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 John D. Graham  (1881 - 1961)

About: John D. Graham
 

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Lived/Active: New York / France/Russian Federation      Known for: mod female portrait, figure, and landscape painting

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BIOGRAPHY for John Graham
Facts/Data
Birth
1881 (Kiev, Russia)
 
Death
1961 (London, England)

Lived/Active
New York / France/Russian Federation


Self portrait - Untitled (self-portrait)


Often Known For
mod female portrait, figure, and landscape painting

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Painters of Nudes
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
John D. Graham was a figure of immense influence in the early years of American modernism, both as an artist and as a connoisseur.  He is credited as a major influence in the formation of Abstract Expressionism and in his work alternated between Abstraction and Realism, with one of his subjects being portrait busts of cross-eyed women.

Graham was born in Kiev on January 8, 1881 (or 1886 or 1887) with the name of Ivan Gratianovich Dombrovski.  He fought in the Russian Revolution on the side of the Czar, was imprisoned, but escaped to Poland.  He is thought to have arrived in New York City in about 1920.  Once in New York, he hid himself behind a curtain of fact and myth.

In 1923 Graham was enrolled at the Art Students League, working briefly as an assistant to John Sloan.  There is little concrete information that Graham had any previous art experience. I n 1925 he participated in the "Tenth Whitney Annual Exhibition".  That year he moved to Baltimore with the painter Elinor Gibson, the first of his two American wives.  Before moving to the United States, he also had been twice married in Russia.

In Baltimore, he became associated with the renowned collector Duncan Phillips, who gave Graham his first one-person museum exhibition in 1929.  Phillips described Grahams bearing, with his air of Russian émigré officer of noble descent, his classical education and commitment to art, as an "ambition for martyrdom", one which gave him an aura of Old World mystery and romance.  He became an American citizen in 1927, although he lived and worked in both New York and Paris, becoming a catalyst in the transmittal of European modernism to America.  He counted among his friends such names as Stuart Davis, Dorothy Dehner, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, David Smith, Katherine Dreier, Willem de Kooning, and, in later years, Jackson Pollock.

Interested in African art, and very knowledgeable about European art, Graham is known to have influenced many American counterparts.  He and his writing in the book, System and Dialectics of Art (1937) are thought to have greatly advanced the development of Abstract Expressionism.  Graham believed that the subconscious mind contained distant past images and that through art, access to these memories could be gained.  One of his more noteworthy paintings is Palermo, Landscape and Houses (1928, oil on canvas), a static scene, somewhat resembling a stage set, that hovers somewhere between landscape and abstraction.

Late in his life he was financially secure, but isolated from the art world because of his highly personal style.  He spent many hours doing meditation and yoga, and corresponding with women friends, who included Ultra Violet, Andy Warhol's movie star, as well as the artist Francoise Gilot, friend of Pablo Picasso.  His final works were similar to those of the Renaissance Old Masters.

His art can be seen in several public collections at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh and The Phillips Collection of Washington, D.C.

Graham died in 1961 in London, England.


Sources include:
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art

Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries (Artists, E-O):

John Graham (1886-1961)

The story of twentieth-century American art, particularly the emergence of the New York School, holds a special place for artist and art-world impresario John D. Graham. An eccentric of aristocratic bearing, he cloaked many of the details of his early life in colorful mythology of his own creation, but we know that he was born Ivan Gratianovich Dombrovski in Kiev. He served as a cavalry officer in the czar’s army during World War One, escaped to Poland, and later France, when the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, and arrived in New York in 1920, where he anglicized his name. In the early 1920s Graham received what is believed to be his first formal art training at the Art Students League, where he briefly assisted Ashcan School painter John Sloan.

As his early career unfolded throughout the 1920s, Graham explored a variety of styles. His work in this decade ranges from energetic, expressive post-Impressionist still lifes to restrained, monochromatic studies inspired by Picasso. In 1925 Graham settled in Baltimore for a few years with his third wife, artist Elinor Gibson. In Baltimore, he became acquainted with collector Duncan Phillips, who gave Graham his first solo exhibition at his Washington, D.C., gallery in 1929.

Graham maintained his ties to Europe with frequent travel to Paris. By the 1930s, Graham had gained notoriety in New York art world circles as an emissary of European modernism, particularly surrealism. At the same time, exhibitions of his work at the Zborowski Gallery in Paris enhanced his credibility and helped advance his artistic career in the United States. In addition to painting, Graham established himself as an art connoisseur and collector. Perhaps most significantly, he helped Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield build his famed collection of African art, purchasing many pieces for him in Paris.

In 1937 Graham authored an influential Socratic dialogue entitled System and Dialectics in Art. Graham’s book, which expressed his preoccupation with symbolism and outward manifestations of a primitive subconscious, attracted the attention and admiration of Jackson Pollock and other artists who would soon be associated with Abstract Expressionism. Although Graham himself had already moved away from abstraction, never to return to it, he was close to Pollock (whom he introduced to Lee Krasner), Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, David Smith, Willem de Kooning, among many others. Graham’s influence as an opinion-maker and passionate advocate for avant-garde art peaked in 1942. In that year Graham curated a noteworthy group show at the McMillen Gallery that placed work by Pollock (it was his first New York exhibition), de Kooning, and Krasner alongside work by Picasso and Matisse.

By the early 1940s, Graham had turned primarily to portraiture and self-portraiture, developing an idiosyncratic and allusive late style more connected to Old Masters like Poussin and Raphael than to the Abstract Expressionists he counted among his friends. Graham’s late paintings are characterized by the crossed eyes and flat presentation of the figures and by symbolic surface embellishments drawn from astrology, alchemy, and the occult.

Graham died in London in 1961 after several restless years of travel and ill health. Today, his work can be found in numerous public collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.


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