WATER MILL, New York — Last August, I wrote a piece about “Kali Yuga” (c.1952), a painting in oil, casein, chalk, ballpoint pen, and graphite pencil on cardboard by John D. Graham. It was hanging at the Whitney Museum of American Art as part of the yearlong exhibition, Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection, in a section called “Cracked Mirror,” which featured portraiture from the years before, during and immediately after World War II.
But I had not intended to write about that painting. I was initially struck by a very strange Magic Realist work in oil on wood from 1950 by John Wilde, an artist I didn’t know. Titled “Work Reconsidered #1,” it was a portrait of the artist’s wife Helen, in which she sits sideways to the viewer, nude, her elbow resting on a starched tablecloth and her index finger pointing straight up at a floating, creased sheet of paper with “OBJECTA e. dv.” calligraphed in Roman script. Her eyes, in three-quarter profile, directly address the viewer. Her enormous mass of hair is adorned with strings of pearls, and butterflies have alighted on her skin.
At first the curious imagery, coupled with the potential for a fresh discovery, held my attention, but after a while its labored technique and throwback motifs began to wear thin, and I found myself increasingly glancing to my right, where, on the other side of a realist rendering of a skeleton (“The Shadow,” 1950, by Stephen Greene), “Kali Yuga” hung.
In the unsettled time when these paintings were made, the art world was sharply divided, with a few exceptions, between artists espousing experimentation and abstraction and those who rejected them in favor of tried-and-true methods and iconography. Jackson Pollock was already several years into his drip paintings, and Willem de Kooning was about to incite the wrath of the critical mob for returning to the figure with “Woman I” (1950-1952). Greene eventually converted in his late 30s to abstraction, but Wilde remained true to a meticulous, image-based surrealism.
Of the three, Graham looked like the odd man out. A Polish immigrant via Kiev and Moscow (born Ivan Gratianovich Dombrowski in 1886), and a former lawyer, cavalry officer, and, briefly, prisoner of the Bolsheviks, he was a master of reinvention and — crucially for his future associations with forward-thinking painters — a frequent visitor to the Russian businessman Sergei Shchukin and his unsurpassable collection of the School of Paris. It was this deep immersion in European Modernism, supplemented by trips to Paris, that became Graham’s calling card to his new American friends.
As I asserted in my earlier piece, there was arguably no one more consequential than Graham to the development of American Postwar Modernism, making his mark as an “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 was a staunch friend and ally of Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, and David Smith. In 1942 he organized French and American Paintings, a landmark exhibition in which he included himself, Davis, and de Kooning, along with Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Amedeo Modigliani, Giorgio de Chirico, and Georges Rouault. The show also led to the fateful meeting between two of its lesser-known participants, Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock.
Unlike Fairfield Porter, a writer and artist who formed friendships with the avant-gardists of his day but practiced a genteel painterly realism himself, Gorky continually pushed his own work into the crosscurrents of Modernism until his moment of disillusionment.
The exhibition John Graham: Maverick Modernist at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, Long Island, is a unique opportunity to explore the work of an artist who has hovered on the margins of the Modernist narrative for more than a half-century, when he isn’t forgotten altogether.
Organized by Alicia G. Longwell, who wrote her dissertation on Graham, and guest co-curator Karen Wilkin — who was responsible, along with William C. Agee and Irving Sandler, for the above-cited American Vanguards exhibition — Maverick Modernist takes a deep dive into Graham’s background as an artist, a career he began in earnest when, at the age of 35, he enrolled in the class of the Ashcan School painter John Sloan at the Art Students League in New York City.
Despite the lessons Graham gleaned from his teacher, and the respect he held for him, Sloan represented the past, while an artist like Davis heralded the future. And so Graham pushed his art in the direction of American Cubism, though at a time — the early to mid-1920s — when its Parisian originators had abandoned it for a clunky Neoclassicism as part of the “return to order” following the devastation of World War I.
The paintings that Graham produced during the 1920s seesawed between Synthetic Cubism and unvarnished Neoclassicism, with a touch of Surrealist whimsy thrown in. Peppered by influences, with Picasso’s long shadow never very far away, he had entered into a lengthy apprenticeship comparable to Gorky’s devotion to Cézanne and Picasso, which ended in a similarly startling late-in-life breakthrough.
A canvas such as “Coffee Cup” (1928), is all earth tones and off-whites, with bluntly volumetric forms reminiscent of the back-to-basics Valori plastici group active in Italy at around the same time, as are a set of nudes painted the same year. But there is also a pastel-colored, Metaphysical-style “Interior” (ca.1928), à la de Chrico, that flaunts its deep perspectival space. A fanciful village-and-seascape, “Palermo” (1928), could have been painted by Maurice Utrillo.
While some of his textural, white-on-white Cubist paintings from the following year are quite strong (“Still Life with Pipe” and “Peinture,” both 1929, and “Nature Morte,” 1929-1930), they barely deviate from Picasso’s style. As he enters the 1930s, Graham’s artistic output becomes, if anything, more transitional, with works like the solidly geometric abstraction “Red Square” (1934) — which is actually a red trapezoid — standing in direct opposition to an untitled, outsized Neoclassical head of Anni Albers from 1939. (The pairing of these two images on the same double-page spread in the catalogue seems like an inside joke about Albers’s husband, Josef, who would begin his famous Homage to the Square series ten years after Graham painted Anni’s portrait.)
During this time, in 1937, Graham published his book, Systems and Dialectics in Art, which would become an enormous influence on Pollock. In his catalogue essay for the current exhibition, William C. Agee notes, “Graham espoused the importance of delving into the unconscious, through a personal écriture.” The psychodynamics of the Abstract Expressionists pivoted on that idea, which is also linked to Graham’s eventual change of heart about contemporary painting.
That change took him in an unexpected, some would say reactionary direction, but its origin in the expression of the unconscious through “a personal écriture,” or handwriting, is what makes his late figurative paintings — with their cross-eyed women and flat, frontal, compositions — so fundamentally different from those of a Magic Realist like John Wilde.
In 1946 — just four years after he organized French and American Paintings — Graham wrote an unpublished text (characterized as a “diatribe” by Wilkin in her catalogue essay) entitled “The Case of Mr. Picasso.” Having already denounced, in his personal letters, the painter widely considered the king of 20th-century art (“charlatan” was his epithet of choice), Graham (again, from Wilkin’s essay) “expanded on his objections, castigating artists for emphasizing […] formal concerns: ‘Young painters, nowadays, are wont to talk about pure form, plastic values, plane-tension, texture, space, design and whatnot. These things are merely means and not aims in themselves.’”
In this passage, Graham comes off not so much as anti-Modernist as anti-Formalist, which makes him, perhaps, the first fully formed Postmodernist. Digging deeply into his own psyche, he was able to cast off the pastiche of styles that had been crowding his mind’s eye, and follow his own peculiar path.
Graham called Nicolas Poussin his teacher; Wilkin also mentions the influence of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, the figure paintings of Gorky and de Kooning, and the frescoes of Minoan Crete, while Agee cites the Italian Mannerist Bronzino and the Neue Sachlichkeit painter Christian Schad.
It’s interesting that Agee brings up not only Schad, but also the German artist’s influence on the “all but forgotten” American movement of Magic Realism, calling it “a distant relative of the New Classicism, which had begun with Picasso’s 1914 The Painter and His Model,” a work that is partially painted and partially drawn. To compare Graham’s realism to Schad’s New Objectivity or Wilde’s Magic Realism is to affirm how unrealistic it actually is.
Both styles, however different (Schad was an exquisite chronicler of Weimar decadence, while Wilde went after dreamlike, virtuosic mimesis and superficial shocks), were based in an optical examination of the real world, while Graham’s work is undeniably a mental projection. You can sense him feeling out the forms as he made them, their tumid sensuality feeding off his immersive eroticism. (Wilkin adds parenthetically, “Graham explained the crossed eyes to an acquaintance as documenting his observations of women at peak sexual ecstasy.”)
The first mature figurative works encountered in the exhibition are drawings hung across one side of a corridor dividing the rooms holding Graham’s early, scattershot experiments from a long, grand gallery displaying the more consistent and polished later paintings.
In this informal space, the notion of the paper’s surface as a theater of ideas (abetted by vitrines filled with scribbled-over sketchbooks) comes through more clearly than it would if the drawings were sidelined as minor works in a painting gallery — especially the wildly complex “Donna Losca” (ca.1959), whose crossed eyes look more poignant and contemplative than comic.
Amid bits of collage and snippets of writing, phallic widgets tumble around her shoulders and bodice; a miniature sword protrudes from her mouth; long pins pierce her temple and forehead; and a short laceration splits the skin at the base of her neck.
Evidence of a sadistic streak reappears here and there throughout the exhibition: another neck incision is found in the watercolor, gouache, and ink drawing, “The Flail of the Lord” (ca.1950), and the Renaissance-style “Stallion” (ca.1951), in ballpoint pen, colored pencil, and crayon on tracing paper, has been shot with three arrows through the side and rump. In the large (four by four feet) oil on masonite painting, “Marya (Donna Ferita; Pensive Lady)” (1944), one of the masterworks in the show, the wound (of the “donna ferita” — “wounded woman”) is a red gash across her right wrist.
A wall text explains that Graham’s work after 1944 “drew heavily on such sources as the occult, bloody Christian martyrdom, and the realms of numerology and astrology.” It also states that the artist’s disavowal of Picasso “was in no way a rejection of avant-garde principles but a desire to establish another way of making modern art.”
Graham’s “another way of making modern art” was not a step backward, but a step inward — essentially the same route taken by the Abstract Expressionists, but toward a much different end. His psychosexual compulsion, sublimated in his paintings more than in his drawings, lead him to make off-the-wall images scattered with even stranger details that are convincing despite their seeming randomness; we identify with his dark need to destroy the very order he’s creating.
How else to explain our ease in accepting the bloody gash on the wrist of an otherwise classically serene portrait, or the black raccoon-eyes mask worn by the sitter in “Mascara” (1950)? Or the pronounced sexual undercurrent running through the double-portrait, “Two Sisters” (1944), from the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, with its wickedly crossed eyes, bared breasts, and juiced-up color a blush shy of garish?
“Kali Yuga,” with her outlandishly loopy hairdo, is here as well, on loan from the Whitney. Away from its previous context, in the company of its peers, what made this painting distinct from Wilde’s and Greene’s — a picture plane that acts not as an invisible fourth wall but as a solid arena of vibrant forms — infuses the late portraits with an unruly sense of life. They are not ensconced inside a painterly illusion, but encroach into your reality through the force of their lurid magnetism.
In these works, which aggressively foreground the materiality of paint as much as those of his abstract counterparts (and it’s telling that they were done on such resistant supports as Masonite and composition board, rather than flexible, absorbent canvas), Graham followed Ezra Pound’s Modernist maxim to “make it new” by stripping his art down to the fundamentals of line, color, and shape, and freeing his hand to be guided by intimate obsessions.
Rejecting what he viewed as the dead end of abstraction along with the trickery of pictorial artifice — and conversely, accepting pigment and surface as painting’s only reality — Graham opened his work up to a personal, often bizarre realm that, through his mastery of “pure form, plastic values, plane-tension, texture, space, design and whatnot,” remains riveting in its beauty and presence, while other equally imaginative but less rigorously interrogated visions fade into irrelevance.
John Graham: Maverick Modernist continues at the Parrish Art Museum (279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill, New York) through July 30.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.