He Was That He Was: A Place For John Graham in Art’s Firmament

As far as dirty old men go, the American painter John Graham (1886-1961), whose art is the subject of a

As far as dirty old men go, the American painter John Graham (1886-1961), whose art is the subject of a retrospective at the Allan Stone Gallery, was depressingly pedestrian.

Tucked away in the back, past a lovely courtyard, are 15 of Graham’s erotic drawings. That’s what the folks at Stone call the pictures, but there ain’t nothin’ sexy about ’em. Graham’s scrawled portrayals of enormous penises—impaling women here, wielding 200-pound weights there—hardly merit inclusion in a strip-joint men’s room, let alone a tony Upper East Side gallery. They’re puerile fantasies that would’ve made Freud yawn. Picasso, that horny misogynist, is the height of sensitivity in comparison.

Separating Graham’s celebrations of his almighty member from the rest of the show was presumably meant to protect delicate souls and the stray child tagging along with Mom or Dad. Making them easy to avoid provides an aesthetic service, too, but the gallery deserves credit for more than that. The exhibition, titled Sum Qui Sum, is an all-but-definitive accounting of one of the more singular figures in American art. Anyone with an interest in painting and drawing—or, for that matter, the cultural life of New York City—can ill afford to miss it.

Not that the rest of the oeuvre will quell anyone’s apprehensions about Graham’s character or psyche. Certainly, the pictures of cross-eyed, buck-toothed women won’t win him any admirers among the politically correct. The title figure in Donna Losca (circa 1959), a drawing that showcases Graham’s longstanding debt to Ingres, has a hole in the head, a gash in the neck and a tiny sword drawing blood from her lips; 10 or so doodled penises are superimposed on the neck and torso. An undercurrent of violence is similarly present in Marya (Donna Ferita, Pensive Lady) (1944), a portrait of the artist’s first wife—there’s a neat and bloodied incision on her wrist.

Elsewhere, Graham’s fixations are less disturbing than bizarre. In a triple self-portrait, a tour de force of pink and purple titled Poussin M’Instruit (1944), he pictures himself as a goggle-eyed philosophe and a belligerent student, both nude. (The third self-portrait is sketched at the upper center of the canvas.) Graham didn’t refrain from some self-mockery—the delineation of musculature, for instance, is ridiculously extravagant—yet neither did he pass up an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. We never doubt for a moment that he thought himself an oracle of sorts. Poussin M’Instruit is grand and silly—Graham makes that mix utterly coherent.

Up the stairs is Sum Qui Sum (I Am That I Am) (circa 1952), a hasty drawing in which the artist imagines himself as a cross between St. George and Marcus Aurelius—but that’s not the half of it. The title comes from Exodus 3:13-14, wherein God states his own name. The Biblical quotation is less Graham’s acknowledgment of a higher power than a communication between equals. You would think it’d be enough for a painter to pattern himself after Uccello, Ingres, Raphael and, for a time, Picasso. Yet Graham considered himself a force of otherworldly proportions. It’s a testament to his wildly erratic accomplishments that we don’t begrudge him his aspirations.

Who was John Graham? Given his flair for self-invention, it’s hard to say. The catalog cautions that a definitive story of his life may be beyond the reach of history. The way Graham told it was often beyond the reach of logic: It began in the Black Sea on a “black barren ghost of a rock, standing there like a dagger thrust into the sky”; it was there that a “gigantic monstrous eagle” deposited him for pickup by his mother. In actuality, Ivan Gratianovich Dombrowski was born in Kiev, Ukraine. He trained as a lawyer and attended the Nikolaev Cavalry Institute in Petrograd. Whether he served in the Russian Cavalry or as a foot guard to Czar Nicholas, as Graham claimed, is less certain.

Along with his second wife, Vera, Graham fled Russia for New York in 1920. Three years later, having worked a spate of odd jobs, he entered the Art Students League. (The school’s files indicate that he’d already begun calling himself “John Graham.”) He studied alongside Alexander Calder, Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman, and served as the monitor in a class taught by John Sloan. Before the end of the decade, he had established himself as a formidable connoisseur and a respected player in the New York art world. Along with Stuart Davis and Arshile Gorky—impressive company to keep—Graham became known as one of “The Three Musketeers.” Artists eagerly sought his counsel.

Indeed, it’s the express purpose of the current exhibition to locate a fixed place for Graham within the firmament of American art—not only as a painter, but as a catalyst for the New York School. Harry Rand, a curator at the National Museum of American History, declares in the catalog that “Graham redirected the course of American art.” Mr. Rand cites the artists who looked to Graham for advice and inspiration—Gorky, Willem de Kooning, David Smith and Dorothy Dehner among them—as well as an exhibition of French and American art that Graham organized for the McMillen Gallery in 1942. In it, paintings by Braque, Picasso and Matisse were placed side by side with those by Gorky, Pollock and Lee Krasner. Such a tack was, at the time, indicative of nothing so much as the curator’s chutzpah. For Graham, it was business as usual.

The irony is that Graham’s art ultimately proved at odds with the impulses that would define Abstract Expressionism. The paintings and drawings became increasingly idiosyncratic, their mix of Surrealist portent and Renaissance clarity ever more pronounced and contradictory, as Graham continued to set himself apart from the New York School, the -isms that followed in its wake, and ultimately Modernism itself. Does this make him a harbinger of postmodernism? Mr. Rand implies as much, but that misrepresents Graham’s brainy and peculiar vision. Postmodernism, after all, is distinguished by its contempt for art and history. For Graham, art was about promise, possibility and the deepest reaches of tradition. That it led him down some alleyways the rest of us might avoid should in no way dissuade us from the work’s wit, mastery and intrigue.

John Graham: Sum Qui Sum is at the Allan Stone Gallery, 113 East 90th Street, until Dec. 22.

He Was That He Was: A Place  For John Graham in Art’s Firmament