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John Graham Photo

John Graham

Ukranian-American Painter

Born: August 7, 1881 (Disputed, may be 1886-88) - Kiev, Ukraine
Died: 1961 - London, UK
Movements and Styles:
Abstract Expressionism
"Abstract painting is the highest and most difficult form of painting because it requires of the artist the ability to take full stock of reality and the ability to make a departure from it."
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John Graham Signature
"Starting a painting is starting an argument in terms of canvas and paint."
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John Graham Signature
"Graham was very important and he discovered Pollock. I make that very clear. It wasn't anybody else, you know."
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Willem de Kooning Signature

Summary of John Graham

John Graham was a Russian-born painter whose work as an organizer and writer helped bring widespread recognition to the New York School. His style was influenced by his acquaintances among the European avant-garde. He also embraced Surrealism, especially the dreamlike mystery and strange juxtaposition of objects characteristic of Giorgio de Chirico, and later the flattened forms and multiple vantage points of Cubism, drawing most heavily from the compositions of Pablo Picasso. Graham did not develop a signature style until he rejected modernism in the early 1940s; for the remaining 20 years of his career, Graham drew inspiration from Renaissance art and became devoted to painting realistic - though highly expressive - portraits of women. However, Graham's legacy within the New York School extends beyond his work as a painter. His lasting influence was in transmitting progressive ideas to younger artists in his circle and in his close friendship and role as mentor to painters like Willem de Kooning. As an early proponent of Surrealist techniques, like automatic writing, and his use of Analytic Cubism's reduction of images to two-dimensional forms, his influence laid the groundwork for the development of Abstract Expressionism.


  • Graham traveled to Europe frequently and was personally associated with members of the French avant-garde between the World Wars; he helped to spread Surrealist techniques, like automatic writing, to young American painters, including Stuart Davis and Arshile Gorky. Additionally, Graham brought back copies of Parisian journals like Cahiers d'Art, which provided American artists with their first glimpse of the groundbreaking Cubist work of their European contemporaries.
  • Graham was interested in African art and its connection to modern painting, especially Cubism. Graham believed that so-called "primitive" art - especially African sculpture -was free from the traditional constraints of Western art history, and through its abstraction of the forms of the natural world it revealed the "inner truth" of its subject. Graham thought that abstract painting could achieve the same expressive effect, and believed that the work of Pablo Picasso best embodied this concept; he published an influential essay called "Primitive Art and Picasso" articulating this belief in 1937.
  • Graham organized a major exhibition in 1942 at New York's McMillen Gallery called French and American Painters; this landmark show provided the first public exposure for Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, who became the most influential painters of the New York School.
  • Graham's own painting was overshadowed by his work as an organizer and as a writer. His 1937 work System and Dialectics of Art defined his theory on abstract painting and proved enormously influential on the budding painters of the New York School.

Biography of John Graham

John Graham Photo

John Graham was born Ivan Gratianovich Dombrowsky in Kiev, Ukraine, to parents of minor Polish nobility. The date of his birth is disputed, though usually cited as anywhere between 1886 and 1888. After studying law, he became a cavalry officer during the First World War, winning a St. George's Cross for bravery. After the war, he supported the tsarist White Army and was consequently imprisoned by the victorious Reds. Upon his release in 1920, he immigrated to the United States with his wife and child.

Important Art by John Graham

Progression of Art

Still Life with Recorder and Cards

This painting was produced only a few years after Graham arrived in New York and began studying under John Sloan at the Art Students League. While Graham was already familiar with the work of artists like Kandinsky, Malevich and Picasso, this canvas is still representational and shows the influence of the still life work of painters like Cézanne, especially in the treatment of the folds of the tablecloth. The tablecloth, like the other objects, is arranged deliberately rather than naturally to provide an opportunity to foreground the transitions between light and shodow. Graham extends the table to the extreme lower edge of the picture plane, which flattens the composition into a series of geometric shapes, and consequently negates realistic depiction of pictorial space. As Graham's frequent transatlantic travels exposed him to the European avant-garde, his style grew significantly more abstract, and by the end of the decade his paintings strongly resembled those of Picasso.

Oil on canvas - Mark Borghi Fine Art Inc.


Iron Horse

Iron Horse clearly reflects Graham's interest in Surrealism, in particular the work of Giorgio de Chirico. Graham aggressively incorporated the styles of the European avant-gardes whom he met on frequent trips to Paris. Here, Graham placed a horse, suggestive of a sculpture or a carousel, in a deserted streetscape of nondescript geometric buildings cast in shadows under eerie, threatening skies. Though not present in this work, Graham often arranged additional objects around the central figure that seem discordant with the setting and contribute to the surreal, dreamlike mood of the image. Graham's absorption of European trends was hardly limited to de Chirico, and though Surrealist imagery continued to influence him for decades, within a year of Iron Horse his work began to reflect a growing obsession with Picasso.

Oil on Canvas - Michael Rosenfeld Gallery


Harlequin in Gray

During the 1920s, Graham traveled frequently to Paris and absorbed the styles of its most progressive painters, turning eagerly from de Chirico to Picasso. Though Picasso had developed cubism almost twenty years earlier, Graham began his emulation of Picasso's Blue and Rose Periods, of which the Harlequin was a major figure. For Picasso, the Harlequin was a kind of alter-ego whom he painted numerous times between 1901 and 1905, and periodically for the rest of his career. In Graham's Harlequin in Gray, the artist clearly adopted the subject matter of Picasso but additionally employed some of the distinctive techniques that would characterize his own portraiture of the 1940s and 1950s. The heavily shadowed face of the Harlequin is more abstract than the Picasso characters who inspired it, for example, and Graham set the Harlequin against a sparse, almost monochromatic background interrupted by a single geometric shape, a feature common in his later work.

Oil on Canvas - The Phillips Collection


Blue Still Life

In the early 1930s, Graham's work continued to reveal the influence of Picasso through his preoccupation with cubism and the simplification of form and color. In Blue Still Life , Graham stopped short of total abstraction, but essentially eliminated depth and reduced his palette to a single tone. The image of the fish and the table upon which it sits is represented by a minimum of lines and interlocking geometric shapes. This work reflects a major shift away from the more realistic works of the 1920s, presaging his abstract work throughout the 1930s and early 1940s.

Oil on canvas - The Phillips Collection



Here, the interlocking shapes have been further simplified, but they are no longer hard-edged. Rather, their curves draw influence from Surrealism's biomorphic forms; further, the circles suggest eyes, and the title of the work seems to imply that it depicts two figures in an embrace. Even so, the canvas is highly abstract and completely two-dimensional. The heavier buildup of paint also prefigures the importance of material and surface in Abstract Expressionist painting.

Oil on canvas - The Phillips Collection



In this, Graham drew inspiration from an urban setting to create a cubist-influenced abstraction; the interconnected blocks of color show the clear influence of Picasso. Though the titular surfaces are discernable, Graham has flattened the picture plane and created no illusion of depth - an important signpost in the development of Abstract Expressionism. At the time, Graham was moving away from the pure abstraction that he practiced during the early 1940s, when he painted in a style similar to that of Arshile Gorky.

Oil on canvas - Seattle Art Museum

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Influences and Connections

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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"John Graham Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 05 Jan 2014. Updated and modified regularly
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