Still Life with Saw, 1925
John D. Graham
b. 1981, Kyiv, Ukraine
d. 1961, London, United Kingdom
John D. Graham was a Ukrainian-born artist, writer, and curator, often recognized as a major proponent in the development of American Postwar Modernism. Born Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowsky in Kiev, he served as a cavalry officer in the czar’s army during World War I. When the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, he fled to Poland, and in 1920 emigrated to the United States. Settling in New York, he anglicized his name and began his formal art training. From 1922–24, Graham studied at the Art Students League, working under artists such as John Sloan and Kenneth Hayes Miller. Throughout the 1920s Graham explored a variety of modern styles in his work, ranging from Post-Impressionism to Synthetic Cubism. In 1925, Graham briefly moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he met Duncan Phillips, a prominent collector of modern American art. Graham had his first solo exhibition at Phillips’ gallery in Washington, D.C. in 1929.
Beyond his own personal artistic output, Graham became a noted art critic and consequential figure in the shift in artistic focus from Europe to the United States. Graham traveled to Paris frequently, where he often exhibited his work at the Zobrowski Gallery and visited with the art collector Sergei Shchukin. Graham brought back a new, deep knowledge of modernism to his New York art circles, ultimately establishing himself as an emissary of contemporary European art, particularly that of surrealism. In 1937, he authored System and Dialectics in Art, a treatise on modernism and the avant-garde that employed the Socratic method to explore themes of the primitive subconscious. The book became influential among young artists such as Jackson Pollock and others who would work in Abstract Expressionism. Graham became an advocate for these young artists, curating a show at the McMillen Gallery in 1942 that combined the works of the great European modernists—Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse—with young unknown American expressionists, among them Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Lee Krasner. Graham also counted Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, David Smith, and Dorothy Dehner among his friends and admirers.
Always committed to reinvention, Graham eventually moved away from abstraction and sought out newfound inspiration in Old Masters such as Nicolas Poussin and Raphael. His paintings from the late 1940s onwards primarily depicted portraits and self-portraits inscribed with surface embellishments drawn from astrology, alchemy, and the occult. After several years of ill health, Graham died in 1961. Today, his work can be found in many public collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., among others.