Deliberate perspective The shifting art of John Graham
THE SHIFTING ART OF JOHN GRAHAM
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.