John Graham was born Ivan Dambrowski in Kiev (then Czarist Russia, now Ukraine), in 1886. He made his way to New York via Paris in 1920, and matriculated at the Art Student’s League in 1922. There he befriended fellow classmates Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, Alexander Calder, and Elinor Gibson, while studying under the direction of John Sloan. Throughout his life and in death, Graham has been exhibited widely, with notable exhibitions including a retrospective organized by the Phillips Collection, John Graham: Artist as Avatar (1987-88), and a retrospective at Allan Stone Gallery, John Graham: Sum Qui Sum (2005). The artist’s works are found in numerous important collections, such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Yale University Art Gallery, and the Phillips Collection. Graham relocated to London in 1961 where he died.
John Graham’s development exemplifies the early-twentieth-century shift in artistic focus from Europe to the United States. During the 1930s while Regionalism and Social Realism reined in America, Graham’s expertise in Surrealism and Cubism canonized him for a new generation of American Modernists, including de Kooning, Gorky, David Smith and Franz Kline, among others. His book, Systems and Dialects of Art (1937), introduced the budding New York artists to the significance of the unconscious as a source of inspiration, and thus contributed to the earliest developments of Abstract Expressionism.1 In 1942, he organized a show for the McMillen Gallery that featured works by Stuart Davis, David Burliuk, de Kooning, Krasner, Pollock, and himself across from works by Picasso, Braque, and Matisse.
Graham rarely painted in any one style, choosing rather to let his intuitive impulses guide him from one theme to another. He studied mysticism and closely followed Freudian and Jungian psychology as they developed. Synthesizes a variety of influences, Graham’s works rarely fit into categorical constraints, instead they toy with diverse elements of Cubism, Surrealism, Tribal art, and exotic alphabets. The spectrum of cultural references in his work sheds light on Graham’s mystic tendencies, and gives ground for Eleanor Green’s characterization of Graham as an “avatar."2
1 Fingesten, Peter, “The Fascinating John Graham.” ArtSpeak Vol. III, No. 9, November 12, 1981.
2 Green, Eleanor, and John Graham. John Graham Artist and Avatar. Washington, D.C.: Phillips Collection, 1987.