John D. Graham was a figure of immense influence in the early years of American modernism, both as an artist and as a connoisseur. He is credited as a major influence in the formation of Abstract Expressionism and in his work alternated between Abstraction and Realism, with one of his subjects being portrait busts of cross-eyed women.
Graham was born in Kiev on January 8, 1881 (or 1886 or 1887) with the name of Ivan Gratianovich Dombrovski. He fought in the Russian Revolution on the side of the Czar, was imprisoned, but escaped to Poland. He is thought to have arrived in New York City in about 1920.
In 1923 Graham was enrolled at the Art Students League, working briefly as an assistant to John Sloan. There is little concrete information that Graham had any previous art experience. In 1925 he participated in the “Tenth Whitney Annual Exhibition.” That year he moved to Baltimore with the painter Elinor Gibson, the first of his two American wives. Before moving to the United States he had also been twice married in Russia.
In Baltimore, he became associated with the renowned collector Duncan Phillips, who gave Graham his first one-person museum exhibition in 1929. Phillips described Graham’s bearing, with his air of Russian émigré officer of noble descent, his classical education and commitment to art, as an “ambition for martyrdom,” one which gave him an aura of old world mystery and romance. He became an American citizen in 1927, although he lived and worked in both New York and Paris, becoming a catalyst in the transmission of European modernism to America. He counted among his friends such names as Stuart Davis, Dorothy Dehner, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, David Smith, Katherine Dreier, Willem de Kooning, and, in later years, Jackson Pollock.
Interested in African Art, and very knowledgeable about European art, Graham is known to have influenced many American counterparts. He and his writing in the book, System and Dialectics of Art (1937) are thought to have greatly advanced the development of Abstract Expressionism. Graham believed that the subconscious mind contained distant past images and that through art, access to these memories could be gained.
His art can be seen in public collections at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Detroit Institute of Arts, Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh and The Phillips Collection of Washington, D.C.
Graham died in 1961 in London, England.