John Graham 1890 —1961


Born in Kiev, Russia, John Graham played an important role in the promotion of modern art and avant garde theory in America from the late 1920s through the early 1940s. Today his most well know works are the abstract cubist-influenced paintings he created in the 1930's which are characterized by simplified forms and a thick sensual application of pigment.

The son of Polish expatriate parents living in Russia, Graham was born as Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrovski. Upon receiving a law degree, he was employed by the Czarist regime. He participated in imperial society and served as a second lieutenant in Grand Duke Michael's Circassian Regimen. However, because of this later involvement in counterrevolutionary activities, the Bolsheviks imprisoned him. Eventually Graham was able to escape to Poland, and in 1920, he arrived in New York. He subsequently changed his name to John, the English equivalent of Ivan-and he chose Graham as his surname as it was similar to the Cyrillic spelling of Dombrovski.

Although art had been a hobby during his years in Russia, in America, it became his full-time profession. From 1922 until 1924 he took classes at the Art Students League where he got to know John Sloan and concentrated on rendering the subjects that were typical for American scene painters.

During the nid-1920's, Graham traveled extensively in Europe, conveying knowledge of the more advanced cultural currents to intellectual leaders in America. He became an important conduit for the exchange of ideas between the continents. After becoming an American citizen in 1927, Graham settled in Baltimore. There, his art attracted the attention of Duncan Phillips Memorial Gallery (now the Phillips Collection) in 1920. A one-man show of Graham's work was held at Phillips in 1929 and in the same year at the Dudensing Gallery in New York. He had two solo exhibitions in Paris in 1928 and 1930.

During the 1930's, Graham developed the term ‘minimalism' to refer to an art composed of ":minimum ingredients for the sake of discovering the ultimate, logical destination of painting in the process of abstraction..."1 However, Graham defined minimalism differently than did artists in the 1960s and 1970s, using it to describe a type of work in which each variation canceled the proceeding one in order to arrive at a kernel or essence of a subject. Although his earliest purely abstract paintings, created during the 1930's were destroyed, Graham produced a significant body of graceful and witty works that reveal the influence of Picasso, whose art he greatly admired. His paintings also convey his deep understanding of synthetic cubism and express introspective and often serene moods.

Graham spoke out in favor of modern art and condemned the Social Realists. In addition to his career as an artist, he was a critic, dealer, patron, promoter and educator. He was especially knowledgeable about Italian Renaissance bronzes and African sculpture. In his role as an art dealer, he specialized in collecting and selling these objects. In the April 1937 issue of the Magazine of Art, Graham summarized his views on ancient art and its effect on modern minds, and in that same year he published System and Dialectics of Art, his major treatise on art and philosophy which was constructed as a lengthy Socratic dialogue.

1 John Graham, System and Dialectics of Art (Paris and New York, 1937), section 32. Published in an edition of 1000 copies,; reprinted. With introduction and notes by Marcia Epstein Allentuck (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1971).

Graham was also a significant figure in the development of Abstract Expressionism. He became closely associated with Arshile Gorky, David Smith and Willem de Kooning in the late 1930's. He gave Smith a sculpture by Julio Gonzalez, which decisively influenced Smith's career and encouraged him to concentrate on sculpture. Smith eventually moved close to Bolton Landing NY, in order to be near to Graham's home. In 1942, Graham organized the exhibition that first seriously presented to work of Jackson Pollock.

During the 1940's Graham began to create works that reflected his withdrawal into a personal mysticism. He denounced Picasso and abstract art, and turned away from the art world. Abandoning modernism, he produced a synthetic art that reflected his love of the Italian Renaissance and was embellished with private symbols.

Graham died in London in 1961. His works are included in many important collections in the United States including the Baltimore Museum of Art; the Carnegie Museum, Addison Gallery of American Art, Amarillo Museum of Art, Art, Institute of Chicago, Delaware Art Museum, Neuberger Museum of Art, New York University Collection/Grey Art Gallery, San Diego Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MOMA), Yale University Art Gallery Pittsburgh; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the Museum of Modern Art, New york; the Phillips Collection, Washington DC; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.


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