PRINT October 1968

John D. Graham

JOHN D. GRAHAM’S NAME comes up whenever the origins of Abstract Expressionism are discussed, but his role in its development has remained shadowy. His stature as an artist is just as obscure at this time; however, the current show at the Museum of Modern Art, small though it is, may prompt an overdue rehabilitation.1 Although I believe that Graham’s painting has yet to receive the critical attention it deserves, I will refer to it only in passing, focusing instead on his contribution as an esthetician and connoisseur in the 1930s.

During that decade, vanguard artists organized themselves into groups such as the American Abstract Artists and The Ten. A number, including Graham, Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning and, to a lesser degree, David Smith (who did not get along with Gorky but saw Graham frequently), also constituted a group but in the loosest sense of that word. They met at each other’s homes and studios and in various Greenwich Village hangouts, casually, although often enough to keep track of each other’s thinking. There was no leader; Davis was the best known, but Graham was the greater intellectual force. His status was enhanced by his variegated activities as painter, connoisseur, polemicist, cosmopolite and dandy.2 An ex-officer in the Tsarist cavalry and counter-revolutionary who escaped to America in 1920 after the Bolsheviks took power, he later turned pro-Soviet (during the time when Communism was in vogue among intellectuals), while remaining an aristocrat. Thomas Hess wrote that “Graham kept the pictures of three Nicholases by his bedside: an icon of the saint, a picture of his tsar and the third of Lenin.”3 Graham made frequent trips to Paris and gained a reputation there as a painter, exhibiting at the Zborowski Gallery in 1928 and 1929; Waldemar George wrote a monograph about his work, and André Salmon, a eulogistic catalog introduction. His shows abroad and the critical coverage they received helped impress his friends in New York. Here, he became well known as an artist (he was given shows at Duncan Phillips’ Gallery, Washington, D. C., in 1929, and at the Dudensing Gallery, New York, in 1929, 1930 and 1931) and as a connoisseur (he selected the Frank Crowninshield collection of African art). He also trusted his sharp eye in matters of contemporary art. He not only lionized Picasso, hailing him as “the greatest painter of the past, present and future,” but by 1937 had singled out for acclaim Milton Avery, Davis, Gorky, de Kooning, Edgar Levy, Jan Matulka, Boardman Robinson, David Smith and Max Weber.4 “Some are just as good and some are better than the leading artists of the same generation in Europe.” Later (by 1941), he was the first to recognize the quality of Pollock’s painting.

In 1937, Graham published a book on esthetics, titled System and Dialectics of Art, which was widely read by vanguard artists. Based on a Socratic method of question and answer, this small volume is chaotically organized, contradictory, repetitive and poorly written in Russianized English, yet it is full of brilliant and provocative insights, which can be taken to represent much of what was on his and his friends’ minds, particularly Gorky’s and de Kooning’s. (There was too much give and take in the formulation of ideas to determine who said what first.) Graham defined art as “a creative process of abstracting.” He believed that art should reveal the essence of things, and therefore should be abstracted from nature—figurative like Picasso’s. However, this revelation could not be achieved through copying visual reality but only through “the evaluation of form, perfectly understood,” the creation of perfect, self-sufficient compositions of flat forms. To Graham, such painting was radical: “Revolution is the repudiation of traditional forms outgrown. Revolution is the change of methods and not of the subject matter. The change of methods means the change of forms.” He added that a change of subject matter could not be radical, for “if nothing else, it is too easy.”

Accordingly, Graham castigated the Social Realists who were preoccupied with “communicating” political slogans and not with radical esthetic values. “Give the masses good art and do not worry about the masses understanding it. Even if the masses do not understand modern art it is no excuse for giving them bad art . . . To say that Picasso’s art is only for the esthete is just as much as to say that Karl Marx’s writings are only for college professors.” Around the same time, Gorky also condemned propagandistic illustrations as “a poor art for poor people.”5 Despite his reservations concerning non-figurative art, Graham esteemed Neo-Plasticism for its “attempt to find formal bases for a new plastic art, a new classicism . . . Mondrian had the vision and the heart to start anew.” This attitude brought Graham close to the members of the American Abstract Artists, the leading organization of vanguard artists in the thirties, most of whom worked in geometric styles. (However, neither he nor Gorky nor de Kooning joined the group.)6

Graham’s insistence that all meaning in art had to be expressed “in terms of pure form” led him to maintain that. “The aim of painting, as of any pure art, is to exploit its legitimate assets which are limitless without encroaching upon the domain of the other arts. Thus painting that resorts to literature, sculpture, etc., to improve itself is a decadent art.” The attitude of Hans Hofmann, the most influential art teacher of the period, was similar; in 1931, he had written: “The difference between the arts arises because of the difference in the nature of the mediums of expression . . . Each means of expression has its own order of being . . . The key to understanding lies in the appreciation of the limitations, qualities and possibilities [of each].”7 These statements anticipated Clement Greenberg’s basic esthetic premise which he stated in his first major article on art in 1940: “Purity in art consists in the acceptance, willing acceptance, of the limitations of the medium of the specific art.”8

Graham’s thinking was close to Hofmann’s in other ways, the one point of view reinforcing the other in the minds of young artists. (The two men had known each other in Europe and maintained contact in America.) Both believed in using nature as a point of departure, translating solids and voids into planes, all of which had to be positive in the painting, and organizing the planes into entities. As Graham wrote: “Art is concerned primarily and finally with the . . . organic whole of a work of art and consequently [with] building it into a unit with particulars subjugated and tolerated only in so far as they contribute inevitably to the structure of the whole.” Graham considered drawing more essential than color, as did Hofmann, whose teaching during the 1930s was largely based on Cubist design. According to Graham, “Color is an attribute of form and acquires significance only after it occupies a definite portion of space.” This was the approach of Gorky; he would more or less fix the design first and then concern himself with color.9 The emphasis on drawing by Graham and Gorky as well as de Kooning is indicated by the fact that they admired above all the great draftsmen in the history of art: Uccello, Ingres, Picasso.

The material flatness of the picture plane was so important to Graham that he disparaged the Renaissance as “the period of the greatest decadence in art” (although that did not prevent him from adulating Uccello and other old masters). Painting at its highest and most difficult had to be “planimetric,” which, as he defined it, “is essentially a two-dimensional painting. It can be three-dimensional in so far as detail modeling is concerned but remains within the plane neither protruding nor receding. This is achieved by a planimetric arrangement of limbs of the figure, by articulating them in the direction of the design, so to say, woven in. Ondulation [sic] within the operating plane means that the shoulders, arms, legs are thrust and aligned so as not to disturb by their ondulation [sic] the whole flatness of the plane.” This is the best summary of one method of Graham, Gorky and de Kooning, many of whose pictures in the thirties bear marked affinities, and it shaped the two younger artists’ subsequent organic abstractions.

American modernists in the 1930s generally esteemed Picasso as the most formidable genius alive, but none were as panegyrical as Graham. He believed that all painting that postdated Picasso’s bore his imprint. Pictures that did not openly reveal that debt were either dishonest or unintelligent. His veneration of the Cubist pioneer raised troublesome questions, because he did prize uniqueness (“rarity”) and surprise (produced by “the injection into the world of a new idea”). However, if, as Graham insisted, Picasso “has painted everything and better [than anyone else], he has exhausted all pictorial sources,” what then could an artist do but copy the omnipotent master? This was Gorky’s problem in the thirties, but it was not his (and Graham’s) alone. Most of the American Abstract Artists did not place too much value on originality either, for their problem was to catch up with abstract art in Paris. Their attitude was summed up in 1939 by George L. K. Morris, a spokesman for the organization: “It is in no way unnatural that any large group of artists oriented toward an internal expression should continue in the direction of others whom they have admired. The average conception of ‘originality’ usually denotes little that is important or profound . . . The greatest art . . . is frequently derivative . . . Intelligent derivation is to be recommended.”10

Graham’s rejection of originality paralleled the Neo-Plasticists’, but with a difference. Mondrian was optimistic; art as a special calling would wither away in a brave new world where art and life would become one. Graham was despairing; art had to decline, for once anything reaches perfection, it naturally decays. Even Picasso’s point of view was already a thing of the past. As a romanticist, he was no longer “modern”—as was Mondrian. “Picasso signifies the end of the old hand-made world . . . the romantic individualism, the welt-schmerz, the melancholy of isolation. Vulgarly speaking—time marches on and the machine age and consequently the collective age is asserting itself from the two opposite ends of the globe . . . The collective world (the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. to wit) has no place for morbidity, which was the source of inspiration of the old art.” Nothing could stop the course of history; the “easel painting for private patronage is dead.” Greenberg was later to make a similar prediction. In the forties, Graham himself as well as his friends would reject his determinism and refute his prophecy. In the sixties, it may be fulfilled.

Graham anticipated the sensibility of the present decade in other ways. Around 1929, he founded a movement called Minimalism, which as David Burliuk wrote in an introductory statement to his friend’s show that year, “derives its name from the minimum of operating means . . . Painting is a mathematical problem, according to Graham (also see Einstein’s latest discoveries), and can be considered as a rigorous combination or arrangement, space, color and texture organization functioning together. For a given problem, like in a shooting gallery, there is only one perfect solution. Minimalist painting is purely realistic—the subject being the painting itself.”11

Graham was sympathetic to Jung and Freud. He maintained that artists had to “re-establish a lost contact with the unconscious (actively by producing works of art and passively by contemplating works of art), with the primordial racial past and to keep and develop this contact in order to bring to the conscious mind the throbbing events of the unconscious mind.” Graham, who joined The Ten in 1939, probably helped direct the attention of Rothko and Gottlieb, two of the group’s founders, to Jung’s theories, and to reinforce their earlier interest in primitive art. In the early forties, Gottlieb and Rothko began to paint pictures whose themes, they said, were concerned with primitive myths and symbols that continue to have meaning today.12

Graham’s influence in this direction was probably strongest on Pollock. Most acquaintances of both men have recalled that Pollock at some point during the late thirties read Graham’s article, titled “Primitive Art and Picasso,” which appeared in the Magazine of Art, April, 1937, and was so impressed by it that he searched out the author.13 The essay anticipates to a degree Pollock’s subsequent artistic evolution. Graham wrote of two basic traditions in art: the “Greco-African” and the “Perso-Indo-Chinese.” “The Greco-African culture is based on geometric design; it is centripetal and synthetic in principle . . . ”The Perso-Indo-Chinese heritage “is based upon florid design; it is analytic and centrifugal in principle . . . In modern times we can trace the two different approaches in the work of various painters. The Perso-Indo-Chinese tradition has influenced the Impressionists; its florid design and its yellow and green color schemes are found in the paintings of van Gogh, Renoir, Kandinsky, Soutine, Chagal [sic]; the Greco-African is exemplified by Ingres, Picasso, Mondrian.” Pollock evidently felt closer to the Perso-Indo-Chinese tradition, as indicated by his form and facture, and often by his color; yellows or greens dominate in such pictures as Eyes in the Heat, 1946, and Full Fathom Five, 1947. But in the great “classic” drip paintings, 1949–1951, he favored black, brown and red, considered by Graham the Greco-African palette.

There is some likelihood that Graham’s essay (and conversation) influenced Pollock’s choice of color and design, but the connection of the one to the other must not be overstressed. Pollock’s evolution as an artist was far too complex for any simplistic speculation. Still, his outlook was surely affected by the following passage in the 1937 article:

Primitive races and primitive genius have readier access to their unconscious mind than so-called civilized people. It should be understood that the unconscious mind is the creative factor and the source and the storehouse of power and all knowledge, past and future . . . Most people lose access to their unconscious at about the age of seven . . . This closure is temporarily relaxed by such expedients as danger or nervous strain, alcohol, insanity and inspiration. Among primitive people, children and geniuses this free access to the power of the unconscious still exists in a greater or lesser degree . . . The pre-Archaic Greeks with their painted warriors and maidens with duck-like heads, the Maori’s green jade Tiki in the form of the human foetus, the Eskimo and the North American Indian masks with features shifted around or multiplied, and the Tlingit, Kwakiutl and Haida carvings in ivory and wood of human beings and animals, these all satisfied their particular totemism and exteriorized their prohibitions (taboos) in order to understand them better and consequently to deal with them successfully. Therefore the art of primitive races has a highly evocative quality which allows it to bring to our consciousness the clarities of the unconscious mind, stored with all the individual and collective wisdom of past generations and forms. In other words, an evocative art is the means and the result of getting in touch with the powers of our unconscious. It stimulates us to move and act along the intuitional line in our life procedure. Two formative factors apply to primitive art: first, the degree of freedom of access to one’s unconscious mind in regard to observed phenomena, and second, an understanding of the possibilities of the plain operating space. The first allows an imaginary journey into the primordial past for the purpose of bringing out some relevant information, the second permits a persistent and spontaneous exercise of design and composition as opposed to the deliberative which is valueless. These capacities allow the artist, in the first place, to operate in pure relevating form which means the most elemental components of form. In this process . . . superfluous components . . . are dispensed with . . .

In pictures executed from 1942 to 1947 (and again occasionally after 1951), Pollock alluded to the kind of primitive and mythic images described in Graham’s article. For example, he referred to Greek friezes in Untitled, 1943 (in the collection of Frederick R. Weisman) and to painted warriors in Pasiphae and Guardians of the Secret, both of 1943. He also jumbled anatomical features in Male and Female, 1942, and many other canvases, and alluded to American Indian art in Moon Woman Cuts the Circle, 1943. Lawrence Alloway wrote of this last painting: “The head of the figure on the right is a fragmented profile [of a red Indian] wearing a feathered bonnet . . . Sir Herbert Read suggested, in a letter to me . . . that it can be compared with a tattoo pattern of the Woman in the Moon made by the North American Indian tribe, the Haida, and reproduced in C. G. Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious . . . Read points out that ‘there is a reference on the same page to a Hottentot legend about “cutting off a sizeable piece” of the moon’.”14

In an interview in 1944, Pollock remarked: “I have always been very impressed with the plastic qualities of American Indian art. The Indians have the true painter’s approach in their capacity to get hold of appropriate images, and in their understanding of what constitutes painterly subject matter. Their color is essentially Western, their vision has the basic universality of all real art.” In the same interview, Pollock spoke of the importance to him of the Surrealists who emigrated from Paris to New York during World War II. “I am particularly impressed with their concept of the source of art being the Unconscious.”15 Some critics have taken this now famous statement, one of the few by Pollock to have been recorded, to mean that the Surrealists-in-exile were responsible for introducing him to that idea. They did affirm it, but his thinking along that line predated the arrival of the Parisians after 1939 and diverged from theirs in its orientation to Jung rather than to Freud. It was not fortuitous that when Pollock entered psychotherapy in 1939, he chose a Jungian analyst. To Pollock—as to Graham—art was a means of scourging private demons, an attitude understood by his doctors who used his drawings for therapeutic purposes.

Given his interest in tapping unconscious imagery, it is natural that Graham in his book should have stressed the importance of “automatic ‘ecriture’,” and he directed the thinking of Pollock as well as Gorky, de Kooning, Rothko and Gottlieb to that Surrealist technique. (The young New Yorkers learned about automatism from other sources prior to the emigration of the Parisians, although they rarely practiced it in the 1930s. Masson’s and Miro’s paintings were featured repeatedly in Cahiers d’Art. This magazine was followed closely by the local vanguard.) However, Graham was unfavorably inclined towards Surrealism’s literary symbolism, illusionism and disregard of pictorial structure, and called this movement “troubling but frail.” Graham valued the free gesture—the “magic” of touch—for its ability to “confess” personality directly. “Gesture, like voice, reflects different emotions . . . The gesture of the artist is his line, it falls and rises and vibrates differently whenever it speaks of different matter . . . The handwriting must be authentic and not faked . . . [not] conscientious but honest and free.” This concern with spontaneous gesture disposed him, as it did Pollock (who would carry it to an unprecedented extreme) and his other friends to painterly drawing.

During the late 1930s, Pollock submitted increasingly to the influence of School of Paris modernists, particularly Picasso. Graham’s admiration of the Cubist master was probably one cause of Pollock’s change in orientation. In his article of 1937, Graham wrote: “Picasso’s painting has the same ease of access to the unconscious as have primitive artists—plus a conscious intelligence.” Pollock was impressed by this quality in Picasso’s work as well as by its subject matter, which Graham related to primitive art. Indeed, Picasso’s subject matter engaged Pollock as much and most likely more than his Cubist design (a point ignored by formalist critics and historians). In Graham’s opinion, Picasso had “visions or insights into the origins of plastic forms and their ultimate logical destination”—“origins” imbedded in “the deepest recesses of the Unconscious, where lies a full record of all past racial wisdom.” These were the visions and insights that Pollock tried to embody in his painting, and they have yet to be adequately dealt with by his biographers.

In the forties, Graham turned against Picasso with the same passion with which he had earlier worshipped him. He then took as his models Raphael, Poussin and other “classical” masters. But Graham did not merely copy his prototypes. Instead, he transmuted them, inflicting cruel wounds on his subjects (human sacrifices), crossing their eyes and superimposing on them symbols derived from arcane number systems—astrological, alchemistic, cabalistic—symbols that presumably “lived” in the collective unconscious, about which Graham wanted to supply information, to “convey a message.”16 In this, he was akin to the Pollock of Male and Female, or Guardians of the Secret. Graham’s “retrogressive” late style offered few possibilities for younger modernists, a reason for the eclipse of his reputation. But his paintings after 1943, featured in the Museum of Modern Art show, are so highly personal, felt and masterly as to deserve evaluation on their own merits, apart from the rise and fall of artistic manners.

Irving Sandler



1. The show at the Museum of Modern Art was arranged by Eila Kokkinen, Assistant Curator for Drawings, who is writing a monograph on Graham.

2. Thomas B. Hess, “John Graham, 1881–1961,” Art News, Sept. 1961, p. 46.

3. Hess, op. cit., p. 52.

4. All quotes of Graham unless otherwise indicated are from his book, System and Dialectics of Art, New York, 1937, 154 p., and from his article, “Primitive Art and Picasso,” Magazine of Art, April, 1937, p. 236–239. The italics are Graham’s.

5. Rosalind Browne, interviewed by Irving Sandler, Feb. 11, 1968, said that Gorky made the remark in a speech before the Artists Union in the spring of 1936.

6. Carl Holty, interviewed by Irving Sandler, August 12, 1968, said that Graham was proposed for membership in the AAA but was rejected by one vote. Holty thinks the vote was 21 to 20, but he is not certain of the exact totals.

7. Hans Hofmann, “Painting and Culture,” Fortnightly, Sept. 11, 1931; reprinted in Hofmann, Search for the Real, Cambridge, Mass., 1967, p. 57.

8. Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” Partisan Review, July–Aug., 1940, p. 305.

9. Elaine de Kooning, “Gorky, painter of his own legend,” Art News, Jan., 1951, p. 64.

10. George L. K. Morris, Introduction to American Abstract Artists 1939, New York, 1939, n.p.

11. David Burliuk, Introduction to the catalog of the John Graham show at the Dudensing Gallery, 1929, n.p. In System and Dialectics of Art, p. 33, Graham defined Minimalism as “the reducing of painting to the minimum ingredients for the sake of discovering the ultimate, logical destination of painting in the process of abstracting. Painting starts with a virgin, uniform canvas and if one works ad infinitum it reverts again to a plain uniform surface (dark in color) but enriched by process and experiences lived through. Founder: Graham.”

12. Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, “Letter to the Editor,” New York Times, June 13, 1943, sec. 2, p. 9.

13. Acquaintances of Graham and Pollock do not agree on the date when the two men met. Most recall that it was prior to 1939, but a few think that it could have been as late as 1941, shortly before Graham included Pollock in a show he organized at the McMillan Gallery.

14. Lawrence Alloway, Jackson Pollock, London, 1961, n.p.

15. Jackson Pollock, “Jackson Pollock (a questionnaire),” Arts and Architecture, Feb., 1944, p. 14.

16. John Graham, “Excerpts from an unfinished manuscript titled ‘Art’,” Art News, Sept., 1961, p. 57.