If measured as a flame to kindling, John D. Graham (aka Ivan Gratianovich Dombrowski, aka Jan Dabrowski, aka John Dabrowski) was arguably the most consequential figure in 20th-century American art. He was also among the most enigmatic and multifaceted: artist, writer, lecturer, self-styled theorist, collector, advisor, curator, impresario, and lifeline from the hotbeds of European avant-garde art to the burgeoning modernist scene in the U.S.
In the catalogue for the traveling exhibition American Vanguards: Graham, Davis, Gorky, de Kooning, and Their Circle, 1927-1942 (2012), the curator and historian Karen Wilkin describes Graham’s role in the embryonic New York art world as “the crucial link in a chain of friendships, the source of vital information, the catalyst in a significant development, the provider of useful advice, the instigator of new connections in an ever-enlarging web of artist-colleagues.”
Graham’s family, members of the Polish aristocracy, came from Warsaw, but he was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1886, where his father was studying law. Before the 1917 Russian Revolution, Graham, who had followed his father’s footsteps into law, spent considerable time in Moscow, where he became acquainted with the likes of Vladimir Tatlin, El Lissitzky, Natalia Goncharova, and Naum Gabo, and hung out in the home of the legendary collector Sergei Shchukin, intoxicated by the masterworks of Matisse, van Gogh, Gauguin, Bonnard, and a young upstart named Pablo Picasso.
When the Revolution finally broke out, Graham fought in the czar’s cavalry and was briefly thrown in jail by the Bolsheviks. He made his way to New York in 1920, and two years later, at the age of 35, enrolled in the Art Students League, where he studied with the Ash Can School painter John Sloan. Among his classmates at the League were Alexander Calder and Adolph Gottlieb; later he became friends with David Smith and introduced him to the sculpture of Julio González, which inspired Smith to turn from painting to welded metal.
His most important connections, however, were with the unlikely duo of Stuart Davis, born in Philadelphia and raised in New Jersey, and the Armenian refugee Arshile Gorky. Graham, Davis, and Gorky became so inseparable that another émigré, Willem de Kooning, dubbed them the Three Musketeers, and soon joined them as the Fourth.
According to Wilkin, “Graham seems to have had an instinct for bringing together artists with significant common ground,” and feeding them, as he did with David Smith, exactly the information they needed about trends in European modernism. The most crucial evidence of his ability to bring artists together was the show he organized for the walls of a decorating firm, McMillen, Inc., which also held exhibitions.
The show was called French and American Paintings, and included Graham, Davis, and de Kooning alongside Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Modigliani, de Chirico, Rouault, and other luminaries of the School of Paris. Two young, unknown Americans were also invited to participate, Lenore Krassner, who later shortened her name to Lee Krasner, and Jackson Pollock (and for this reason, de Kooning always credited Graham with discovering Pollock). French and American Paintings also prompted Krasner to look up Pollock and introduce herself.
Graham the painter is often lost in Graham the rainmaker, a situation that isn’t helped by the essential strangeness of his art, which is best known for portraits of cross-eyed women with wildly ballooning hairdos.
One of these pictures, “Kali Yuga” (c.1952), has surfaced at the Whitney Museum of American Art as part of the enormous exhibition Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection. It hangs in a roomful of images under the rubric “Cracked Mirror,” which refers to portraits done during World War II and its aftermath. These works, according to the wall text, combine “figurative imagery with restless brushwork, distorted forms, and flattened color […] exuding a sense of anxiety, foreboding, and raw intensity.”
Among the paintings in the room is Arshile Gorky’s haunting “The Artist and His Mother” (1926-c.1936); Willem de Kooning’s “Woman and Bicycle” (1952-53) is around the corner, and the explosive Stuart Davis retrospective is two floors below, creating a perfect, if abbreviated, constellation to consider Graham’s painting in context.
For the Four Musketeers, Picasso was by far the dominant influence. Davis had caught the Cubist bug even before he left New York in 1938 to spend 13 months in Paris, and never let go. Gorky went through a succession of Cezannian and Picassoid styles as part of his famously long apprenticeship. The simplified features of “The Artist and His Mother” were derived from Picasso’s post-World War I Neoclassical style, as were de Kooning’s figurative works of the late 1930s.
Graham’s reverence for Picasso was expressed through a series of middling, quasi-Cubist paintings of still lifes and other subjects, but by the late 1940s he had gone rogue and denounced his former idol as a charlatan, even as he was siphoning off the streamlined curvaceousness of Picasso’s Neoclassicism for his own explorations of the figure.
But Graham would have viewed his actions as returning to the source, which in this case would be Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665). In 1941, as William C. Agee writes in his contribution to the American Vanguards catalogue, Graham “spent considerable time studying Poussin’s The Triumph of Bacchus [1635-36], then at the Durlacher Brothers Gallery in New York. […] This Poussin is hardly a model of French Rationalism, but in it Graham would have found the energy and drive to replace the force of Picasso, with whom he had become increasingly disillusioned.”
In this decidedly atypical painting by the 17th-century French master, replete with an abundance of nudity, an erupting Vesuvius, and centaurs rearing up on their hind legs, Graham discerned the presence of “primitive internal forces, seemingly called up from the unconscious” — forces that he “was increasingly referring to as the source of art.” This account is of a piece with Graham’s later mysticism and studies in the occult.
It’s intriguing to consider the paradoxes that fueled Graham’s imagination — Poussin, the paragon of Classicism, tossing his famously balanced principles of composition out the window in order to properly address his subject matter, the god of drunkenness and the irrational. And it makes you wonder whether Poussin’s decision to undertake a “Triumph of Bacchus” in the first place, and to interpret it so merrily (there seems to be no downside to the Dionysian revels, other than the cosmic revenge suggested by the smoking volcano) constitutes an admission of doubt that calls into question the philosophical purpose of his rationalist enterprise.
Graham’s painting at the Whitney is called “Kali Yuga,” which Wikipedia says is “the last of the four stages the world goes through as part of the cycle of yugas described in the Sanskrit scriptures […] The ‘Kali’ of Kali Yuga means ‘strife’, ‘discord’, ‘quarrel’ or ‘contention,'” a definition that seems to jibe with the mood among artists of the postwar period.
The stark, hard-edged forms of the woman’s face, neck, and breast are set against a black backdrop broken only by a few firefly-like buds of glowing light. Her hair, rendered as flat, loopy, Elizabeth-Murray-esque shapes, is all but lost in the black field, demarcated only by a faint, white line.
Graham’s habitual conflation of painting and drawing reaches an unusual degree of refinement here: you wouldn’t know it unless you read the wall label that the painting was done on cardboard, or that he seems to have attacked it with whatever he had on hand — oil, casein, chalk, ballpoint pen, and graphite pencil.
The linear elements and scooped-out spaces on either side of the nose activate an otherwise tranquil arrangement of forms, but the real disruption is supplied by the eyes, which, as typical of Graham’s work, point in different directions, with one straight ahead and the other up and off to the side.
As John Yau wrote in these pages a few weeks ago in his review of Margot Bergman’s equally idiosyncratic paintings of women at the Anton Kern Gallery, “It is wrong to think of Graham’s portraits as the bizarre curiosities of a lesser painter (as one writer has mistakenly characterized him), unless you really believe in hierarchical thinking and status tracking.”
For one, Graham’s picture outshines virtually every other one in the room (with Gorky’s among the exceptions). Its magnetism belies the comic weirdness of the eyes, accentuating the image’s mythical backstory and its melding of the Apollonian and Dionysian, which Graham gleaned from Poussin’s “Bacchus.”
The painting raises questions without leaving room for answers. It is the rough harnessing of opposites — much like, as Irving Sandler notes in the same catalogue, de Kooning’s desire to paint like Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Chaim Soutine at the same time — into a classicized form that subsumes the latter’s overt expressionism. The only outward hint of inner conflict is the wayward direction of the eyes, which implies both omniscience and blindness.
If the final stage of Graham’s sweeping artistic project, which involved nothing less than shaping the contours of American modernism, was to strip painting down to the “primitive internal forces” that he viewed “as the source of art,” then we should look at his images in those terms. They may still not yield any answers, but we would be asking the right questions.
Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan) through February 12, 2017.