John Gra­ham,

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Gra­ham was born to an up­per-class Pol­ish fam­ily in Ukraine in 1886 as Ivan Gra­tianovitch Dom­browski. Grow­ing up in Kiev, Gra­ham stud­ied and prac­ticed law, served as a govern­ment of­fi­cial, fought in the Rus­sian army dur­ing the First World War, and was im­pris­oned by the Bol­she­viks. None of this hints at a ca­reer in paint­ing, but when Gra­ham left Rus­sia for New York City in 1920, he en­rolled at the sto­ried Art Stu­dents League within a cou­ple years of his ar­rival. There, the thirty-five-year-old novice artist stud­ied un­der Ash­can School painter John Sloan along­side Adolph Got­tlieb and Alexan­der Calder. It was dur­ing this time that Gra­ham met two artists whom Long­well calls Gra­ham’s “more cel­e­brated con­frères”: Gorky and Stu­art Davis, with whom Gra­ham forged decades-long friend­ships.

Gra­ham first en­coun­tered the work of Pi­casso in Moscow in the early 1900s, dur­ing a visit to the home of col­lec­tor Sergei Shchukin. In a 1931 let­ter to his long­time pa­tron, the artist and critic Dun­can Phillips, Gra­ham writes, “All paint­ing af­ter Pi­casso is af­ter and can­not be be­fore, such is the law of time. We all use the dis­cov­er­ies of the past as we all use brushes and can­vas.” That Pi­casso left a pro­found cre­ative im­pact on Gra­ham is ev­i­denced in many of his early works, in­clud­ing a still life from 1926, which is crammed full of ob­jects, in­clud­ing as­sorted fruits and a glass bot­tle. At the cen­ter of the com­po­si­tion is a striped blue-and-white jug, par­tially re­flected in a dirty mir­ror be­low. Per­spec­tive is an af­ter­thought, with back­ground cur­tains and nap­kins re­ced­ing into gray-brown Pi­cas­soid shapes and col­ors.

In 1928’s In­te­rior, Gra­ham used blunt, de­lib­er­ate per­spec­tive and de-Chiri­coesque chiaroscuro to cre­ate an eerie scene of opened doors and win­dows. Its be­guil­ing pal­ette of dusky pinks and olive serve as a sort of stage­set, with opened doors and win­dows flank­ing a hall­way pop­u­lated by ghost­like fig­ures. The su­perb Still Life

With New York Times (1927) is dom­i­nated by a dark ta­ble, hap­haz­ardly topped with a knife, a bit of bread, and a blue fish that some­what hu­mor­ously ap­pears to have been flopped onto the a plat­ter along­side a bruised ba­nana. The com­po­si­tion’s rolled, tit­u­lar news­pa­per is par­tially ob­scured by a large milk jug. Painted half black and half white, it by­passes sub­tle shad­ow­ing to re­sem­ble an ab­stracted, striped shape as much as it does a ves­sel.

By the 1930s, Gra­ham wasn’t just tee­ter­ing on the brink of ab­strac­tion. Red Square (1934), while not es­pe­cially com­pelling, fo­cuses ex­clu­sively on shape

and color — in this case, an ir­reg­u­lar red-or­ange square set against fields of white and black. In the charm­ing Em­brace (1932), the left side of the com­po­si­tion con­tains a whitish half-cir­cle whose lower por­tion ta­pers into a sort of foot. On the right, the top half of a yel­low rec­tan­gu­lar shape seems to lean to­wards the white one, its own blocky foot­like ap­pendage end­ing in abrupt, evenly spaced black lines. The up­per por­tions of both shapes have black cir­cles where eyes might be, and though the paint­ing ini­tially ap­pears ab­stracted, it’s also rep­re­sen­ta­tional — al­beit car­toon­ishly so.

Gra­ham’s fre­quent trav­els to Paris af­forded him what es­say­ist So­phie Egly calls an “in­tense artis­tic stim­u­la­tion ... pro­moted by the preva­lence of sup­port­ive art deal­ers, col­lec­tors, poets, crit­ics, and in­tel­lec­tu­als, who were as multi­na­tional as the artists they cham­pi­oned.” By the early 1940s, Gra­ham had all but re­jected Cu­bist and ab­stract styles to fo­cus on fig­u­ra­tion. He would even go so far as to dis­avow his for­mer hero, Pi­casso, writ­ing that the artist’s “fame is a great in­ter­na­tional, money-mak­ing in­trigue. His art is a hoax.”

The por­traits Gra­ham made from the 1940s on­ward are nervy, neu­rotic, and of­ten a lit­tle dis­con­cert­ing; in many in­stances, their fe­male sub­jects’ eyes are crossed. Gra­ham once ex­plained, “I ... paint women, dan­ger­ous women, mys­ti­cal women. Cross-eyed women? Yes, it’s a charm­ing thing for women to be a lit­tle cross-eyed; it in­di­cates mod­esty, a cer­tain con­fu­sion, a lit­tle per­plex­ity.” Con­trib­u­tor Karen Wilkin writes, “Gra­ham ex­plained the crossed eyes to an ac­quain­tance as doc­u­ment­ing his ob­ser­va­tion of women at peak sex­ual ec­stasy.” Marya (Donna Ferita:

Pen­sive Lady), from 1944, is a hand­some por­trait of a woman whose dark, bil­lowy dress re­calls those of In­gres’ ro­man­tic por­traits, and whose blunt, flat planes of color and dis­re­gard for pro­por­tion are evoca­tive of Modigliani. The sub­ject’s face is gen­tle and open, her eyes slightly crossed, but not dis­tract­ingly so. Pe­cu­liarly, a blood-red gash spans her right wrist. Lit­tle cuts or gouges ap­pear in other works too; in Donna

Losca, a por­trait from 1959, a clas­si­cally styled draw­ing of a woman with darkly crossed eyes is over­laid with de­cid­edly phal­lic doo­dles, and a tiny sword punc­tures the fig­ure’s mouth. Lit­tle drops of blood drib­ble down her chin. Though some of his por­traits have an un­de­ni­able if left-of­cen­ter sen­su­al­ity, Gra­ham’s brand of eroti­cism is murky, more per­plex­ing than sexy. Else­where in his work, Gra­ham crafts his sub­ject ma­te­rial with the metic­u­lous­ness of a su­perb drafts­man, with a prac­ti­cally sci­en­tific ap­proach to draw­ing that bor­ders on the ob­ses­sive. His Stal­lion from the early ’50s, for ex­am­ple, with the sub­ject’s rip­pling mus­cu­la­ture and stern coun­te­nance, shines for its painstak­ingly ar­ranged com­po­si­tion, with each fig­ure in the draw­ing pur­pose­fully placed, though the de­sign be­hind the con­fig­u­ra­tion is also murky.

Ul­ti­mately, there’s no such thing as a typ­i­cal John Gra­ham paint­ing. It’s hard to draw con­clu­sions about a per­son who seems to have been so de­ter­minedly com­pli­cated, even with the as­sis­tance of a book as ex­act­ing as this. Gra­ham was in­deed a “mav­er­ick mod­ernist,” a con­sum­mate and com­mit­ted artist whose wide range of styles make his com­plex legacy all the more al­lur­ing.

“John Gra­ham: Mav­er­ick Mod­ernist” by Ali­cia G. Long­well, with es­says by Wil­liam C. Agee, So­phie Egly, and Karen Wilkin, is pub­lished by DelMon­ico Books/Pres­tel.

The por­traits Gra­ham made from the 1940s on­ward are nervy, neu­rotic, and of­ten a lit­tle dis­con­cert­ing; in many in­stances, their fe­male sub­jects’ eyes are crossed.

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