Two Sisters by John Graham

“Starting a painting is starting an argument in terms of canvas and paint.”

Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of this artist. Many art professionals, until recently, haven’t either. Not even prominent art gallery owners, curators or directors. It’s as if the painter, who influenced artists like Willem deKooning was hiding from history.

We first discovered this painting about a year ago at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where excited visitors were posing for photographs mimicking the cross-eyed women. James Kalm of The Brooklyn Rail wrote: “though “original,” Graham’s women are composed from quotations or paraphrases of Renaissance masterpieces.” Look at their embellished dresses, the abundant jewelry on the two sisters, and their formal poses. It’s as if these details were borrowed from Late Italian Renaissance portraits of Spanish nobility. Graham then goes on to contrast the portrait with flattened perspectives (Matisse’s Red Room (Harmony In Red), 1908), absolute lack of depth, and unrealistic colors favored by the Fauvists.

The merging of stylistic elements doesn’t stop there. The fractured geometric planes against which the sisters are placed are surely Cubist in nature. At the same time, the flat pink of their skin reminds us of Philip Guston who was known for using a very similar shade in his semi-figurative abstractions. The unexpected juxtaposition of objects – the pigeon on the bare-breasted sister’s lap – can be traced to Surrealism.

“Not only is one sister bare-breasted, as she clutches a pigeon in her lap, but both are noticeably cross-eyed­­ a frequent occurrence in Graham’s paintings which, according to Fairfield Porter, the artist once explained as a device for “giving life to the face.”*

Just like his friend and colleague Arshile Gorky, John Graham took on a new name after he arrived in the US. Born Ivan Dabrowsky in Kiev, Graham fled the newly formed Soviet Union after collaborating with the Crimean counterrevolutionaries against the Bolsheviks’ Red Terror campaigns that swept through the country. By the time of his arrival in NY (via Paris) Graham was well familiar with the work of the leading Russian avant-garde and non-objective artists like Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Vladimir Tatlin, David Burliuk, Kasimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky and he brought these ideas to his practice in the US.

Once in the New York  Graham enrolled in the Art Students League studying side by side with Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, Alexander Calder, and Elinor Gibson. His book, Systems and Dialects of Art (1937), introduced the budding New York artists to the significance of the unconscious as a source of inspiration, and thus contributed to the earliest developments of Abstract Expressionism. In 1942, he organized a show for the McMillen Gallery that featured works by Stuart Davis, David Burliuk, de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, and himself across from works by Picasso, George Braque, and Henri Matisse.

In  a 1972 interview with Harold Rosenberg Willem de Kooning said this of Graham: “I was lucky when I came to this country to meet the three smartest guys on the scene: [Arshile] Gorky, Stuart Davis and John Graham. They knew I had my own eyes, but I wasn’t always looking in the right direction. I was certainly in need of a helping hand.”

*James Kalm, The Brooklyn Rail.

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