Avant-Garde Graham, Haunted by Masters, Shocked Modernists

It is the odd fate of certain artists to be freshly rediscovered in almost every generation that succeeds their own, and the painter who called himself John Graham (1886-1961) is one of them. In New York in the 1930′s, Graham was a legendary figure in the ranks of the American avant-garde-an apostle of European modernism who exerted a considerable influence on the formation of the New York School. As Lisa Bush Hankin writes in the catalog of the current show at the Richard York Gallery, John Graham: Renaissance & Revolution , “His circle of admiring friends included such luminaries as Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Stuart Davis and David Smith.” And the book that Graham published in 1937, System & Dialectics of Art , became for a time a sort of vade mecum of advanced artistic thought in New York. Yet the current exhibition at the Richard York Gallery is the first show of the artist’s work in 15 years.

Graham was, to be sure, an improbable candidate for a position of distinction and influence on the American art scene in the Depression era. He was born Ivan Gratianovich Dombrowsky in Kiev, and served as a cavalry officer in the czar’s army in the First World War. He escaped to France after the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 and, after a brief residence in Paris, moved to New York, where he studied at the Art Students League under John Sloan. That was in 1920, when Graham is now believed to have been 34 years old (earlier accounts of his life gave 1881 as the year of his birth, but 1886 is now the accepted date). Graham was much given to revising and embellishing the story of his remarkable life, and it’s still difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Had he become closely acquainted with the Russian avant-garde before departing Russia itself, as he sometimes claimed, or was his knowledge of Russian modernism something he picked up in Paris, to which he made frequent visits after establishing himself in New York? We shall probably never know. It’s said that even his wives-there were five in all-never learned his exact age, nor much of anything about his early life. Graham had clearly set out to make himself a legend, both as a man and as an artist, and to this endeavor he brought both a charismatic personality and exceptional talent as a painter and draftsman.

The authority which he brought to his role as a missionary of modernism meant a great deal to the younger generation of American modernists in their struggle to compete with the entrenched schools of Regionalist and Social Realist painting in the 1930′s. Yet it was not in Graham’s nature to become wholly hostage to the modernist dogma he preached. His own sensibility was far too mystical and volatile to settle for orthodoxy, and he was so haunted by the heroic achievements of the Old Masters that there came a time when he broke with modernism altogether, turning in the end to a mode of portraiture and self-portraiture that was unlike anything that had preceded it in his career.

This radical change in Graham’s development, which is very well documented in the current exhibition and its excellent catalog, was deeply shocking to the American modernists that Graham himself had nurtured, but it had the great merit of allowing him to produce his finest work. In the current exhibition, there are two undoubted masterworks from this final flowering of Graham’s pictorial talents: a bizarre double self-portrait called Poussin M’Instruit (1944), which is at once a shameless exercise in self-aggrandizement and a highly poetic homage to the 17th-century French master Nicolas Poussin, whose paintings Graham revered; and one of his signature portraits of cross-eyed women, Aurea Mediocritus (1952), a subject that yielded Graham some of his most accomplished paintings and drawings. It’s safe to predict that both of these pictures will eventually find their way into important museum collections. They certainly deserve to, and I can only suppose that it’s owing to the infrequency of comprehensive exhibitions of Graham’s work that these pictures remain in private hands.

They are by no means the only works of interest in the current show. In the very earliest painting, a Still Life from 1925, we can see at once that there wasn’t much about the Russian-Parisian mode of representational Cubism that Graham hadn’t already mastered. A larger and even bolder Abstract Sill Life from 1930 is a reminder, too, that it wasn’t only as a talker and writer about modernist painting but as an accomplished modernist painter himself that Graham came to cast a spell on the New York art scene of the 1930′s. And among the later works on paper, Woman with Clear Eyes (1958) is certainly one of his most haunting portraits of women.

There’s no denying that Graham was a highly eccentric character. In the last years of his life, when he had succeeded in stunning the New York art world with his unexpected mystical portraits and self-portraits, he shocked his contemporaries once again by quitting the art world altogether. He returned to his beloved Europe and, as far as we know, never painted another picture.

John Graham: Renaissance & Revolution remains on view at the Richard York Gallery, 21 East 65th Street, through July 31.