “Primitive Arts Gallery.”) During this period, he befriended then-little-known artists Arshile Gorky, David Smith, Dorothy Dehner, and Willem de Kooning, among others, and championed their work. He frequently traveled to Paris and had ties to many artists working there; in this way he served as a crucial conduit between the European and American avant-gardes. In 1937, Graham published a book on aesthetics, titled System and Dialectics of Art, in which he defined art as “a creative process of abstracting” from nature in order to reveal the essence of things, and advocated for the importance of delving into the unconscious mind for inspiration. An articulation of the ideas that he and his modernist artist friends were discussing in bars and each other’s studios across the city, this text was widely read by artists—notably, Jackson Pollock—who would come to be associated with the so-called New York School, or Abstract Expressionism.
Despite his crucial influence on American abstract art at midcentury, Graham abandoned abstraction in the 1940s in favor of a figurative approach drawn from the Italian Renaissance and French Neoclassicism. He turned first to portraits of Russian soldiers and self-portraits (often in a harlequin’s costume), and, by the mid-1940s, to large portraits of seated women with crossed eyes, all rendered in a signature modernist style characterized by a flatness and compressed sense of space. For Graham, the crossed eyes were a formal device, rather than an expressive one, allowing him to anchor space to a fixed point and create more tension in his compositions.
In his late work, Graham incorporated iconography from alchemy, astrology, and the occult into his paintings and drawings. A longtime practitioner of yoga and a self-proclaimed mystic, he readily adapted signs and symbols into his visual vocabulary.
Note: Opening quote is from Graham, John, and Marcia Allentuck, System and Dialectics of Art (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1971), 106.
Cara Manes, Associate Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2022