De­lib­er­ate per­spec­tive The shift­ing art of John Graham


Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

INMay of 2017, the Par­rish Art Mu­seum in New York ex­hib­ited a ret­ro­spec­tive of mod­ernist painter John Graham. In do­ing so, the mu­seum didn’t just put on the largest show of Graham’s work in 30 years, it put on the only show of his work in 30 years. John Graham is not and per­haps will never be a house­hold name, but the ex­hi­bi­tion’s ac­com­pa­ny­ing mono­graph, John Graham: Mav­er­ick Mod­ernist, makes a force­ful ar­gu­ment for why he’s im­por­tant to the mod­ern Amer­i­can art canon. At the helm of both the ex­hi­bi­tion and the book was Par­rish cu­ra­tor Ali­cia G. Long­well, who first wrote about Graham in 2007 for her dis­ser­ta­tion. The book com­prises around 70 paint­ings and works on pa­per, fleshed out with nu­mer­ous pho­to­graphs, in­sight­ful quotes, and in-depth es­says; al­to­gether, it’s an of­fer­ing as cere­bral as it is vis­ual — a fit­ting trib­ute to the life and work of a man whose cre­ative out­put re­fuses easy cat­e­go­riza­tion.

In her 1967 book Amer­i­can Art Since 1900, critic and art his­to­rian Bar­bara Rose iden­ti­fied Graham as a painter “from whom [Ar­shile] Gorky’s gen­er­a­tion learned to ap­pre­ci­ate the finer lessons of Cu­bism,” cit­ing a 1932 com­po­si­tion that “shows an un­der­stand­ing of the dy­nam­ics of syn­thetic Cu­bism which was rare, if not nonex­is­tent, in Amer­ica be­fore that date.” In the pref­ace to Mav­er­ick Mod­ernist, Long­well avers that, “Much of the his­tory of Amer­i­can art in the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury piv­ots on Graham,” even though “his ca­reer has of­ten been marginal­ized as a fas­ci­nat­ing but ec­cen­tric chap­ter in art his­tory.” The more we get to know Graham, the more puz­zling it be­comes that this should be the case; in ad­di­tion to jump­ing from dis­tinc­tive, op­pos­ing artis­tic styles, he also worked as an art dealer and ad­vi­sor — clients in­cluded Van­ity Fair ed­i­tor Frank Crown­in­shield and Bal­ti­more art doyennes Etta and Clari­bel Cone. He was an ex­pert on prim­i­tive African art, which he bought and sold through­out his life. He was a pas­sion­ate, mul­ti­lin­gual writer whose 1937 ar­ti­cle “Prim­i­tive Art and Pi­casso,” re­pro­duced in full in the book, prompted Jack­son Pol­lock to con­tact him. Graham also wrote a book, Sys­tem and Dialec­tics of Art, which, though mostly ig­nored by crit­ics, gained some­thing of a cult fol­low­ing among artists.

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