Water Mill

John Graham, Poussin m’instruit (Poussin Instructs Me), 1944, oil on panel, 60 × 48".

John Graham, Poussin m’instruit (Poussin Instructs Me), 1944, oil on panel, 60 × 48".

John Graham

John Graham, Poussin m’instruit (Poussin Instructs Me), 1944, oil on panel, 60 × 48".

Born in Kiev in 1886, a descendant of minor Polish nobility, Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowski trained as a lawyer in his hometown, served in the Russian army, and in 1918 was briefly imprisoned as a counterrevolutionary; upon arriving in New York in 1920, he found work as a riding instructor. What led this thirty-six-year-old who’d never picked up a brush to enroll in the Art Students League in 1922? Who knows. But it turned the anti-Bolshevik émigré into one of the revolutionaries of American art. As John Graham, he was part of the triumvirate (along with Arshile Gorky and Stuart Davis) whom Willem de Kooning felt he had to look up as soon as he got to New York. In a city still artistically provincial, Graham was the painter best acquainted with the latest developments in Paris. His writings, including the book-length System and Dialectics of Art and the essay “Primitive Art and Picasso” (both 1937), were influential among artists hungry for a clearer sense of modernism’s direction.

Graham also had an enormous talent for knowing people who would later turn out to be interesting. Lee Krasner remembered him as “the first to mention Jackson Pollock as one of the greatest painters America had produced . . . at a time when the name of Jackson Pollock was barely known.” One of Graham’s innumerable marriages—though it’s not clear whether this one was ever legally officiated—made him stepfather and father-in-law, respectively, to Ileana Sonnabend and Leo Castelli; he lived in the basement of their town house and first gallery at 4 East Seventy-Seventh Street. His last great love affair, which lasted from 1957 until his death in 1961, was with a young artist named Isabelle Collin Dufresne—subsequently renamed Ultra Violet by Andy Warhol.

But what about Graham’s paintings? Though he never quite equaled Davis or Gorky, they are—as seen in “John Graham: Maverick Modernist,” a survey curated by Alicia G. Longwell with Karen Wilkin and William C. Agee—often impressive, at times haunting, especially in his extremely idiosyncratic final phase. In the 1920s, he was equally attentive to apparently irreconcilable isms: Cubism, Surrealism, Neue Sachlichkeit, the metaphysical painting of Giorgio de Chirico. Any given painting of his is likely to look more decisive than the oeuvre of which it was part. A ca. 1928 Interior conjures a geometrically measured space that’s somehow eerier than the small ghostly figures about to enter it, each by its own door. For a while, Cubist-derived still lifes became his strong suit—a couple of all-white ones done in 1929, in which facture stands in for color, are especially beautiful. But a 1939 portrait of Anni Albers recalls Picasso’s chunky neoclassicism of the ’20s, while the ca. 1940 painting Horse, which bizarrely depicts its subject rearing on a patterned marble pavement, echoes the de Chirico who claimed to have abjured modernism in favor of a “return of craftsmanship.” Yet through the early ’40s Graham’s efforts remain eclectic, including more quasi-Cubist still lifes and even the anomalously folksy Two Soldiers, 1942. 

By 1944, nearing sixty, Graham finally settled on the style that would serve him the rest of his life. The works he began producing then are primarily portraits of women, invariably cross- or bug-eyed, limned with a monumentalizing paucity of detail—at once disquieting and absurd. Frank O’Hara, reviewing a 1954 show with some skepticism, nonetheless had to admire “a flat, laconic elegance and exquisite discrimination of drawing and color.” Graham’s fascination with Ingres is patent, and one 1944 painting—a triple self-portrait—is inscribed POUSSIN M’INSTRUIT: Poussin teaches me. Maybe, but what Poussin teaches and what Graham learned are not congruent. Truer to what we see is Graham’s intriguingly postmodern observation from 1931: “We use painters of the past as we use paint, so much per tube, so much per magazine reproduction.” Like every modern neoclassicism of any value—and there haven’t been many, but they’re always more modern and less classical than they claim—Graham’s became a tool of the most outrageous eccentricity, allowing the artist to express his erotic obsessions with just the flimsiest protective veil of formal rectitude. Self-contradiction, perhaps even self-deception, lends these late paintings an unfathomable sense of mystery that makes them impossible to forget.

Barry Schwabsky