Peculiar Genius: The Resurrection of John Graham

"I was lucky when I came to this country to meet the three smartest guys on the scene: Gorky, Stuart Davis and John Graham," Willem de Kooning told Harold Rosenberg in a 1972 interview. "They knew I had my own eyes, but I wasnıt always looking in the right direction. I was certainly in need of a helping hand."

Elsewhere, de Kooning refers to his three mentors as "The Three Musketeers." But while Arshile Gorky and Stuart Davis are familiar figures to anyone who casually attends museums, even some of us who spend an inordinate amount of time looking at and thinking about art may be woefully unacquainted with the breadth and depth of John Graham's oeuvre.

More than likely, most of us have seen and puzzled over "Two Sisters," the painting by Graham in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art. The two figures are seated side by side in somewhat stiff formal postures, as though for a Victorian parlor portrait; indeed the background, though sketchily composed, suggests just such a genteel and spacious sitting room. However, there is something slightly off about these two siblings. Not only is one sister bare-breasted, as she clutches a pigeon in her lap, but both are noticeably cross-eyed­­ a frequent occurrence in Graham's paintings which, according to Fairfield Porter, the artist once explained as a device for "giving life to the face." In addition, the two women bare their teeth in a feral manner that suggests that they are either demented or are perversely mocking the viewer.

The first time I saw this painting its combination of the classical and the irreverently goofy had much the same impact on me as encountering Marcel Duchampıs mustache slashed across the face of the Mona Lisa. While the formal attributes of the picture are unmistakable­­the complementary contrasts between the geometric shapes in the background and the sensual, flowing, organic contours of the figures, flattened on the picture plane; the unusual color harmonies between pale blue walls, wine-red draperies and stridently pink flesh­­its content is so strange as almost to upstage them.

Once having met these two comely yet eccentric sisters, I could never forget them. They fired my fancy for all manner of wild speculation. I imagined them as sheltered creatures like Emily Dickinson and her sister Lavinia, enacting some near-incestuous drama of worldly renunciation­­ or perhaps some younger version of those two reclusive cousins of Jacqueline Kennedy, languishing in cobwebbed disarray in a ramshackle mansion, in the eerie documentary film "Gray Gardens."

Haunted as I was by Graham's picture, apart from an occasional isolated drawing or painting encountered in a group show or seen in reproduction here or there, I could not satisfy my hunger to know more of his work until the mounting of the present, much needed comprehensive exhibition "John Graham: Sum Qui Sum," which continues through December 22 at Allan Stone Gallery, 113 East 90th Street.

According to Allan Stoneıs introduction to the xhibition catalog, which also contains an illuminating essay by the critic and author Harry Rand, Graham became something of an obsession to the gallerist and collector as well.

"I first saw John Graham's paintings in the early 1960s at a memorial exhibition at the Jack Mayer Gallery, soon after Graham's death," Stone writes. "While I had been quite interested in contemporary art, I had never heard of John Graham nor seen any of his work. When I encountered his paintings for the first time at the Jack Mayer Gallery, I was so struck by the mysterious aura of his work that I returned many times to the exhibition. There were many portraits of women and each portrait had its particular eerie magic. The paintings of women were so compelling that I knew I must find out more about this artist. But where could I find his work or any information?"

That Allan Stone was still in the dark about Graham in the early 1960s is telling, considering that he opened his gallery in the first year of the decade and was already acquiring a reputation for his expertise in the work of de Kooning, Gorky, and others among Graham's colleagues in The New York School.

In his catalog essay, Harry Rand suggests that Graham's relative obscurity may owe, at least in part, to the fact that the artist (who was born Ivan Dombrowski in Kieve in the Ukraine in 1887, and changed his name when he became an American citizen in 1927) was "perpetually in the process of reinventing himself." Thus, "The difficulty of finding his art behind the fabled man has not proven an easy task."

At the same time, Rand asserts unequivocally, "John Graham redirected the course of American art." And while this statement could smack of hyperbole, he backs it up by quoting de Kooning: "Graham was very important as he discovered Pollock. I make that very clear. It wasn't anybody else, you know...The other critics came later­­much later...It was hard for other artists to see what Pollock was doing."

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Few seem to have understood Graham's role and value as well as his fellow painter Fairfield Porter, who had his own odd relation to the New York School as a realist among abstractionists and something of a country squire in the age of the cold water loft. In a 1960 essay on Graham, Porter stated, "He is an aristocratic Russian who served as a cavalry officer in the Czarıs armies, then with a Russian law degree, he emigrated to the United States and studied art. He comes to art the aristocratic way: through connoisseurship."

After establishing his critical credentials with a much discussed treatise, "System and Dialectics of Art" (published in 1937), and assembling the Crowninshield collection of African art, Graham boosted the careers of the then unknown Americans Pollock and de Kooning by showing them alongside established European painters like Picasso, Braque and Rouault in an exhibition that he curated for the McMillan Gallery in 1942.

"He places the understanding of culture before creation, as a necessary condition to creation," Porter writes, and goes on to say, "Graham bases his own painting and drawing on the art which expressed the West at its height. He went through a period of Picassoesque painting, which he has repudiated, but which has the same essential nature as his present Ingres-or-Uccello-like style. It derives from the paintings and drawings of the pre-Puritan, pre-Protestant West, it is not of the epoch to which he belongs. Neither does he believe that this epoch can have any significant painting. However at the same time he believes in art, and even more in a culture that expresses itself artistically."

If Porter's interpretation is accurate, it might explain why Graham's work has been so difficult for some to understand and embrace as part of the zeitgeist that propelled American art to unprecedented prominence during his lifetime. Although he may have helped others aboard, Graham was hardly one to go jumping on any bandwagons. Abstract Expressionism, after all, was such a full-fledged revolution that it would seem only natural for this aristocratic former Czarist believer in the value of culture over violent creative upheaval to draw back from, as he persisted in refining the classically-inspired mode of figuration he developed jointly with de Kooning and Gorky in the 1940s.

Yet, what the present exhibition at Allan Stone Gallery demonstrates so splendidly is that a bad career decision can sometimes be fortuitous in terms of an artist's long term development as a unique, if historically problematical, entity. For while nobody can say how great an abstract painter John Graham might have made had he chosen to capitulate to the prevailing trend, what he accomplished at great personal cost by sticking to his unfashionable convictions more than makes up for the handicap of being critically hard to classify.

For who among us would prefer one more big, brash Abstract Expressionist dynamo to the artist who gave us the intimate masterpiece "La Donna Ferita (Lady in Black)," 1943-1945, a work in oil and charcoal on canvas that is one of the highlights of the present exhibition at Allan Stone Gallery? Although she has the "wandering eye" Porter referred to in his essay, she seems entranced rather than deranged. Her flowing black chapeau, puffed shoulders, and porcelain pallor summon to mind Henry James' "Portrait of a Lady" or some romantically consumptive, star-crossed Victorian muse. Her nobility bespeaks a kind of beauty that bears up admirably under adversity, a beauty that endures with serene classical poise, even in the face of Harry Randıs statement that "Graham may have been the first post-modern artist in that his later works assume that the implications of (Occidental) art have been pursued to their ends..."

Indeed, the show is filled with paintings and especially drawings (superb draftsmanship being the armature on which Grahamıs accomplishment rests) that celebrate various aspects "³Marya (Donna Ferita Pensive Lady)," and "Woman with Dodecahedron" to works in pencil and mixed media on paper such as "Venere Lucifera" and "Donna Losca."

That the figure in the latter drawing is pierced in various places by graffiti-like nails, swords, and penises could invite comparison with the scrawled asylum portraits of Antonin Artaud­­even though Artaud was the eternal outsider, driven by internal demons, and Graham was the most selfconscious and dispassionate of artists. Unlike Artaud, Graham was not a madman nor was he a misogynist. Rather, he was by all accounts an enthusiastic lover of women whose complicated responses to them­­like those of his friend de Kooning­­manifested in his art in ways that can be easily misinterpreted in a climate hypersensitive to gender politics.

By the same token, it would probably be misguided to put much mystic stock in the seemingly esoteric symbols and snippets of arcane text that enliven many of Graham's drawings (beyond their function as fanciful pictorial embellishments), even while Graham states in his "Dialectics" that "the value of the strange and the absurd lies in their suggestion of a possible unknown, supernatural, life eternal." For, as Porter puts it, "The ceremony he believes in, is, like Houdiniıs, relegated to the vaudeville stage."

Although women were Graham's main subject, he also painted fascinating self portraits, such as "Poussin M' instruit, 1944," depicting himself and some identical alter ego of a comrade-in-arms in the nude (giving rise to homoerotic barracks buddies speculation), and "Self Portrait as a Warrior, 1957" in which he brandishes a sword, sporting a Ghengis Khan mustache and moon-faced armor-plates on his bare shoulders.

The latter work, along with other paintings and drawings of military figures, harks back to one of the more colorful chapters of Graham's early life: when he served in the Russian cavalry in a fabled regiment that, according to Rand, "dressed in striking exotic uniforms, which appeared to be straight out of the nineteenth century." Rand quotes Grahamıs reflection that only collecting art taught him "respect for human life," and suggests that it indicates the brutality of his past "as a marauding Czarist cavalry officer." With a literary flair rarely seen in an art catalog, Rand elaborates, contrasting Graham's toughminded refusal to sentimentalize Old Russia with the "loony sweetness of" Marc Chagall's "resurrections of a gone time, from a Jew who should have loathed the pogrom-ridden, Jew-baiting past of discrimination and Cossacks, one of whom might have been John Graham­­riding madcap and giddy through a shtetl­­dealing death."

This highly speculative vision is hardly calculated to elicit sympathy for Graham. But Rand knows that the last thing Graham needs at this late date is to be presented as a sympathetic figure. Art is not a character contest and Graham's peculiar genius more than makes up for any human failings one might care to attribute to him­­and they are several, including being a fabled self-fabricator, a fulsome flatterer of patrons, and often a rat with women, for all his love of them.

As for Allan Stone, his one regret is that he delayed at a crucial moment, missing the chance to buy "Two Sisters" by a day. As he puts it in the catalog introduction, "It had been acquired by MOMA and I shall rue that missed opportunity the rest of my life!"

Stone did, however, end up owning a study for the coveted painting (one of the treasures included in this show). And it probably gives him consolation now to know that the painting having been so prominently displayed in the museum and capturing so many imaginations over the years, as it did mine, is bound to whet the public appetite for the many new revelations in the present exhibition.

­­Ed McCormack